Born a year before John Constable, Jane Austen defies classification – in many ways she had more in common with writers of the previous (Classical) era than the Romantic period in which she lived.
Jane Austen was born at the village rectory in Steventon, the seventh child of the Rev George Austen and his wife Cassandra Leigh. Jane spent a short time at boarding school with her sister (also called Cassandra) but was largely educated at home by her father and brothers.
An unmarried woman in Georgian times
As an unmarried adult, Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra lived with their parents, moving to Bath with them in 1800 when their father retired (see image 3 above, 4 Sydney Place, Bath). In 1805 George Austen died leaving his wife and two daughters in a precarious financial position. They lived in rented property in several different places and were funded entirely by Jane’s brothers.
Edward Austen (one of Jane’s brothers) eventually offered them the use of Chawton Cottage in Hampshire (see image 4 above) which was part of his estate and they moved there in 1809 – and it is here that jane Austen wrote most of her famous novels.
Jane’s literary strength
Jane Austen’s literary strength lies in the delineation of character and her descriptions of natural and everyday incidents in the life of her characters. Her novels show how passionate emotion carries danger and that young women who exercise rational moderation are more likely to find real happiness than those who elope with their lovers.
Austen excels in combined biting social commentary with engaging narratives about prospective marriages amongst the English gentry.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters” (extract from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813).
Romantic love – but a moral basis
Austen’s main concern is the moral basis of social relations. Although she writes about romantic love, for her, emotional feeling must be controlled by judgement and good sense and must not be allowed to jeopardise social order or impact negatively on friends and family. She portrays relationships within a limited, mainly middle-class, social range and she does not:
- deal with Romantic themes such as the sublime or the exotic
- champion the charismatic individual or the moral goodness of a simple life lived on the land
Where Jane wrote and how she published
Several of Jane Austen’s most famous books were written at Chawton Cottage (see image 4 above) and published during her lifetime but under other names – as a woman she stood no chance of having her work published using her own name.
Her plots, though comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. In addition to Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen wrote five other novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1817 published posthumously) and Persuasion (1817 published posthumously)
End of life
From 1816 Jane’s health deteriorated and she died in 1817 at the age of 42. Her sister had taken her to Winchester for medical advice but it was too late – her death was attributed to several causes including tuberculosis, arsenic poisoning and Hodgkins Disease.
In her will (see image 5 above) except for a few personal gifts, she left everything to her sister. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral where a plaque was erected in her memory (see image 6 above)
Click the tab marked ‘video’ above the image gallery at the top of this page to hear the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice.