Jane Austen is, without a doubt, one of the most prolific writers of the early 19th century. Whether you read her work or not, you know who she is, and for a woman who was unable to publish her work with her name during her lifetime, that’s quite a feat.
Jane writes about strong female leads and broody, difficult men. Can we say we don’t like the broody characters? Don’t we all write about them in our own work? Or can you say you don’t fall in love with them in the books you read?
Her story is quite remarkable. Upon learning about it, when I was in my early twenties, I felt a connection to her as a creative mind. She was a woman beyond the era she was born to. A woman who was intelligent, never wanted to stop learning and for some of her works, I believe she was well beyond her time. I won’t go into my theories about some of her themes because we’ll be here all day but I wanted to celebrate her national day with a little bit about her.
What made me fall in love with her?
I’m not sure. I don’t remember when I first picked up a Jane Austen novel. I happened to ask my mother, but she couldn’t remember either, but she did tell me I was reading a lot around 14-16 so it must have been a library borrow or even an assignment in school perhaps. The first book I remember reading was Emma, followed closely by Pride and Prejudice. Two of my favourites.
Her characters are strong, her prose undeniably eloquent, and her storytelling legendary. I could get lost in her world, time and time again.
What is my fave of her works?
Pride and Prejudice is my favourite novel, and I don’t really have a reason why, but it is one I can find myself falling back in love with, every time. Is it due to Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet’s love, who knows? But I do know this story is one I suggest to young girls who want to read one of her works.
Who is my favourite character?
I find this a difficult question to answer. However, I put up the question in my reader group to ask anyone who loved Austen’s work to see who they said. To my surprise, the ones who did answer had the same ones as I did.
My favourite male lead was always Mr. Darcy but in the last few years he’s been tied with Mr. Kingsley from Emma. Both strong men in each their own way, but I think if it came down to it, Mr Darcy would win. He struggled with his feelings, trying to remain appropriate and yet despite Elizabeth Bennet’s misfortune, he chose her above many other prospects he could have attained. I know, you’re looking at me and thinking “well love conquers all” but in that time, love rarely came into it. I believe this is because of Jane’s firm belief that you shouldn’t marry without affection (as she had written to her niece).
My favourite female lead would be Emma, she’s headstrong (as most of the females are, possibly due to Jane’s affliction of being herself at any cost) and knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to try and find happiness for her friends, even if she does miss the obvious flirtation toward her.
Which adaptation is my favourite?
I’m going to be controversial here. My favourite adaptation for Emma was the most recent one, with Anya Taylor-Joy. I feel the themes really felt genuine to the story here. I loved the character development by the actors and was able to watch it several times.
Pride and Prejudice is a tie between the ABC limited series with Jennifer Eales and Colin Firth and the movie with Keira Knightley. They are different, yes, but they stick to the story, and both are easy to watch. I feel like the movie was a little more modern and easier to digest, but if you are new to the genre.
Without even realizing it, I watched an adaptation of Emma in Clueless when I was a teenager in high school.
So, with that said, let me introduce you to Jane.
Who was Jane Austen?
Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in Hampshire, England to George and Cassandra. George was a rector of the parishes Steventon and Deane, and he came from an old and wealthy family of wool merchants however, George’s family fell into poverty through wealth being divided by eldest sons.
Jane had multiple siblings, James, born 1765, George, born 1766, Edward, born 1767, Henry, born 1771, Cassandra, born 1773 and Francis, born 1774.
The home was considered to have an atmosphere as “open, amused, easy intellectual” where ideas of those with whom the Austen’s might disagree politically or socially were considered and discussed. Jane was known to attend church regularly, socialize with friends and neighbors and read novels – often her own – aloud to family in the evenings. Socializing meant dancing, either impromptu in someone’s home after supper or at the balls held regularly in assembly rooms. Her brother Henry had said that “Jane was fond of dancing and excelled in it”. Perhaps, this is why balls are such a common theme in her novels.
Jane was educated, in 1783, she and her sister were sent to Oxford to be schooled by a Mrs Ann Cawley who took them to Southampton when she moved there a year later. In the autumn, both girls were sent home when they caught typhus and Austen almost died. The schoolwork possibly included French, spelling, needlework, dancing and music. She returned to school afterward to continue her studies.
Her father was tolerant of Jane’s sometimes risqué experiments in writing and provided both sisters with expensive paper and material for writing and drawing. Jane had written three short plays during her teenage years. She was just eleven when she began to write poems and stories to amuse herself and her family. Between the ages of 12 and 18, she had compiled twenty-nine works into three bound notebooks, which is now referred to as Juvenilia.
When Jane was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a neighbor, visiting Steventon two months. He’d just finished a university degree and was training to be a barrister. It is said the two met while at a dance and spent significant time together. In a letter to her sister, she states she expected an offer from her “friend” and that she would “refuse him unless he promises to give away his white coat”. The next letter, Jane wrote, “The day will come on which I flirt my last with Tom Lefroy and when you receive this it will be all over. My tears flow as I write at this melancholy idea”. This shows just how much she loved him but they both knew their marriage wouldn’t be a good idea. Neither had anything to give to each other, and they would live a life of poverty.
It was in 1796 that she penned a novel called First Impressions which would later be called, Pride and Prejudice. She was just 21. This was an established favorite of her family’s. It was at this time, her father had tried to publish her novels, however, it had been declined. It’s not known if Jane knew of her father’s efforts. After First Impressions, Jane returned to writing a novel she had abandoned years earlier called Elinor and Marianne, now known as Sense and Sensibility, which took roughly seven months to complete.
In 1800, Jane’s father retired from the ministry and moved the family to 4 Sydney Place, Bath in Somerset. It is claimed Jane was unhappy in Bath which wasn’t conducive to her creative spirit and was unable to write but there have been some who claim it was her social life in Bath which prevented her from writing. It was in December 1802 that Jane received her only known proposal of marriage. When she and her sister visited Alethea and Catherine Bigg, old friends who lived near Basingstoke, she happened to meet their younger brother Harris who was home from studying from Oxford. He proposed to Jane, and she accepted. It was a marriage of convenience rather than love as he was heir to a vast estate, and she knew she could provide for her family. Harris was said to be a plain man who stuttered slightly and aggressively spoke without tact. It didn’t last long, the next morning Jane knew she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. She would never marry.
Jane’s father died suddenly in 1805, leaving her mother, sister and herself in a precarious situation. The brothers pitched in to assist with renting a room for them, but it was not until 1809 when they moved to Chawton in a large cottage which was part of the estate of the brother Edward’s, that they were in better lodgings and happier than they had been.
When Jane did publish her works, they were published anonymously like many women authors at the time. Sense and Sensibility appeared in October 1811 and was described as being written “by a lady”. Austen made £140 (equiv. to £10,800 in 2021) from Sense and Sensibility, which provided her with some financial and psychological independence. After the success of her book, all her other works were billed as written “by the author of Sense and Sensibility”. Her name never appeared on her books during her lifetime. This hit home hard for me when I learned this tidbit. The feeling of seeing my own book, my own paperback in my hands and my name on the cover felt amazing. There was no other feeling to describe it.
Even back then, piracy was rife. Without her knowledge of approval, her novels were translated into French and published cheaply, and pirated editions landed in France.
Austen was feeling unwell by early 1816 but ignored the warning signs. By the middle of the year, her decline was unmistakable, and she began a slow, irregular deterioration. Zachary Cope’s 1964 retrospective diagnosis of what she suffered with was Addison’s disease, however, it’s also stated she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She did continue to write, focusing on The Brothers (later Sanditon) completing twelve chapters before stopping, possibly due to illness. She wrote of herself that she was turning “every wrong color” and living “chiefly on the sofa”. She put down her pen on 18 March 1817, making a note of it.
She was known to make light of her condition, describing it as “bile” and rheumatism. She experienced difficulty walking and lacked energy. By mid-April she was confined to bed. In May, her brother and sister took her to Winchester for help but by that point she was in agony and had asked for “death to take her”.
Austen died in Winchester on 18 July 1817 at the young age of 41.
List of her Works
Sense and Sensibility (1811) Pride and Prejudice (1813) Mansfield Park (1814) Emma (1815) Northanger Abbey (1818) Persuasion (1818) Lady Susan (1871)
The Watsons (1804) Sanditon (1817)
Sir Charles Grandison (1793, 1800) Plan of a Novel (1815) Poems (1796-1817) Prayers (1796-1817) Letters (1796-1817)
Juvenilia – First Volume (1787-1793) Frederic & Elfrida, Jack & Alice, Edgar & Emma, Henry and Eliza, The Adventures of Mr. Harley, Sir William Mountague, Memoirs of Mr. Clifford, The Beautifull Cassandra, Amelia Webster, The Visit, The Mystery, The Three Sisters, A Fragment, A beautiful description, The generous Curate, Ode to Pity Juvenilia – Second Volume (1787-1793) Love and Friendship, Lesley Castle, The History of England, A Collection of Letters, The female philosopher, The first Act of a Comedy, A Letter from a Young Lady, A Tour through Wales, A Tale Juvenilia – Third Volume (1787-1793) Evelyn, Catharine or The Bower