The Life & Legacy of Jane Austen

“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

During the 1700s a woman’s duty was to marry a man. It was all a girl had to look forward to in her life. Pride and Prejudice is a story of a girl who wants to be something more than a wife.

As a woman in the 18th century, Jane Austen thought much ahead of her time. Pride and Prejudice talks about the story of an independent, strong woman who thinks differently than the other girls of her age. Elizabeth Bennett took interest in a rather peculiar man. As opposed to the typical Prince Charming, Mr. Darcy was the gentleman society expects and was celebrated because of his wealth. While her sisters were off chasing handsome soldiers, Elizabeth chased the one man that wasn’t interested in a wife.

As the story unfolds, Darcy pines after Elizabeth, she rejects him, then eventually accepts him. Instead of the typical perfect prince chasing a well-mannered woman, Austen illustrates a flawed man chasing after a rather strong-minded girl. It’s said that just a page of writing can reveal the deepest secrets about the personality of a writer. If this is true, then Austen must’ve had one of the most advanced minds of her time.

She was the author of four literature classics: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park. Her words remain timeless and are taught even two centuries after her death.

A Star Is Born

Jane Austen was born in December 1775, in Hampshire, England to a family of ten. She was the seventh child out of eight siblings. Her father, George Austen, was a Reverend. Her mother, Cassandra, was a witty woman famous for her improvised verses.

Austen’s lively childhood provided a refreshing context for her writing. Her experience stretched beyond the Steventon rectory thanks to friends and family all over England. Her childhood can be found in her books and the occasional visits to Bath, and London, the village, the neighborhood, the country clergy, etc. The settings and characters of her books were influenced by her hometown.

Her First Words

Her earliest known writings were from 1787 when she was just twelve years old. Then, in 1793, at eighteen years old, she wrote a large book that survived in three notebooks: Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third. In these books, Austen wrote plays, verses, short novels, etc. These writings show that she imitated existing literary forms, most often sentimental novels and sentimental comedy.

When she turned nineteen, her writing style transformed from enthusiastic and excited to thoughtful and analytical. Her serious tone can first be found in her epistolary novel Lady Susan which was written around 1793 and published in 1871.

According to Brian C. Southam,

This portrait of a woman bent on the exercise of her own powerful mind and personality to the point of social self-destruction is, in effect, a study of frustration and of woman’s fate in a society that has no use for her talents.”

Early on in her life, we can see that Austen was a feminist. She strongly believed that a woman had more roles in life than to be just a wife or a mother. Austen took a stand for feminism before women even had the right to vote!

Yes! But No

In 1802, Jane Austen was proposed to by Harris Bigg-Wither who was the heir of a Hampshire family. She’d agreed to the proposal only to reject it the next morning. Just like any celebrity, Austen has her own share of contradictory love stories. Austen never got married, but her books illustrate love so well, it is almost obvious she’d fallen for someone.

Almost all of her novels contain concepts of love and marriage. So, many historians wonder if she had a secret lover.

Unfortunately, the evidence is incomplete. Cassandra, her sister, discarded all surviving letters that may have led to clues about her love life after Jane passed away.

However, (and Southam would agree with me when I say this) an author that writes so well, and so deeply about love has probably been in love and experienced heartbreak.

The Disappearing Act

She published her first novel, Sense, and Sensibility, at age twenty in 1795. Originally, it was going to be named after its heroines Elinor and Marianne. A year later, Austen wrote the first version of Pride and Prejudice, then known as “First Impressions”.

In 1797, her father sent it to a publisher, but it was rejected. A book as wonderful and skillfully written as Pride and Prejudice was rejected! Talk about a tough crowd!

The last of her ‘early novels’ was Northanger Abbey, written as “Susan” It was written around 1799, and was sold to a publisher for 10 euros, and even though it was published and advertised, its disappearance is still unaccountable.

Nobody’s Home

Till this time, Jane’s environment had been favorable for her writing career, however, everything began to change when in 1801 George Austen retired to Bath with his wife and daughters. For eight years, Jane had to live in temporary homes in Bath, London, Clifton, Warwickshire, and finally Southampton, where they lived from 1805 to 1809.

In 1804, Austen began to write The Watson, but never completed it. During the same year, her close companion Mrs. Anne Lefroy died, and then in 1805, her father passed away.

Eventually, in 1809, Jane’s brother Edward bought a cottage for Jane, her mother, and her sisters. This cottage was located in the village of Chawton, and it was within Edwards Hampshire estate, near Steventon.

She’s Back

Finally having a stable home, Austen started writing again. She developed Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication.

Her brother Henry supported her renewed sense of confidence, and even acted as her agent to talk to publishers. Her taking up writing again was not only fueled by passion, but also the need for money.

Two years later, Thomas Egerton published Sense and Sensibility, which came out to the public in November 1811. Both leading reviewers of the time, the Critical Review, and the Quarterly Review gave the novel excellent reports.

In 1811, Austen began Mansfield Park, which she finished in 1813, and published in 1814.

By then, she was established, albeit anonymously, as an author. Egerton also published Pride and Prejudice in January 1813. Later that year, there were second editions of both novels.

Pride and Prejudice was one of the most popular novels of its season.

Then between January 1814 and March 1815, Austen wrote Emma. In 1816, the second edition of Mansfield Park was published by Lord Byron’s publisher, John Murray. Persuasion, which was written between August 1815 and August 1816, was published after Austen’s death along with Northanger Abbey in December 1817.

Reflecting Back

The years after 1811, were the best years of Austen’s life. She saw her work being published. She got amazing reports, her books were widely-read. It is truly an author’s dream come true.

In fact, they were even read by the prince regent (George IV), and he allegedly had all her books in each of his homes. He even commanded Emma to be “respectfully dedicated” to him. Austen’s novels were praised for their morality, admired for the characters, and welcomed as a refreshing change from the typical romance novels.

The Final Chapter

Even, in the last eighteen months of her life, Austen was writing. Early in 1816, when she first became sick, she began the burlesque Plane of a Novel, According to Hints from Various Quarters, which was first published in 1871. Until August of that year, she worked on Persuasion and re-looked at the manuscript of “Susan” a.k.a Northanger Abbey.

In January 1817, she started Sanditon, a self-mocking parody on illnesses. The novel, however, was never finished due to her health status. She guessed that she was suffering from bile, but modern-day assessments on her symptoms show that she was suffering from Addison disease.

Her conditions wavered, but she wrote her will in April, and in May she was admitted under the care of a surgeon in Winchester. She passed away on July 18, 1817, and six days after her death, she was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

After her death, her brother Henry announced to the world that the author of these famous books was Jane Austen. However, there was no recognition that England had just lost its sharpest mind. No one understood that her works were way beyond her time.

During her lifetime, her works received amazing reviews, and compliments, though no one knew it was her. When people did find out that the author behind these marvelous pieces of literature was a woman, no one cared! Today, Austen’s work is taught in most schools, and she’s a popular example of a strong, female writer.

We’re often taught in history books that women of her era simply submitted to marrying anyone with money, that all women cared about was marriage, and bearing children. However, books often fail to mention authors like Austen, who wrote their way out of society’s claws.

Austen was fighting, in her own way, the rules that a woman was supposed to follow way back in the 19th century. Imagine, what would she would think of the world today, in the 21st century, where women still have to fight against stereotypes?

Written by Sarah Masih


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