Jane Austen (1775-1817), the celebrated English novelist lived about 200 years ago. She wrote just 6 complete romantic fiction novels. Her acute and sometimes amusing observation of the landed gentry and the social mores of her day continue to delight both readers and scholars alike to this day.
|Jane Austen at 13/14|
Rice (descendants of Jane's brother) Portrait by Ozias Humphry
The family was close knit. Jane was especially close to her only and older sister, Cassandra. Not much is known about Jane because so little evidence remains. Most of her estimated 3000 letters were destroyed by Cassandra and one of her nieces after her death. Only 160 letters exist to tell us what she was really like.
|Silhouette of Cassandra Austen|
Jane grew up in a boisterous and male dominated household so she was at ease with rough and tumble boys and their particular brand of humor. She was happy at home until she got sent away to boarding school at a tender age of 7, probably because her mother thought the two girls would be less likely to grow up wild if not in the company of boys too much. It was a disastrous decision because both girls caught typhus and Jane nearly died. Her mother brought them home and nursed them back to health.
She was sent away to school again a few years later because she couldn't bear to be parted from Cassandra. The girls were only away for a year until their parents couldn't afford the fees any longer. Jane's experiences and generally dim view of formal schooling of the kind she received (a little French, dancing, music, spelling and needlework) later emerged through the voices of her various characters in her books.
The teenage Jane witnessed the budding romances of her older siblings and extended family members. Her sister was courted by a young but impoverished clergyman. They could not marry until he was in a better position to provide for a family.
The main issue for women such as Jane and Cassandra was the lack of money. Without a dowry, their marriage prospects were slim.
Jane herself fell in love when she was 20. Tom Lefroy, an Irish law student, was in Hampshire visiting relatives when they met. The handsome and charming young man was the same age as Jane and soon both of them were spending time together. Jane admitted to her sister, "I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together."
Tom Lefroy went on to marry an heiress and even named his first daughter Jane. He ended up as Chief Justice of Ireland. Jane later expressed this painful part of her life in one of her books :
"We women do not forget you, so soon as you forget us ... this is our fate, rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home – quiet, confined. and our feelings prey upon us ... You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions. (Anne Elliot, in Persuasion)"
After that, Jane turned more and more to her writing. She completed the first drafts for her full length novels, Elinor and Marianne (later titled Sense and Sensibility), First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice) and Susan (Northanger Abbey) by the time she was 24.
Pride and Prejudice, the most popular and light-hearted of her books was actually written at a very low point of her life. Perhaps it was just her way of escaping from the sadness. She had had to part from her first and only love and her sister's beloved tragically lost his life while overseas. Cassandra never got over it and remained a spinster for the rest of her days.
The books Jane wrote were not published until she was in her thirties. At 25, her productivity ground to a halt because her parents made the shockingly sudden decision to retire to Bath. Jane and Cassandra had no choice but to leave the only home they had ever known and accompany their parents. Being unmarried, they had to continue living with their parents.
Life went on for the Austens. Jane actually received her one and only marriage proposal when she was 27. Jane's friends, the Biggs sisters, decided that she would make a wonderful wife for their younger brother, Harris, as he had always liked her. They contrived to leave the couple alone in the library so Harris could propose. He was heir to considerable estates but he was also decidedly shy and stammered.
Jane did accept him. But in the morning, after much reflection, she gently turned him down because she didn't love him. Respect and a liking for the perfectly decent young man was not enough for Jane. Not even for his fortune and a stable social standing.
A few years later, her father died leaving Jane, Cassandra and their mother in dire financial straits. Their brothers pooled together their resources to support them until finally, in 1809, one of them was able to get them a large cottage in Chawton village to live in. After so many unsettled years, Jane, now 34, was finally comfortable and was able to concentrate on her writing again.
|Jane Austen House in Chawton|
She also gave Casssandra jewelry that same year. Jane wrote, "I have bought your locket...it is neat and plain and set in gold." She might well have bought a turquoise cabochon gold ring for herself around this time. This simple ring (below) was sold at auction last year by her family's descendants for over $236,000 - far above the initial estimate of $45,000.
When she was 40, Jane started to feel unwell with recurrent fevers and pain, but Jane dismissed it as a sign of growing older. Her health deteriorated although Jane regularly insisted that all was well when her symptoms abated. But eventually she weakened and died, aged 41.
No one is sure what her illness was. Medical historians have suggested Addison's disease, Hodgkin's lymphoma, and most recently bovine tuberculosis caused by the drinking of contaminated milk. Brill-Zinsser disease, a recurrent form of the typhus she caught as child, probably surfaced then and contributed to her illness.
Cassandra felt her loss deeply. She said, "She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself."
|Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral||(Picture Source)|
If you have time, check out this 85 minute video Miss Austen Regrets, a 2007 BBC production which aired on Masterpiece Theater in 2008. It tells the story of Jane's final years as she counsels her favorite niece Fanny, in her love life while looking back at her own.
UPDATE : American singer, Kelly Clarkson was revealed as the buyer for Jane Austen's ring. However efforts are now in place to raise money to keep the ring in the UK as it is a rare literary memorabilia.
Claire Tomalin (1997) Jane Austen: A Life
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