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Jane Austen 1775-1817

Jane Austen was born in 1775, the daughter of an academically-minded Hampshire clergyman, George Austen, and an aristocratic but down-to-earth mother, Cassandra née Leigh, in the small village of Steventon. She had interesting elder brothers, and, although the family itself was far from rich, two of them, Francis and Charles, became prominent as Admirals; one, Edward, adopted by the childless Knight family, a large landowner at Godmersham in Kent; while two others, James and Henry, were Oxford-educated, literary, and greatly influenced their younger sister. It was Henry who, as a prosperous London banker, arranged for the publication of Jane Austen’s first novels. Later, even after bankruptcy in that profession, his ebullient personality saw to it
that Jane was buried in Winchester Cathedral after she had spent her last days in that city in the summer of 1817. Jane also had one much-admired elder sister Cassandra, to whom she was close.

Her life was not devoid of incident but was not outwardly dramatic. She seems to have fallen in love when young with one Tom Lefroy, a dashing young man from whom she was parted for financial reasons. Later, as a careworn Chief Justice in Ireland, he admitted that he had reciprocated her feelings with “a boy’s love”. Later, Jane was proposed to by a rich but shambling young man, Harris Bigg-Wither of Manydown, whose sisters she liked, but after a brief moment of acceptance she took the took the advice offered by two of the wiser characters in her own novels, Jane Bennet of Pride and Prejudice and Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, “never to marry without affection”.

An impoverishing and traumatic move to Bath on the retirement of her father at least enabled some pleasant and quite adventurous trips to seaside locations like Lyme, forever to be associated with her last completed novel, Persuasion. Visits to London, Southampton and Kent also punctuated a tragically abbreviated existence. After the death of her father the impoverished women -- Cassandra, Jane and her mother -- were enabled to settle in Chawton, near Alton, in Hampshire once more, through the good offices of rich brother Edward, who also held land in that area.

Given the run of the library at Steventon (and not much formal education, some of it at an “Abbey School” in Reading), Jane Austen quickly began producing sketches, parodies and skits for family amusement, gradually aiming higher. Models and influences included playwrights like Sheridan as well as the novelists Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, contemporary female novelists, and the man she referred to in correspondence as “dear Dr. Johnson”. She drafted the novels which were to become Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice in the 1790s, but publication of Sense and Sensibility was delayed until 1811, followed by that of Pride and Prejudice in 1813. The major achievements of Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816) followed quite quickly, and her reputation soared. But she became ill during the composition of her last completed novel, Persuasion, which appeared only posthumously, in 1818, with Northanger Abbey. “What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!” wrote her great contemporary, Sir Walter Scott.

NB: A little more information about Jane's Life may be gleaned from the review of biographies on the Book Review page and of course the Answer page.

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