Between the Pages is a new, weekly blog series which explores the life, times and creative works of well-known authors. I plan to run the blog series until the end of 2015, focusing on one author per month. New posts every Tuesday.
The first post in the series is a brief biography of the author, the second looks at the historical period of the author, the third post discusses their creative works. Finally, the last post includes selected quotations and short excerpts by the author.
We begin the first Between the Pages with my all-time favourite author: Jane Austen. When I planned this blog series, I wrote a list of authors whose life, times and writing I want to explore. The list is quite long and there are more authors on it than I will be able to write about in the months until the end of the year but if the series is successful, then perhaps I will continue it.
Jane Austen is #1 on my list. I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was a pre-teen, which was around the same time that I watched the BBC/A&E adaptation, featuring the now infamous scene of Colin Firth (Mr. Darcy) diving into the lake at Pemberley.
To be honest, I can’t remember whether I read the book first or whether watching the adaptation made me want to read it. But I do remember borrowing the BBC series from my local library and watching it over and over. I was very naughty: as a child ticket holder, I was exempt from overdue library fines so I remember borrowing the P&P VHS tapes and keeping it out of the library past its return date, just so that I could watch it again. Ah, my misspent youth… 😉
Jane Austen’s Life
Jane Austen was born in the tiny village of Steventon in Hampshire, England on December 16 1775, just as the winter set in, bringing biting winds and heavy snow to the English countryside. She was the seventh out of eight children born to Mrs. Cassandra Austen and the Rev. George Austen. Her siblings were all boys, except for her sister Cassandra, who was three years older than Jane.
The two sisters developed an extremely close bond, and Mrs. Austen reportedly said “if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too“. Throughout Jane’s life, the two sisters helped and supported each other through hard times, such as the death of Cassandra’s fiancé when he died of a fever in the West Indies in 1797.
When Cassandra was sent to a boarding school in Reading from 1785-86, Jane accompanied her. She did not have much schooling outside the home, and the two girls learned the usual accomplishments, such as drawing and piano-playing, which were expected of middle and upper-class women in the Georgian era. Perhaps her limited early experience with formal education shaped her opinion, as she wrote later that “I would rather do anything than be teacher at a school“.
From a young age, Jane was encouraged to read widely. This early fondness for literature may have inspired her to write books herself, as she realised that she could create places and characters which were so “light and bright and sparkling” (a phrase that Jane used to describe Pride and Prejudice) that they almost came to life. One can picture her taking a walk around Pemberley grounds or sitting in the drawing room at Longbourn, the Bennet household.
She began to write at an early age and most of her Juvenilia is available to read. It is very funny in places, and it shows evidence of her quick wit and eagerness to laugh. If Jane sometimes has a reputation for being a prim Regency spinster, it is inaccurate: her sense of humour is clear in her novels and her letters, and she certainly enjoyed a party, as this quote from one of her letters shows!
“I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today. You will kindly make allowance therefore for any indistinctness of writing, by attributing it to this venial error”
But although she wrote so much about romance and society, she lived a relatively quiet life and she never married. Her 1795 love affair with a young Irishman, Tom Lefroy, is widely debated: was she really in love with him? According to one of Austen’s biographers, Claire Tomalin, the young lovers were separated because Jane did not have any money and Lefroy’s family would not allow him “to risk his future by entangling himself in a love affair with a penniless girl” (Tomalin, 1997: 121). A few years later, he married an heiress.
Jane did receive one proposal of marriage, when she visited friends at Manydown House in 1802. It was from Harris Bigg-Wither, the brother of one of her friends, and she accepted him. By marrying Harris, she would rise in status and she would have security as “the mistress of a large Hampshire house and estate” (Tomalin, 1997: 183), but she would not have love. For her, it would be a marriage of convenience, but nothing more. The next morning, she told Harris that she could not marry him. I think it is admirable and says a lot about Jane’s personality that she would only marry for love — in Georgian times, marriages of convenience were apparently quite common.
After that, it is thought that Jane devoted herself to her writing and her family. She had many nieces and nephews, and when one of her brother’s wives died after her eleventh birth, Jane spent a lot of time with the children. After seeing friends and sisters-in-law become exhausted from regular pregnancies, perhaps Jane was thankful that she never married. If she had married, it is unlikely that she could have found the time to write her novels and get them published. What a loss it would have been to the world!
In 1801, the Austens moved to Bath, a town which features in many of her novels. They spent five years there, but after the Rev. Austen died in 1805, Jane was entirely dependent on her brothers to support her. Fortunately, Edward Knight — the third eldest brother — offered the Austen women a house in Chawton village, Hampshire. At this point, you may be wondering why her brother had the surname, Knight, rather than Austen: he was born Edward Austen, but wealthy, childless relatives of his father adopted him and made him their legal heir in the early 1780s. He inherited several country estates from the Knights, which explains his wealth and his ability to supply the Austen women with a large cottage.
Although Jane Austen writes about grand country houses and men with large fortunes in her novels, she came from a respectable — but by no means wealthy — background. Although it seems strange that Edward Austen was adopted by another family, it was quite fortunate as he was later able to take care of his mother and sisters with his inherited wealth.
Jane lived at Chawton Cottage until 1817. She spent her last days in Winchester, where her family sought medical care, and she died on July 18 1817. Her last words were “God grant me patience. Pray for me, oh, pray for me“. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral. After her death, her sister, Cassandra, wrote movingly about her loss:
“She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself”
For reasons of space and brevity, I missed out quite a bit of detail in this very brief and mainly factual overview of Jane’s life — although she led a fairly quiet life, there is a lot to say about her! She is the subject of many biographies, books and academic papers. I am not an Austen scholar, but merely someone with a keen interest in her life and times, so I cannot do justice to her life history in a short blog post. If you’re curious to know more, I suggest checking out the books that I list in the references below: they are both excellent guides to her life and her family history.
And of course, there is a lot that we don’t know about Jane’s inner life — many of her private letters were destroyed after her death, so we will never know her true feelings about certain aspects of her life. However, she has left quite a legacy: her six novels continue to enthral millions of readers across the world, from Madrid to Maryland.
Factual information sourced from Jane Austen: A Family Record (2004, second edn.) by Deirdre Le Faye, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Factual info and quotes sourced from Jane Austen: A Life (2000) by Claire Tomalin, London: Penguin Books.
Other quotes, e.g. from Jane Austen’s letters, sourced online.
Next time in Between the Pages, we’ll explore a little about the Georgian era. What were the fashions of this period? What about the manners and social graces of the time? And what impact did the era have on Austen’s writing? See you next Tuesday!