We’re having an early birthday bash for Jane Austen with an exposé of her life, which sadly, didn’t meet the towering heights of her fiction.
On Monday 18 July, it will be 199 years since the death of one of England’s most admired writers – Jane Austen – at the age of 41. To mark the occasion, we’re having a very brief look at her life and legacy.
Born in 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire, Jane Austen was one of eight children of an Anglican rector. She grew up in a loving family, all avid readers and well educated, and her creativity was actively nurtured. She began keeping notebooks from the age of about 11, penning poems, plays and stories that showed something of the literary brilliance she was to develop as she grew into adulthood.
Much has been made of the fact that Jane never married, but she wasn’t without experience of love. When she was 20, Jane met Tom Lefroy, a newly graduated law student soon to go to London. Jane reported to her sister Cassandra that they were “most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” This probably means no more than a mild flirtation – it was the end of the eighteenth century after all – but Jane appears to have taken it as a serious courtship.
Unfortunately, nothing was ever going to come of it. Neither had any money and Tom’s family sent him away before any thoughts of marriage were raised. Interestingly, Lefroy later became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.
Still on matters of the heart, in 1802 Jane received a marriage proposal from the marvellously-monikered Harris Bigg-Wither, a somewhat unprepossessing man, but one who could offer Jane and indeed her family financial security. At the forefront of her mind was the fact that marrying into wealth was essentially the only way a woman could improve her social standing. Jane is reported to have said, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor. Which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony”. She accepted the proposal but retracted it the very next day because, in spite of the practical advantages of the marriage, she simply didn’t love him.
She always looked beyond class to inner qualities, noting that poorer people could be as noble or nobler than wealthy people. It’s one of the reasons her books had such lasting appeal. They provide a wealth of social commentary.
Jane’s own experiences of love and courtship informed her writing and it’s noteworthy that her heroines marry for love rather than social gain.
By 1805, Jane was living in Bath with her widowed mother and sister, and really pushing herself as far as her writing was concerned. She’d written Susan (published after her death as Northanger Abbey) and started on The Watsons, but came into her own when in late 1811 Sense and Sensibility was published to wide acclaim.
The first edition sold out, so when Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, it was a runaway success. That book had a long gestation, Jane having started it a year or so after her association with Lefroy. Whether he was a model for Mr Darcy is a moot point, but it does provide food for thought.
Her first two novels having sold so well, her next two books, Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815) became bestsellers. This was all good news for the family who relied on the income from her books.
Jane didn’t publish under her name; rather the books were by “A Lady”. Why Jane remained anonymous has much to do with society at the time. Regency England was highly conservative, a country where people knew their place, didn’t aspire above their station or engage in activities inappropriate to their gender or social status. Her anonymity gave her the freedom to comment on social divisions and inequities. She always looked beyond a person’s class to their inner qualities, noting that poorer people could be as noble or nobler than wealthy people. It’s one of the reasons her books had such lasting appeal. They provide a wealth of social commentary.
Pride and Prejudice has become one of the most popular of all novels in English literature. A number of film and television adaptations have been made (who can forget the scene where Colin Firth as Mr Darcy walks back from his swim, wet shirt clinging to his manly frame, making many a girl – and boy – reach for the metaphorical smelling salts); and there have been spin-offs from quite a few other writers, among them PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberley (2013), Elizabeth Aston’s Mr Darcy’s Daughters (2003), and the rather silly Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) by Seth Grahame-Smith.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen herself is an endless source of fascination. She is the sleuthing heroine in the enjoyable series of thrillers, The Jane Austen Mysteries, by Stephanie Barron; her romance with Tom Lefroy was the subject of the 2007 film Becoming Jane; and the 2008 miniseries Lost in Austen is a wonderful homage to Jane and her world.
All her novels have been made into films. Her stories pass the time test – the 1995 movie Clueless was based on Emma, the character of Cher a twentieth-century version of the self-important Emma Woodhouse. These examples barely scrape the surface of the impact this modest English woman has had on popular culture.
In 1816, Jane’s health took a turn for the worse and though in a weakened state, she continued to write. She died the following year, the cause of death given as Addison’s disease, although many have since speculated that she may actually have been suffering from cancer or perhaps tuberculosis.
Her final two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published after her death. Those books contained a preface written by Jane’s brother Henry, who had long acted as her literary agent. In it, he outs Jane as an author who “contributed in no small degree to the entertainment of the public”. In death, she achieved the public accolades denied her in life.
Remember Mrs Jennings from Sense and Sensibility? She offers Elinor Dashwood “some of the finest old Constantia wine … that was ever tasted”. On this anniversary of her passing, all devoted Janeites need to find an equivalent for fine old Constantia wine so we can raise a glass to the enduring Miss Austen.