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The life and times of Jane Austen

The life and times of Jane Austen

written by Estie Wentzel

Sassy Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, tragic Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, scheming mamas all over the place – almost all of us are familiar with Jane Austen’s creations in book and film. But who was this genius author in real life? The only portrait we have of her shows a grumpy-looking, thirty-something spinster in a cap. A niece who knew her well called the picture ‘hideously unlike’. Opinions on her looks vary a great deal, but it is generally agreed that she was of average height, had hazel eyes, curly brown hair and a high colour. Some considered her pretty, others – not so much.

Jane Austen was born at Steventon Parsonage in Hampshire, England, on 16 December 1775, the seventh child and second daughter of George Austen, Rector of Steventon parish and Cassandra Leigh, the niece of the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, where the young George Austen went to study on a scholarship at the age of eighteen.

The year 1775 was the start of tumultuous times for England, although one would never suspect this from Jane Austen’s tranquil writings.

The American Revolution was around the corner, and on its heels would follow the tremendous upheaval of the French Revolution. Oblivious of all this, baby Jane lay upstairs in the vicarage, snug in her mother’s arms, whence she would emerge at three months old to be baptized by her father in the tiny, medieval village church of Steventon.

Although belonging to the upper-middle classes, Mr and Mrs Austen’s rapidly expanding family made it hard for them to make ends meet.

The parsonage was spacious and the couple eventually decided to take in boarders; well-heeled young gentlemen who were to be tutored by George Austen along with his own sons to eventually enter Oxford University.

Far from growing up a prim little lady, young Jane would have romped with the boys, played cricket with them and tumbled down the green slope behind their house, getting grass stains and mud on her petticoats as did Katherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.

Mrs Austen was an extremely capable woman and seems to have comfortably managed a household of at least eleven rowdy children in addition to a dairy and a poultry yard, while still not neglecting her parish duties.

That said, some of her coping strategies seem strange, not to say heartless, to us today. It was her practice to at three months old ‘farm out’ each successive baby to a ‘good’ village woman, who would feed and look after the child for at least a year, when the toddler would be returned to her. This enforced separation at such an early age might explain why Jane all through her life bonded far more closely with her older sister Cassandra than with her mother.

Family life
The Austen home was happy and intellectually stimulating. The Reverend Austen, an orphan himself, valued family life and, unusually for the time, encouraged both his sons’ and daughters’ intellectual and artistic endeavours. When Jane emerged as an aspiring writer and Cassandra a talented painter, he supplied expensive paper for them to write and draw on.

The boys liked their sisters and included them in their activities. Unusually for the time, all eight Austen children survived, some becoming extremely successful in later life. If the Austens had a fault, it was a certain hardness in their make-up.

Evidence of this is the fact that the second son, George, who had a severe disability of some kind and was being looked after by a village family not too far off, seems to have been conveniently forgotten by all of them for most of his life.

The emerging author
Jane wasn’t the first or only writer in the family. Her mother was clever at writing funny verses for any occasion and her eldest brother James wrote and directed plays for the family and neighbours’ amusement, and while at Oxford even published his own magazine.

All the Austens wrote entertaining letters to friends and family. “At once expensively and nakedly dress’d” is Jane’s catty comment about one aristocratic wearer’s risqué Regency style dress while she drily sums up a visit by some boring people as “They came, and they sat, and they went”.

Probably copying her big brother, Jane wrote plays and stories for the family’s entertainment from an early age. These early writings are full of boys’ humour and slang, as this was her natural environment at home.

At some stage, George Austen must have recognised that her talent was exceptional and in 1797 he approached a London publisher with her first completed novel (which later became Sense and Sensibility). It was rejected. As Sense and Sensibility, it was published anonymously in 1811 to good reviews.

Jane loved dancing and as a young girl never lacked for a partner at the numerous balls she attended around Steventon. She knew all the cousins, boarders and neighbourhood boys intimately – they seemed like brothers to her, too familiar to fall in love with. However, in 1795 when she had just turned twenty, she did fall in love for the first and probably the only time.

Thomas Lefroy was a twenty year old graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, who was visiting his aunt and uncle, close neighbours of the Austens, before reading for the Bar in London. His picture shows a lively and attractive young man, one who certainly equalled Jane Austen in intelligence and force of character.

Jane thought him extremely engaging and handsome and could hardly keep him out of her letters to Cassandra, who was away at the time. The two flirted so publicly at the three balls where they danced together that Tom’s aunt became concerned and sent him away.

She knew that just like Jane, Tom was penniless and dependent on the patronage of a rich uncle. Did Tom Lefroy share Jane’s feelings, or was he merely passing the time? The jury is out, but whereas Tom subsequently enjoyed a happy and advantageous marriage, Jane from this time seems to have given up the idea of marriage and started to immerse herself in her writing. (Years later, she would turn down a marriage proposal from the younger brother of two of her oldest friends.)

In her last completed novel, Persuasion, published just after her death, she argues passionately for young love and trusting to the future rather than being overly prudent.

Jane loved her home and the fields and woods around Steventon and the unhappiest period in her life started in 1801, when her parents abruptly announced their intention of retiring and moving to fashionable Bath, a popular spa resort at the time. Jane didn’t like the fashionable city with its reputation as a husband hunting-ground and desperately missed the country. Having started off so successfully with Sense and Sensibility, she doesn’t seem to have written anything during the five years the family stayed in Bath.

Finding peace
On the death of her father, Mrs Austen, Jane and Cassandra found a home with her brother Frank, now risen to Admiral in the British navy. Finally, in 1809, her wealthy brother Edward offered them a spacious cottage rent-free on his estate near Chawton, a village quite close to Jane’s beloved Steventon.

Finally settled and at peace again, Jane produced five of her six major novels in quick succession. They were published to good reviews and sales, and Jane found herself, for the first time in her life, with money of her own. She remained unknown, however, as all her novels were published anonymously.

Illness and death
Early in 1816 Jane started to feel seriously unwell. She became progressively weaker until her death in July 1817. There has been much debate about the nature of her malady, with most experts now leaning towards a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which today is almost always curable.

Cassandra lovingly nursed her to the end and on her death wrote to the family that “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed.”

She was buried in Winchester Cathedral, greatly mourned by her surviving family and friends. Moderately successful during her lifetime, her fame as a writer has been growing steadily ever since and she is today one of the most celebrated writers in the world.

Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us. – Jane Austen

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