- Curious Peoples
- Jane Austen
Master of Wit and Irony
Jane Austen, an acclaimed English author, is known worldwide despite completing only six works in her lifetime. Her sharp wit, insights into domestic life, and subtle critique of England’s economic and class structures have made her stories timeless. These tales have inspired numerous movies, television shows, and modern adaptations.
Born on December 16, 1775, in Steventon Rectory, Hampshire, Jane was the seventh of eight children of George and Cassandra Austen, a country clergyman and his wife. Her sister Cassandra (not to be confused with her mother, who carried the same name), almost three years her senior, was her closest friend. Both sisters never married.
Portrait of Jane Austen by her elder sister Cassandra Austen, c. 1810
Growing up, Jane received her education mostly at home, greatly aided by her father’s extensive library and the educational atmosphere of Mr. Austen’s live-in pupils. Her life, though quiet, was enriched by her brothers’ experiences. Francis and Charles, both Royal Navy officers, saw action in the Napoleonic Wars. Her brother Henry became a clergyman and later a banker, and it was during visits to Henry in London that Jane enjoyed the theater, art exhibitions, and attended social events. Edward, adopted by the affluent Knights, allowed Jane and Cassandra to experience the life of the landed gentry, a theme reflected in her fiction.
Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.
As a child, Jane started writing humorous stories, and her family often engaged in home-based theatrical productions. These activities likely nurtured Austen’s talent through observation, improvisation, and acting.
Around age 19, Austen wrote her first mature work, the novella Lady Susan, in epistolary form. This early work, preserved by her family, was not published until after her death. In her early twenties, Austen penned the initial versions of what would become Sense and Sensibility, initially titled Elinor and Marianne, and Pride and Prejudice, originally known as First Impressions. Her father attempted to have First Impressions published in 1797, sending the manuscript to a publisher, but it was promptly rejected.
Around this time, Jane met Tom Lefroy, a barrister student from London. Their growing affection was apparent to both families. This relationship is the only documented instance of Jane admitting to falling in love. However, Tom’s family saw no practicality in their union and intervened. Jane never saw Tom again.
The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!
Jane continued writing, revising her earlier novels, and completing Susan (later known as Northanger Abbey). In 1803, she sold Susan for £10, but it remained unpublished for years.
At 27, Jane briefly agreed to marry Harris Bigg-Wither, a decision driven more by practicality than affection. However, she retracted her acceptance the following day. There are also unverified stories of another love interest who died shortly after they met. The lack of concrete information about Jane’s personal life is partly due to Cassandra, who, after Jane’s death, destroyed or censored many of her letters to protect Jane’s private life. Yet, Jane’s novels themselves are a testament to her understanding of love and its complexities.
Following her father’s death, her brothers financially supported Jane, Cassandra, and their mother. In 1809, Edward provided a cottage in Chawton for the Austen women, marking Jane’s most productive period. She published Sense and Sensibility in 1811, aged 36, followed by Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, each anonymously attributed to “a Lady.” This was a common practice for female authors in her era.
First edition title page from Sense and Sensibility
These novels showcase a subdued literary satire derived from character development and societal observations. Mansfield Park stands out for its serious tone and religious themes, while Emma is noted for its consistently comedic tone.
Austen experienced the pleasure of seeing her novels well-received and widely read. Critics lauded them for their moral depth and comedic elements, admiring the self-awareness and realistic, intricate depiction of characters and their interactions. The novels’ focus on domestic realism was particularly appreciated, offering a fresh perspective in contrast to the romantic melodramas popular at the time.
I must learn to be content with being happier than I deserve.
She began Persuasion in 1815, finishing it as her health started to decline, likely from Addison’s Disease. Then, during a brief period of better health, she started a satirical piece on health resorts. However, her illness soon worsened.
Cottage in Chawton (now Jane Austen’s House Museum), where Austen lived during her last eight years of life
After drafting her will and naming Cassandra her heir, Jane moved to Winchester for medical care. She died on July 18, 1817, aged 41, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral, with no mention of her authorship on her gravestone.
Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were posthumously published in 1817, with a biographical note by her brother Henry, finally acknowledging her as the author of her previous works.
While the English novel originated in the first half of the 18th century, Jane Austen’s work marked the genre’s evolution into a modern form, characterized by its realistic portrayal of ordinary people and everyday life. In her six novels, Austen crafted a comedy of manners reflecting middle-class life in her era, pioneering “domestic” literature.
Her narratives often revolved around a young woman’s journey of self-discovery through love and marriage, highlighting relatable life experiences. This focus on character development, personal struggles, and societal tensions still brings her novels close to the contemporary world.
Words of wisdom
“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” ―Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Letters
“It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” ―Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
“Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.” ―Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
“I am only resolved to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness.” ―Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
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