6/08/2008

Woman of the week - Jane Austen

Name: Jane Austen
Born: 16 December 1775, Steventon, England
Dead: 18 July 1817, Winchester, England
Married to: None
Children: None
Occupation: Writer

Jane Austen was born as the youngest daughter, and the seventh of eighth children (all of whom survived) to the vicar Charles Austen and his wife Cassandra. Jane was raised in the rural area of Steventon, apart from two different times when she went to school with her sister - also named Cassandra, like the mother. Most of her education was, in the end, done at home by the father. The young Austen was much encouraged to read and write in a family where literary pursuits were common, with playwriting, poems and magazines. Among her favourite authors were Samuel Richardson and above all his Charles Grandison. She started to write at an early age, and was given notebooks by her father to do so - her writing was always encouraged by her family. 

The Austens, and thereby Jane, did not stay just at home. Parties and gatherings at friends and neighbours was a common thing and she also had opportunities to visit Bath (where she had an aunt and uncle) and London (where her favourite brother Henry lived). She had a flirt with a young man named Tom Lefroy, but it never turned to anything serious. In 1802 she received a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, a wealthy young man who was her junior. At first she accepted, but after a night of deliberations she turned him down. She did meet a man, at about the same time, at the sea-side. His name is not preserved but according to Cassandra there was a mutual attraction and they had agreed to meet again next year. But the man died.

Instead of getting married Austen lived with her parents and her sister (who never got married after the death of her fiancé). They moved to Bath in 1800, a choice Jane Austen was not very happy with - according to legend she fainted when she heard the news. After the death of her father the sisters and their mother eventually moved to the village of Chawton where her brother Edward, who had been adopted by wealthy relatives without children of their own, had an estate.

The first manuscript to be sent to a publisher was Susan. It was bought and advertised, but never published. Later the manuscript would be bought back, revised and published under the new title Northanger Abbey. The first one to get published was Sense & Sensibility (1811) - without her name though, just as 'By a lady'. It was followed by Pride & Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815). Her last, finished, novel was Persuasion, which was published posthumously by her brother Henry, together with Northanger Abbey and a biography about her in 1818. 

It was never made official in her lifetime that she was an author, but neither was it a well-kept secret. All her friends and family knew about it and it is reasonable to believe that all acquaintances knew about it as well. There is a myth that there was a door at the house in Chawton that was left to creak so that Austen would be warned if there was unexpected visitors in order to give her time to hide her work. But that is really just a myth - there was no need to keep something that was common knowledge a secret.

Jane Austen died in 1817 , in Winchester, where she was staying in the hope of getting treatment. It has been assumed that she suffered from Addisons disease, though that illness was not known at the time and she never did get a proper diagnosis. She was the first of the siblings to die, and her beloved sister Cassandra (who inherited her) lived to 1845, and died aged 72.

The picture is the only known frontal portrait of Jane Austen. It is drawn by her sister Cassandra - but according to a niece the picture did not really resemble her. 

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