Deborah Yaffe

Jane Austen - Her Life

Austen was unhappy in bright, noisy Bath, and her writing output slowed to a trickle.  When her father died four years after the move, the three Austen women found themselves in dire financial straits, barely making ends meet on old legacies and contributions from the Austen sons.  They lived at a succession of increasingly downmarket addresses in Bath and, for a time, shared a rented house in Southampton with one brother’s family.  Then, in 1809, the Austens’ third-oldest son, Edward, who had been adopted by rich cousins, offered his mother and sisters a cottage on his estate at Chawton, back home in rural Hampshire.  Jane lived there for the rest of her life, dying in nearby Winchester on July 18, 1817, at age forty-one, of an illness whose identity is still uncertain.  But in those extraordinarily productive Chawton years, she finally began publishing her work – revising earlier versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, writing Mansfield Park and Emma, and leaving behind manuscripts of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both of which her family published months after her death.

 

Her life was not easy, untroubled or devoid of incident.  A cousin’s husband was guillotined during the French Revolution, and, for much of Austen’s life, England was at war with Napoleon’s France.  Two of her brothers joined the British Navy and spent years abroad on dangerous, uncertain voyages; during her lifetime, childbirth killed two of her sisters-in-law.  She grieved the deaths of a treasured friend and a beloved father, rejected a marriage proposal from a wealthy man she didn’t love, endured professional setbacks, and worried about money.  

 

In her lifetime, Austen published anonymously, as “A Lady,” perhaps to avoid the notoriety that might attach to someone – especially a woman – working in the then-disparaged genre of the novel.  Although Austen was no literary celebrity, her books were moderately successful, and some prominent contemporaries, notably the popular poet and historical novelist Sir Walter Scott, admired her work.  After her death, her novels fell out of print for a few years, but they were republished in the 1830s and sold modestly until 1870, when her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, age eighteen when she died, collected family reminiscences into a memoir of her life.  Austen-Leigh was a solid, respectable Victorian clergyman, and his memoir portrayed Aunt Jane as the type of woman writer the Victorians could admire, a kindly maiden aunt whose charming, light-hearted novels were of a piece with her other ladylike domestic accomplishments  – the prose equivalent of a needlepoint sampler.  However out of sync this picture might be with the sharp, satirical Austen that many readers find in her pages, it was an immediate hit with the public, inaugurating a popularity that has never waned.  Her adoring fans were such an identifiable group that in 1894, the British literary critic George Saintsbury coined a new term to describe them: Janeites.

 

Born on December 16, 1775, Jane Austen was the seventh of eight children of an

Anglican clergyman.  She lived and died during England’s Georgian era, and her works were published during the period known as the Regency, the nine years from 1811 to 1820 that the future George IV served as acting king, or regent, during his father’s disabling illness.  Until young adulthood, Austen lived in the tiny rural village of

Steventon, in the southern English county of Hampshire; when she was twenty-five,

her father retired from his parish and her parents moved to the city of Bath, taking

along their two unmarried daughters, Jane and her beloved older sister, Cassandra.  Austen had been writing since the age of eleven – first, comic vignettes mocking the literary conventions of her day, and then increasingly sophisticated novellas and

epistolary novels – but she had published nothing.  One publisher rejected an early version of Pride and Prejudice, sight unseen, when Austen’s father wrote to offer it; another agreed to publish the book that would eventually become Northanger Abbey,

only to sit on the manuscript for thirteen years, until Austen mustered the funds to buy it back.  

English village -- transparent