A Brief Biography of Jane Austen
David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College
Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, to Rev. George Austen and the former Cassandra Leigh in Steventon, Hampshire, the seventh of eight children. Like the central characters in most of her novels, the Austens were a large family of respectable lineage but no fortune; her father supplemented his “living” — his clergyman’s income — by farming. This lively and cheerful family frequently passed their evenings in novel-reading, charades and amateur theatrics. Among her siblings, her sister Cassandra, three years older, was her lifelong friend and confidant.
Her large family supplied material for the kind of novels popular when she wrote, but she chose not to draw upon any of it: her mother, for example, was related to a Duke who was master of Balliol College, Oxford; one aunt married an admiral; another, Mrs. Leigh Perrot, was falsely imprisoned for petty theft in 1799; a cousin, the Comtesse de Feuillide, fled the Reign of Terror after the execution of her husband, came to live with the Austens at Steventon, later fell in love with and married Jane’s handsome and cheerful brother Henry (a particular favorite of Jane’s), who later went bankrupt and then went into the (Anglican) priesthood; her eldest brother James married a duke’s granddaughter; her brothers Frank (a friend of Nelson) and Charles (who married the daughter of the Attorney-General of Bermuda) became naval officers, saw action in the Napoleonic wars, and eventually wound up admirals; and her charming and amiable brother Edward was adopted by the first family of Steventon, the Thomas Knights, a wealthy and childless couple. They educated him, sent him on the grand tour, married him to the daughter of a baronet, and made him their heir. Why do you suppose she chose not to use such potentially sensational subject matter or draw upon her family’s relatively close connection to important contemporary events?
In 1801, Rev. Austen retired and the family moved to Bath (much to Jane’s dismay), probably so that the still-unmarried Jane and Cassandra might have a better chance of meeting marriageable men. Although she never married, Jane had several romantic liasons, the most serious with a Rev. Blackall who died suddenly, just before they were to become formally engaged. How does this history change your estimate of Elizabeth Bennet? Of Jane Bennet? After her father’s death in 1805 the family moved to Southampton, and in 1809 her wealthy brother Edward was able to install Jane, Cassandra, and their mother in a “pretty cottage” back in Hampshire.
During the eight years she lived away from Hampshire, Austen did not write very much (apparently — biographical information is sketchy), doing little more than revising Northanger Abbey. From what you know of her work, can you suggest a reason for this? What does the setting of her novels have to do with their content?
As the timeline shows, she was a writer from her teens until her death, although hardly anyone outside her immediate family knew it, since all her novels were published anonymously. Indeed, when she was living with relatives after her father’s death and writing in the family parlor, she asked that a squeaky hinge on the room’s swinging door not be oiled so that she would have time to hide her manuscripts when her nephews and nieces ran into the room. Gilbert and Gubar point out in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979) that “authorship for Austen is an escape from the very restraints she imposes on her female characters. And in this respect she seems typical, for women may have contributed so siginificantly to narrative fiction precisely because it effectively objectifies, even as it sustains and hides, the subjectivity of the author” (168). Test this assertion by your experience of the novel. Incidentally, Austen’s identity finally became known in 1814, after Pride and Prejudice.
From 1809 on Austen lived happily with her mother and sister, her time employed in writing. Her fatal illness, then thought to be consumption, now known to be Addison’s disease, first appeared in 1816. She died the following year.
When will you read Jane Austen’s work in Excellence in Literature?
E4.6 Focus text: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
E4.6 Honors text: Persuasion or other novel by Jane Austen