It would be no exaggeration to say that Jane Austen is the most famous female English author of all time. Born in 1775 in Hampshire, Austen earned her way to literary fame with the publication of three major novels, including Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Although all of her literary works were published anonymously, the discovery of her identity posthumous has led to an intrigue with not only the author’s work but also her personal life, of which very little is known. What information we do have comes from the biased views of surviving relatives and from a limited number of letters sent between Austen and her sister.
Austen was born into a family on the lower fringes of English landed gentry. Her father, an Oxford-educated man named George Austen, came from a family of wool manufacturers that worked their way up into the privileged sector of English society. Mr. Austen was a country rector at several Anglican parishes in the Hampshire area, and also worked as a teacher to supplement his income. He and his wife, Cassandra Leigh Austen, gave birth to eight children, including six boys, Jane, and her older sister Cassandra. The entire family was very close-knit, but Cassandra and Austen were particularly bonded. They were best friends and confidantes, and both died unmarried. They even collaborated on one published work of writings and paintings as adults. Austen was also close to her brother Henry, who eventually became her literary agent.
Per family custom, Austen was sent to Oxford with her sister to be educated. While there, both girls contracted typhus and nearly died. They returned home until being sent again to boarding school in 1785. However, due to family financial difficulties, the sisters had to withdraw from the school and return for good. From that time on, Austen was educated by her father and older brothers. Because her father boarded and taught three or four boys at a time in his house, it was a very intellectual environment. She didn’t need a lot of external encouragement, though, as she was an avid reader and had unrestricted access to her father’s extensive and diverse library. Starting from a young age, she was writing short stories, poetry, and novels, reading them aloud to her family in the evenings. In this way, her family’s support was absolutely critical in her ascension into a great writer. It’s probably for this reason that she never lived away from them.
According to records and accounts, Austen was a generally happy person who filled her time helping to run the family home, playing piano, reading, attending church regularly, and socialising with friends and neighbours. Her brother Henry claimed she was particularly fond of dancing. But her favourite pastime by far was writing. She apprenticed as an artist from her teenage years and into her thirties, and during that time experimented with a variety of literary forms. She wrote poems, stories, and plays, but was especially skilled at writing novels.
Her writing career took off in her early thirties, with the publication of four major novels between the years of 1811 to 1816. The titles were Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Two other novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published in 1818 following her 1817 death. She had begun work on a seventh book, but died before completing it. Her works contained elements of realism, irony, and plenty of social commentary. She critiqued novels of sensibility of the 18th century, and was part of the transition into 19th century realism. She was especially critical of women’s dependence on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. It’s thus no surprise that she used her talent to become economically self-sustaining, and in doing so paved the way for other women writers.
But she wasn’t well known during her lifetime, in part due to her publishing anonymously and in part due to her scathing criticisms of British patriarchy and gentry. Academic appreciation of Austen’s works began to surface in the 19th century, with those who considered themselves as part of the literary elite identifying their appreciation of Austen as a mark of their cultural tastes. Then in the 1840s and 1850s, literary critic George Henry Lewes published a number of articles on Austen, shedding a positive light on her novels. But she only became widely acclaimed in the general public after her premature death at the age of 41 with her nephew’s publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. The resulting public hype surrounding her writings bothered the literary elites who wanted to differentiate themselves with being able to understand the real meanings of her books.
Try as they might, the elites could not contain Austen’s popularity, and today her works are translated into multiple languages and enjoyed all across the world. Women in particular relate to her pre-modern feminist moral stance that still influences social values. Austen is also a central focus of academic studies on literature, a trend that began in modern times with a 1911 essay by Oxford Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley. By the 1940s she was crowned as one of the great English writers, a title she still holds today.