Jane Austen (December 16, 1775, Steventon, Hampshire – July 18, 1817, Winchester) was an English writer. Steventon, Hampshire, Jane Austen is the penultimate and second daughter of eight children. His father, George Austen, is a pastor; his mother, Cassandra Austen née Leigh, counts among his ancestors Sir Thomas Leigh who was Lord Mayor in the time of Queen Elizabeth.
The Austen family’s income is modest but comfortable; their two-storey house and an attic, the Rectory, is surrounded by trees, grass and a barn.
All her life, Jane Austen lived in a close-knit family unit, belonging to the small English gentry. She owes her upbringing largely to her father and older brothers, as well as her own reading. The unfailing support of his family is essential for his development as a professional writer. Jane Austen’s artistic apprenticeship spanned from her early teens until around her twenty-fifth year. During this period, she experimented with different literary forms, including the epistolary novel which she experimented with before abandoning it, and wrote and deeply reworked three major novels, while starting a fourth.
From 1811 to 1816, with the publication of Sense and Sensibility (published anonymously in 1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816), she enjoyed success. Two other novels, Northanger Abbey (actually completed as early as 1803) and Persuasion, were both published posthumously in 1818; in January 1817, she began her last novel, eventually titled Sanditon, which she could not complete before her death.
Jane Austen’s work is, among other things, a criticism of the sentimental novels of the second half of the 18th century and belongs to the transition which leads to the literary realism of the 19th century. Jane Austen’s plots, although mostly comic in nature, that is, with a happy ending, highlight women’s reliance on marriage for social status and economic security. Like Samuel Johnson, one of her major influences, she is particularly interested in moral issues.
Due to the anonymity she sought to preserve, her reputation was modest during her lifetime, with some favorable reviews. In the 19th century, his novels were admired only by the literary elite. However, the publication in 1869 of A Memoir of Jane Austen (Souvenir de Jane Austen), written by her nephew, made her known to a wider audience. We then discover an attractive personality, and, as a result, popular interest in his works takes off. By the 1940s, Jane Austen was widely recognized academically as “a great English writer”. During the second half of the 20th century, research on his novels multiplied, which were analyzed under various aspects, for example artistic, ideological or historical. Little by little, popular culture
It is generally accepted that the work of Jane Austen belongs not only to the literary heritage of Great Britain and English-speaking countries, but also to world literature. She is now the object of a cult, however of a different nature from that which is given to the Brontë.
According to one of her biographers, information about Jane Austen’s life is “famously scarce”. Only a few personal or family letters remain (one estimate is 160 letters out of a total of 3,000). Her sister Cassandra, to whom most were addressed, burned many and censored those she kept. Others were destroyed by the heirs of his brother, Admiral Francis Austen.
The biographical elements, made available in the fifty years following his death, come almost all from his relatives. It is first of all the Biographical Notice of the Author, “biographical notice on the author” written by her brother Henry in preface to the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818, which remains the only biography available on her during more than fifty years; it is then A Memoir of Jane Austen (“Souvenir of Jane Austen”), essential work of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, whose first edition is dated 1870, and which remains the reference work on the life of Jane Austen for over half a century. It is in this biography that the artist’s view appears (taken from the portrait made by Cassandra,
Both of these sources reflect the family tendency to accentuate the “good quiet Aunt Jane” aspect. Since then, very few new documents have been brought to light by researchers.
Jane Austen’s father, William George Austen (1731-1805), and his wife, Cassandra (1739-1827), both belonged to the small gentry. George descends from a family of woolen weavers, who gradually reached the status of the small landed gentry. His wife Cassandra Austen, née Leigh, counts among his ancestors Sir Thomas Leigh, Lord-Mayor at the time of Queen Elisabeth. From 1765 to 1801, that is to say during a large part of Jane’s life, George Austen was rector of the Anglican parish of Steventon, as well as of a neighboring village, also located in Hampshire. From 1773 to 1796, he supplemented his income by additional activities, those of farmer, and also tutor of three or four boys, boarding at his home. The family lives in a two-storey house and an attic, the Rectory (“the presbytery”), surrounded by
Jane Austen’s immediate family is large, six brothers, James (1765-1819), George (1766-1838), Edward (1767-1852), Henry Thomas (1771-1850), Francis William (Frank) (1774-1865 ), Charles John (1779-1852), and a sister, Cassandra Elizabeth (1773-1845), who, like Jane Austen, died unmarried. Cassandra Elizabeth is Jane’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life. Among her brothers, it is to Henry that she feels closest. First a banker, he became, after his bankruptcy, clergyman of the Anglican Church. He is the one who serves as his sister’s literary agent. Among his vast London circle were bankers, merchants, publishers, painters and actors. Thus, thanks to her interpersonal skills, Jane has the
George, on the other hand, was placed in the care of a local family at a very young age, because, as Deirdre Le Faye, biographer of Jane Austen, reports, he was “mentally abnormal and prone to seizures”. He may also have been deaf and dumb.
Charles and Frank, they serve in the navy, where they rise to the rank of admiral. Edward was adopted by a cousin, Thomas Knight, and, as such, inherited his estate, whose name he took over in 1812.
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, at the presbytery of Steventon, and was baptized on April 5, 1776. After a few months, her mother placed her with a neighbor, Elizabeth Littlewood, who was her nurse for a year or a year and a half. In 1783, according to family tradition, Jane and Cassandra were sent to Oxford to be educated by Mrs Ann Cawley, whom they followed to Southampton a little later that same year. The two sisters contract typhus which almost kills Jane. They were then brought up with their parents until they went to boarding school at the beginning of 1785. The teaching in this establishment probably included French, spelling, sewing and embroidery, dancing, music, and maybe theater. But by December 1786, Jane and Cassandra were back home, because their parents can no longer finance their pension. Jane’s education was then completed at home by reading, guided by her father and her brothers James and Henry.
It seems that George Austen gives his daughters unrestricted access to his entire library, which is both large (nearly 500 works) and varied (mainly literature and history), tolerates certain sometimes daring literary attempts by Jane (risky , as the English term), and provided his daughters with the expensive paper and materials they needed for their writings and drawings. According to Austen biographer Park Honan, Austen home life was steeped in an “open, fun, and easy-going intellectual atmosphere,” where social and political ideas other than their own were considered and discussed. Thus, after her return from boarding school in 1786, Jane Austen “never again lived outside her immediate family environment.”
Private theatrical performances were also part of education, from the age of seven to thirteen, Jane took part in a series of plays put on by her family and close friends. Thus, we play The Rivals by Richard Sheridan, created in 1775, and Bon Ton by David Garrick. If the details remain unknown, it is almost certain that Jane is involved, first as a spectator, then, as she grows up, in a more active way. Most of these plays are comedies, which contributes to the development of its comic and satirical sense. Jane Austen’s “French” cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, brilliantly participated in some of these plays, in which she then played the main role. Later, in Mansfield Park, Jane Austen gives the so-called “theatricals” an importance that goes well beyond mere entertainment.
In all likelihood, Jane Austen began as early as 1787 to write poems, stories and plays for her own amusement and that of her family. Later, she made fair copies (“clean transcriptions”) of 27 of these early works, in three bound notebooks, now known as Juvenilia and containing writings from 1787 to 1793. Some manuscripts reveal that Jane Austen continued to work there until around 1809-1810, and her nephew and niece, James Edward and Anna Austen, added to it until 1814.
Among these writings is a satirical epistolary novel, Love and Freindship [sic], in which she makes fun of fashionable sentimental novels (novels of sensibility). Also included is The History of England, a thirty-four-page manuscript accompanied by thirteen miniature watercolors by Cassandra. It is a parody of popular historical writings, most notably Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England, published in 1771. For example, Jane Austen writes:
“As I am myself partial to the Roman Catholic religion, it is with infinite regret that I am obliged to blame the Behavior of any Member of it: yet Truth being I think very excusable in an Historian, I am necessary to say that in this reign the Roman Catholics of England did not behave like Gentlemen to the Protestants. »
“As I myself have a weakness for the Catholic religion, it is with infinite regret that I am obliged to blame the Conduct of any of its Members: however, the Truth being I think quite excusable in a As a historian, I feel compelled to say that during this reign, the Catholics of England did not behave like Gentlemen towards the Protestants. »
According to scholar Richard Jenkyns, Jane Austen’s Juvenilia are anarchic and teeming with boisterous gaiety; he compares them to the work of the 18th century novelist, Laurence Sterne, and to the Monty Python of the 20th century.
As an adult, Jane Austen continues to live with her parents, devoting herself to the usual activities of a woman of her age and social status: she plays the pianoforte, helps her sister and her mother to direct the servants, assists the women of the family when they give birth and elderly parents on their deathbed. She sends a few short letters to her newborn nieces Fanny Catherine and Jane Anna. She is particularly proud of her skills as a seamstress.
Jane Austen attends church regularly, visits friends and neighbors, and reads novels, often written by herself, in the evenings aloud and with family. Relations between neighbors often lead to dancing, improvised during a visit, after supper, or during balls organized in the meeting rooms of the town hall. According to her brother Henry, “Jane loved to dance, and indeed excelled at it.”
In 1793, Jane Austen began, then abandoned a short play, later entitled Sir Charles Grandison, or the Happy Man, which she finished around 1800. It is a parody of a few summaries for school use, of his favorite novel, The Story of Sir Charles Grandison (1753), by Samuel Richardson. Shortly after Love and Freindship [sic] in 1789, Jane Austen made, according to Honan, the decision “to write to earn money, and to devote herself to telling stories”, in other words, to become a professional writer. It is proven that from 1793, she indeed undertakes longer and more complex works.
Between 1793 and 1795, Jane Austen wrote Lady Susan, a short epistolary novel, generally considered to be her most ambitious early work. Lady Susan is unlike any of his other works. Claire Tomalin sees her heroine as a sexual predator who uses her intelligence and her charm to manipulate, betray and deceive her victims, lovers, friends or loved ones. She writes :
“Told in epistolary form, this is a story as well crafted as a play, and with a cynicism of tone that equals the most scandalous comedies of the Restoration, which were perhaps one of the sources of her inspiration … [This short novel] occupies a unique place in Jane Austen’s work as a study of a grown woman whose intelligence and strength of character surpass those of all whose she crosses the road. »
After completing Lady Susan, Jane Austen tries her first novel, Elinor and Marianne. His sister Cassandra later recalled that it was read to the family “before 1796”, and was in the form of a series of letters. In the absence of the original manuscripts, it is impossible to say to what extent the original draft survived in the novel published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility.
When Jane Austen reached the age of twenty, Thomas Langlois Lefroy, the nephew of a neighboring family, came to Steventon where he remained from December 1795 to January 1796. Freshly graduated from university, he was preparing to move to London to train as a lawyer (barrister). Tom Lefroy and Jane Austen are probably introduced to each other during a meeting between neighbors or during a ball. Jane’s letters to Cassandra show that the young people spent a lot of time together:
“I’m almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine how dissolute and shocking the way we danced and sat together. »
The Lefroy family intervenes and dismisses Tom at the end of January. Marriage is not an option, Tom and Jane know it well: neither of them are wealthy and he depends on an Irish great-uncle to finance his studies and establish himself in his profession. Tom Lefroy later returns to Hampshire, but is carefully kept away from the Austens there and Jane never sees him again.
In 1796, Jane Austen began a second novel, First Impressions, the future Pride and Prejudice, of which she finished the first draft in August 1797, when she was only 21 years old. As always, she read the manuscript in preparation aloud and, very quickly, the work became the darling of the family (“an established favorite”). His father then took steps for a first publication. In November 1797, George Austen wrote to Thomas Cadell, a well-known London publisher, asking if he would be willing, if necessary, to publish “a Roman Manuscript, comprising three volumes, about the length of Evelina, of Miss Burney [this is First Impressions]”, the financial risk being borne by the author. Cadell promptly returns the letter with the mention: “Declined by Return of Post”. Jane Austen may not have been aware of this paternal initiative. Be that as it may, after completing First Impression, she returned to Elinor and Marianne, and from November 1797 until mid-1798 she reworked it extensively, abandoning the epistolary format in favor of a narrative in the third person, with a bill close to Sense and Sensibility.
In mid-1798, having completed the rewrite of Elinor and Marianne, Jane Austen began a third novel tentatively titled Susan. It’s the future Northanger Abbey, a satire of gothic novels that have been raging since 1764 and still have a fine career ahead of them. The work was completed about a year later. In early 1803, Henry Austen offered Susan to a London publisher, Benjamin Crosby, who bought her for ten pounds sterling (£10), promised speedy publication, announced that the work was “in press”, and left it at that. . The manuscript slept at Crosby’s until 1816, when Jane Austen herself took over the rights to it.
In December 1800, the Reverend George Austen decided without notice to leave his ministry, leave Steventon and move with his family to Bath, Somerset. If this cessation of activity and this trip was a good thing for the elders, Jane Austen is upset at the idea of abandoning the only home she has ever known. While in Bath she practically ceased to write, which says enough about her state of mind. She works a little at Susan, begins then abandons a new novel, The Watsons, but the activity of the years 1795-1799 seems far away. Claire Tomalin advances the hypothesis that this sterility is the index of a deep depression. Park Honan is of the opposite opinion and notes that Jane Austen has continued to write or rework his manuscripts throughout his working life, with the sole exception of the few months following the death of his father. The question remains controversial and Margaret Doody, for example, agrees with Tomalin.
In December 1802, Jane Austen received her only marriage proposal. She and her sister are visiting Alethea and Catherine Bigg, longtime friends who live near Basingstoke. Their youngest brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, having finished his studies at Oxford University, is at home and asks for Jane’s hand, who accepts. Caroline Austen, the novelist’s niece, like Reginald Bigg-Wither, a descendant of this suitor, describe him as a big guy lacking in seduction. He looks ordinary, speaks little, stammers as soon as he opens his mouth and even becomes aggressive in conversation.
Moreover, he turns out to be practically tactless. Jane, however, has known him since childhood, and marriage offers many advantages for both herself and her family. Harris is, indeed, the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters grew up. Thus provided, Jane Austen could provide her parents with a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a house of her own, and perhaps help her brothers to have a career. The next morning, Jane Austen realizes she made a mistake and takes back her consent. No correspondence, nor any diary allow us to know what she really thought of this marriage proposal. she made a mistake and takes back her consent. No correspondence, nor any diary allow us to know what she really thought of this marriage proposal. she made a mistake and takes back her consent. No correspondence, nor any diary allow us to know what she really thought of this marriage proposal.
In 1814, Jane Austen wrote to Fanny Knight, one of her nieces (whom she considered almost a sister, as she wrote to Cassandra), who asked her advice about the marriage proposal he had addressed Mr John Plumtre:
“And now, my dear Fanny, after having written in favor of this young man, I will now conjure you not to engage yourself further, and not to think of accepting him unless it pleases you. Actually. Everything should be preferred or supported rather than marrying without affection. »
The novel begun in Bath in 1804, The Watsons, concerns an invalid clergyman and without great financial resources, and four unmarried young girls. Sutherland describes this novel as “a study in the harsh economic realities of financially dependent women’s lives.” Park Honan is of the opinion, and Claire Tomalin agrees on this point, that Jane Austen deliberately stopped working on this book after the death of her father on January 21, 1805: her own situation was too similar to that of her characters to that she didn’t feel a certain uneasiness.
The illness, which was to quickly take away Reverend Austen, was sudden, leaving him, as Jane reported to his brother Francis, “completely oblivious to his own condition”. Jane, Cassandra and their mother find themselves in a difficult situation. Edward, James, Henry and Francis Austen undertake to support them with annual payments. The four years that followed reflected this precariousness: the three women were, most of the time, rented in Bath, then, from 1806, in Southampton, where they shared a house with Frank Austen and his young wife, and the visits to other branches of the family multiply.
On April 5, 1809, about three months before the move to Chawton, Jane Austen wrote to Richard Crosby expressing her anger that Susan had still not been published and offered him a new version, if needed, for immediate release. Crosby replies that he is not committed to any deadline, or even to a publication, but that Jane Austen can buy back the rights to him for the ten books he had paid for, and find another publisher. Jane Austen, however, not having the means to carry out this transaction, cannot recover her manuscript.
Around the beginning of 1809, Edward, one of Jane Austen’s brothers, offered his mother and sisters a more stable life by providing them with a large cottage in the village of Chawton. This house is part of his estate, Chawton House. Jane, Cassandra and their mother moved there on July 7, 1809. Life in Chawton became calmer than it had been since arriving in Bath in 1800. The Austens did not frequent the neighboring gentry and only received during family visits.
Anna, Jane’s niece, recounts their daily life: “It was a very quiet life, from our point of view, but they read a lot, and apart from domestic chores, our aunts were busy helping the poor and learning to read or write to such a boy or that girl. Jane Austen writes almost every day, but in private, and seems to have been released from certain constraints so as to be able to devote herself more to her manuscripts. Thus, in this new environment, she finds the entire fullness of her creative capacities.
While in Chawton, Jane Austen managed to publish four novels, which were fairly well received. Through his brother Henry, the publisher Thomas Egerton accepted Sense and Sensibility, which appeared in October 1811. The reviews were rave and the novel became fashionable in influential circles; by the middle of 1813, the print run was exhausted.
The income that Jane Austen derives from it allows her a certain independence, both financial and psychological. In January of that same year, Egerton published Pride and Prejudice, a reworked version of First Impressions. He gave the book wide publicity, and it was an immediate success, with three favorable reviews and good sales. From October, Egerton can start selling a second edition. Then Mansfield Park appears, still at Egerton, in May 1814. If the critics do not make much of this novel, Mansfield Park finds a very favorable echo with the public. All copies sold out in just six months, and Jane Austen’s earnings exceeded those she received from each of her other works.
In November 1815, James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, invited Jane Austen to Carlton House and told her that the Prince Regent, the future George IV, admired her novels and kept a copy in each of his residences; he then advises him to dedicate his next work, Emma, to the Regent. Jane Austen dislikes the character, but finds it hard to push the request away. She later wrote a Plan for a Novel, according to suggestions from various sources, presenting in a satirical form the outline of the “perfect novel”, according to the recommendations of the librarian in question.
In mid-1815 Jane Austen left Egerton for John Murray, a more renowned London publisher, which published Emma in December 1815 and in February of the following year brought out a second edition of Mansfield Park. Emma is selling well, but Mansfield Park is less successful, the financial results of this double operation remain very mixed. These are the last novels to appear during the author’s lifetime.
Jane Austen had already begun writing a new book, The Elliots, which later appeared as Persuasion, the first version of which she completed in July 1816. Shortly after the publication of Emma, Henry Austen purchased the rights to Susan from Crosby . Jane, however, is forced to postpone the printing of these two books due to the financial difficulties that her family is going through. Henry’s bank failed in March 1816, resulting in the loss of all his possessions, leaving him heavily in debt and also injuring his brothers Edward, James and Frank. From now on, Henry and Frank can no longer allocate to their mother and their sisters the annual sum that they paid them.
Early in 1816, Jane Austen’s health began to fail. At first, she ignores the illness and continues to work and participate in family activities. By the middle of the year, neither she nor those around her could doubt the seriousness of her condition, which was gradually deteriorating, with flare-ups and remissions. She died in July of the following year. The majority of biographers rely on the retrospective diagnosis that Dr. Vincent Cope endeavored to make in 1964, and which attributes Jane Austen’s death to Addison’s disease, an adrenal insufficiency caused at that time by tuberculosis. . Other authors have also suggested that Jane Austen suffered from Hodgkin’s disease at the end of her life.
Jane Austen continued to work almost to her end. Dissatisfied with the outcome of The Elliots, she rewrote the two concluding chapters, which she finished on August 6, 1816. In January 1817, she began a new novel, which she called The Brothers, a title which became Sanditon when of its first publication in 1925. She completed twelve chapters before stopping writing in mid-March 1817, probably because illness prevented her from continuing her work. Jane talks casually about her condition to those around her, speaking of “bile” and “rheumatism”, but she finds it increasingly difficult to walk and finds it difficult to devote herself to her other activities. In mid-April, she no longer leaves her bed. In May, Henry accompanies Jane and Cassandra to Winchester for medical treatment. Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, at the age of 41. Through his church connections, Henry arranges for his sister to be buried in the north wing of the nave of Winchester Cathedral. The epitaph composed by James praises his personal qualities, expresses the hope of his salvation and mentions the “exceptional gifts of his mind” (“the extraordinary endowments of his mind”), without explicitly mentioning his achievements as a writer.