This is the first article for the new Wednesday feature ‘Authors who made history” when I decided to do this article, I knew the very first person I would talk about would be my most favorite author “Jane Austen”. The fact that it is also her birthday this month just makes it all the more special.
There’s probably not one person in this forum who does not know who Jane Austen is, so formal introductions are not necessary. Although this article is to mainly talk about what made her work so special that it is loved by fans 200 years later, we will start by talking about her early life.
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, England. Born as the seventh child and second daughter of Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Austen of the Leigh Family, she was closest to her sister Cassandra and her brother Henry who played the part of her literary agent in the later part of her life.
Jane’s parents were well-respected community members. Her father served as the Oxford-educated rector for a nearby Anglican parish. The family was close and the children grew up in an environment that stressed learning and creative thinking. When Jane was young, she and her siblings were encouraged to read from their father’s extensive library. The children also authored and put on plays and charades.
In order to acquire a more formal education, Jane and Cassandra were sent to boarding schools when she was just 8 years old. During this time, Jane and her sister caught typhus, with Jane nearly succumbing to the illness. After a short period of formal education cut short by financial constraints, they returned home and lived with the family from that time forward.
Ever fascinated by the world of stories, Jane began to write in bound notebooks. In the 1790s, during her adolescence, she started to craft her own novels and wrote Love and Friendship, a parody of romantic fiction organized as a series of love letters. The next year she wrote The History of England, a 34-page satirical parody of historical writing that included illustrations drawn by Cassandra. These notebooks, encompassing the novels as well as short stories, poems and plays, are now referred to as Jane’s Juvenilia.
Jane spent much of her early adulthood helping run the family home, playing piano, attending church, and socializing with neighbors. During her evenings, Jane would choose a novel from the shelf and read it aloud to her family, occasionally one she had written herself. She continued to write, developing her style in more ambitious works such as Lady Susan, another epistolary story about a manipulative woman who uses her sexuality, intelligence and charm to have her way with others. Jane also started to write some of her future major works, the first called Elinor and Marianne, another story told as a series of letters, which would eventually be published as Sense and Sensibility. Jane set out to pen the work on First Impressions in the year 1799 which later became her most popular piece and came to be known as Pride and Prejudice. Her work Susan was later published by her brother as Northanger Abbey.
In 1801, Jane moved to Bath with her father, mother and Cassandra. Then, in 1805, her father died after a short illness. As a result, the family was thrust into financial straits; the three women moved from place to place, skipping between the homes of various family members to rented flats. It was not until 1809 that they were able to settle into a stable living situation at Jane’s brother Edward’s cottage in Chawton.
In her 30s, Jane started to anonymously publish her works. In the period spanning 1811-16, she pseudonymously published Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice (a work she referred to as her “darling child,” which also received critical acclaim), Mansfield Park and Emma.
Death and Legacy
In 1816, at the age of 41, Jane started to become ill with what some say might have been Addison’s disease. She made impressive efforts to continue working at a normal pace, editing older works as well as starting a new novel called The Brothers, which would be published after her death as Sanditon. At some point, Jane’s condition deteriorated to such a degree that she ceased writing. She died on July 18, 1817, in Winchester, Hampshire, England.
While Austen received some accolades for her works while still alive, with her first three novels garnering critical attention and increasing financial reward, it was not until after her death that her brother Henry revealed to the public that she was an author.
Today, Austen is considered one of the greatest writers in English history, both by academics and the general public. In 2002, as part of a BBC poll, the British public voted her No. 70 on a list of “100 Most Famous Britons of All Time.” Austen’s transformation from little-known to internationally renowned author began in the 1920s, when scholars began to recognize her works as masterpieces, thus increasing her general popularity.
The Janeites, a Jane Austen fan club, eventually began to take on wider significance, similar to the Trekkie phenomenon that characterizes fans of the Star Trek franchise. The popularity of her work is also evident in the many film and TV adaptations of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility, as well as the TV series and film Clueless, which was based on Emma.
Austen was in the worldwide news in 2007, when author David Lassman submitted to several publishing houses a few of her manuscripts with slight revisions under a different name, and they were routinely rejected. He chronicled the experience in an article titled “Rejecting Jane,” a fitting tribute to an author who could appreciate humor and wit.
It is amazing that even now after 200 plus years her work continues to inspire people. Sequels, prequels, and adaptations of almost every sort have been based on the novels of Jane Austen. She truly is an author who made history!
For those of you who are yet to read her work, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of her work!