Student Project: Biography of Jane Austen. Copyright 2007 Katie Mastrucci.
The Life and Legacy of Jane Austen
Jane Austen was born in 1775 to the Reverend George and Cassandra Austen in Steventon, England, where she lived until the age of twenty-six. Jane was the seventh of eight children, six boys and two girls. Of her six brothers, two, James and Henry, entered the Holy Orders; one, George, was an invalid of whom little is known; another, Edward, became a man of property; and the two youngest sons, Charles and Frank, both went into the Navy and rose to the rank of Admiral. But it was Jane’s only sister, Cassandra, a girl two years Jane’s senior, who was closest to Jane’s heart and who remained faithfully and devotedly her lifelong friend.
Jane grew up in a loving, intellectually stimulating, family-oriented home. She led a relatively sheltered and limited life, never venturing farther than London or Bath nor traveling overseas. Not once did she ever have a bedroom to herself, and she had no close friendships outside of her family. Jane’s life revolved around her family and her loved ones, and her being one of only two girls in a family of eight children meant she received more consideration and care than she would have been shown in a family dominated by females. Jane’s family was a close-knit bunch, and they remained mutually supportive of each other’s achievements. When Jane’s brother Edward moved to Kent with his young wife upon inheriting the estate of Godmersham from a distant family connection in 1798, Jane and her sister would often travel to see him, though often alternating their visits as one daughter was always needed at home, thus perpetuating a stream of written correspondence between the two sisters, a sisterly affection which is often reflected in the close and loving relationships between girls in Austen’s novels.
Jane and her sister followed lives not unlike many other young girls of their station. They made many excursions, both on foot and on horseback. They played instruments and sang, sketched drawings, and graciously entertained those who came to call. Like most girls of their time, they engaged in much needlework and embroidery, accepting their role as the seamstresses of the household. They supervised many a cooked meal in the kitchen, went into town to visit the poorer villagers and attended church services on Sundays. Yet above all other activities and interests, Jane loved to dance. Whenever a ball was held, Jane would dance every dance, never once stopping for breath. Jane’s passion for dancing was not one she confined to her life alone but an enthusiasm she passed down to all her heroines, from Jane Bennett of Pride and Prejudice fame to Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility.
When Cassandra was in her mid-to-early twenties, she became engaged to one of her father’s pupils, Thomas Fowle. Tragically, in 1797 he died of fever in the West Indies, and so Cassandra, now unattached, and Jane, having no offers of marriage herself, at least none she would accept, settled down to spinsterhood together. Cassandra once mentioned to a niece, long after Jane’s death, that Jane had met somebody years before of whom she grew very fond, and that if he had offered her his hand in marriage, she would have accepted. But no such proposal was ever made. Circumstances soon separated the young couple, and he died almost immediately, before they could meet again, and so Jane remained single.
The life of an old maid was not one to which any young girl aspired. It was often a cruel punishing fate, a narrow path to tread. It was a life of hardship, loneliness, financial dependence, and constant scrutiny. Only by being silent, respectful, considerate, kind and mindful of her age and position could an old maid retain respectability in society and remain in her community’s good graces. But neither Jane nor her sister Cassandra begrudged their lot in life. Quite the contrary, they embraced it. They realized the path they walked, but they were undaunted because they walked it together and because they possessed the intellect, the loving family and the liberty to mitigate their loneliness. Cassandra had known love and would settle for nothing less. And Jane had her little desk and her mighty pen to keep her company.
By the time Jane was twenty-three years old, she had already written the manuscripts for four complete novels: Lady Susan, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. Though it is not known how, when or where she wrote these books during her busy and rarely solitary life, it has been surmised that she penned many of her works in the family drawing room and performed the necessary mental planning in the hours before breakfast while at leisure in her room. Though Jane had little hope of publication and her father’s first attempts at such an endeavor were a failure, she finally succeeded in getting her first book published, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. This marked the beginning of her published though quite lusterless career.
In 1800, Mr. Austen left Steventon and moved the family to Bath, where they lived until his death in 1805, whereupon Jane’s mother and her two daughters moved to Southampton. After four years there, they moved again, into a cottage on an estate at Chawton in Hampshire provided for by Jane’s propertied brother Edward. Although Jane had suffered from writer’s block while in Bath, the move to Chawton seemed to revive her and she wrote most diligently, penning Mansfield Park, 1811-13; Emma, 1814-15; and Persuasion, 1815-16. She published these and earlier works anonymously during these years and achieved a mild success. She never entered the circles of celebrity authorship, for few outside her family knew who she was and what she had written. But to Jane, this was no disappointment because she wrote for the pleasure of writing, and so with no fame to cloud her purpose, she remained true to her passion.
Though life at Chawton was full of family, good company and festivity, Jane’s happiness was not to last. In 1816, at the age of forty-one, Jane’s health began to fail. Cassandra took her to Winchester to see a doctor there, but nothing could be done. Soon everyone knew she was dying. Her final days echoed much of her life: quiet, peaceful, full of courage and affection for those she loved. After a few hours of indescribable suffering, Jane Austen died in Cassandra’s arms, on the 18th of July, 1817, and buried less than a week later in Winchester Cathedral.
Although Jane Austen died young, her legacy would live on through the centuries in both her works and in the works of those she inspired. But before one examines the lives she affected, one must first acknowledge those who inspired her, one such person being the courageous political thinker and writer of the late eighteenth century: Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas on the education of women and the role that domestic tenderness plays in this instruction had a tremendous effect on Jane Austen and this sentiment is reflected in her characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennett’s wit is often praised and her passion for reading glorified. In many of Austen’s works, the female protagonist only accepts marriage on the basis of mutual love and intellectual equality. Scholars have argued that by the time Jane Austen had penned her first works, she had already been exposed to the influential words of Mary Wollstonecraft, and this exposure is most clearly revealed in the Romantic novels of Jane herself.
Just as Jane Austen took inspiration from Wollstonecraft, Austen herself was not without her successors, and the Romantic poet John Keats could very well have been one of them. Although there is no conclusive evidence of Keats having read Austen’s work, the parallels between writing styles and major themes makes such a mentor-pupil relationship a tempting possibility and presents an interesting topic for further enquiry. Keats seems to follow Austen’s lead in depicting characters that were completely separate from his own being and opinions, characters who were not reflections of Keats’ mind but original creations; Keats also echoes Austen’s works in his effort to create fully realized and three-dimensional characters of both the sages and the fools, the heroes and the villains. Both Austen and Keats stress the virtue of open-mindedness and view a character’s imagination as the key instrument for empathy. And yet, these are but a few of the many parallels that can be drawn. Jane Austen may have died before her time, but her works live on as testament to her great talent, her unwavering devotion and her undying passion.
-by Katie Mastrucci
(2) Gordon, L. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft; Harper Collins: New York, 2005.
(3) Hoeveler, D. In “Vindicating Northanger Abbey: Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, and Gothic Feminism”; Looser, D., Ed.; Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism; St. Martin's Press: New York, N.Y., 1995; pp 117-135.
(4) Johnson, C. L. In "‘Not at all what a man should be!’: Remaking English Manhood in Emma”; Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s: Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen; University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1995; pp 191-203.
(5) Kennedy, M. In “The Life”; Van Thal, H., Ed.; Jane Austen; Arthur Barker Limited: London, 1950; pp 22-35.
(6) Lau, B. In “Jane Austen and John Keats: Negative Capability, Romance and Reality’; Bennett, Betty T., Ed.; Keats-Shelley Journal 2006, 55; Keats-Shelley Association of America, Inc.: New York, N.Y., 2006; pp 81-110.
(7) Lee, H. In “'Taste' and 'Tenderness' as Moral Values in the Novels of Jane Austen”; Davies, R. T., Beatty, B. G., Eds.; Literature of the Romantic Period: 1750-1850; Liverpool University Press: Liverpool, 1976; pp 82-95.