Jane Austen: How a Hidden Talent Became One of the World’s Best Known Authors | History Hit

Jane Austen: How a Hidden Talent Became One of the World’s Best Known Authors

Amy Irvine

04 Jun 2019

English novelist Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire. Today, Austen is one of the best known authors in the English language and her novels, including Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, are beloved around the globe.

Her works provide a witty critique of life among the upper-middle classes in Regency England, focusing on the fortunes and failings of her heroines as they navigate their way to love and matrimony. Yet despite their success, Austen published her novels anonymously and never received personal recognition for them during her lifetime.

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Early Life

Jane was the seventh of eight children, born to George, an Anglican minister, and Cassandra Austen. The family was well off but lacked any great fortune, not unlike the Bennet family in Pride and PrejudiceJane’s mother came from an aristocratic family but her father had a modest income of about £600 a year, which he supplemented by working as a tutor.

The Austen family loved literature. The children were encouraged to read widely from George Austen’s extensive library, and the family enjoyed putting on their own theatrical productions.

Portrait of Jane Austen, 1810

Jane began writing when she was about twelve years old. Her early works included the satirical novel Love and Friendship, which mocked the sentimental novels popular at the time.

Jane spent her youth in the country but enjoyed an active social life. She regularly visited her brother Henry in London, and her brother Edward, who was adopted by a wealthy cousin as a child and inherited a large estate. Jane spent long periods of time staying with Edward, mixing with his fashionable friends, granting her a window into the lives of the landed gentry. 

The dilemma

In December 1795, Jane met Tom Lefroy, a trainee barrister. In letters to her sister Cassandra, Jane admits to falling in love with Lefroy. However, unfortunately, as so often happens in Austen’s novels, Lefroy’s family would not support a marriage due to Austen’s comparatively lowly circumstances. The two were forced apart and Jane never saw him again.

By 1799 Jane had completed the first draft of her novel First Impressions (Pride and Prejudice). At the same time she was editing two other works entitled Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility) and Susan (Northanger Abbey).

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In 1880 the Austen family relocated to Bath. It was here, two years later, that Jane received her only known proposal of marriage, from Harris Bigg-Wither. Jane found herself facing a similar dilemma to her heroines as she weighed the convenience of a comfortable living against marrying a man she didn’t love. After initially accepting Bigg-Wither’s proposal, Jane retracted it the following day.

Five years later, in 1805, the Austen family was thrown into disarray by the sudden death of George. Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother faced financial uncertainty. Help came from their brother Edward, who installed the women in a cottage on his land, where Jane resumed her writing with a passion.

Amateur to published author

It was another Austen brother, Henry, who took the manuscript for Sense and Sensibility to the publisher Thomas Egerton. Egerton published the novel in 1811. It proved so successful that he published Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park soon after.

Jane’s novels were not always lauded by the critics but the public loved them. Noting their growing popularity, she decided to seek out a larger publishing house for future works. Her next novel, Emma, was published by John Murray in 1815.

One of the first two published illustrations of Pride and Prejudice.

In 1816, aged 41, Jane’s health began to deteriorate. She began to find even the simplest tasks exhausting. The following year, her sister Cassandra and brother Henry took Jane to Winchester to receive medical treatment. But their efforts were in vain and Jane died on 18 July 1817.

Following her death, Henry and Cassandra arranged for John Murray to publish Jane’s two remaining completed works, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, on 20 December 1817. (Persuasion was not Jane Austen’s title for the book, but her brother Henry’s, who named it after her early death. It is unknown what Jane intended to call this novel, but according to family tradition, apparently referred to it as The Elliots).

Henry wrote a biographical note to be included in the new works, revealing the identity of their author for the first time.

Amy Irvine