"If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more."

Jane Austen was born at home, as was common practice, on December 16th 1775, to the Reverend George and Cassandra (Leigh) Austen, in the Rectory at Steventon, Hampshire, where Mr. Austen had the living. Jane was their seventh child, preceded by five brothers and her sister Cassandra, three years her senior, who was to become her closest friend, ally and admirer. A last son was born four years after Jane, in 1779. Her father, as well as performing his clerical and pastoral duties, ran a small farm, and together with his wife, took in boy pupils, who lived in the house; the older boys of the family were at this stage educated alongside them. Jane was thus born into a large and busy household.

In 1783, Jane (then seven), along with Cassandra (ten), went away to school, first in Oxford, and then in Southampton, with Mrs. Cawley. However, in Southampton, illness hit their school and the sisters were brought back home to recuperate. By this time their brother Edward had been adopted by Mr and Mrs Thomas Knight (Mr. Knight being a distant cousin of Revd. Austen); George, who is usually and rather vaguely described as not developing normally, was being cared for away from home; and James had already matriculated from St. John’s College, Oxford. Jane and Cassandra had a year at home, before being sent to the Abbey School, Reading, in 1785. They left in December 1786 and at that point their formal schooling ended. In 1787, Jane began writing the first of her Juvenilia.

Another of the Austen family relationships should be mentioned at this point. Jane’s Aunt Philadelphia – her father’s sister – had in 1751 travelled to India and shortly thereafter married Tysoe Hancock, an employee of the East India Company. In 1759 the couple became friends with Warren Hastings, who would eventually become Governor of India (and then be tried for his misdemeanours in that role). In 1759, his wife and baby daughter had just died, and his young son George was to be sent back to England for health reasons. (It fell to George and Cassandra Austen in the early months of their marriage to look after this son in the last few months of his life; he died in their care.) Meanwhile, Philadelphia, having been childless in her marriage to Hancock for eight years, became pregnant in 1861 and her daughter Eliza was born in December of that year. At least one of Austen’s biographers, Claire Tomalin, raises the possibility that this child might have been fathered by Hastings, and she offers strong but circumstantial evidence for this. Lord Clive (he of India) warned his wife against associating with Philadelphia because of her involvement with Hastings. Hastings was the child’s godfather; he travelled back to England with the Hancocks and Eliza in 1765; in both 1772 and 1775 Hastings settled sums of £5,000 on Eliza; Eliza’s own first son was christened Hastings. The facts are unknowable – as is whether anyone beyond Philadelphia herself knew them. But aside from that issue, Cousin Eliza played a significant role in Jane’s life. She married a French aristocrat, turned up from time to time, an older, glamorous relation, and left behind a series of letters which, in the absence of written evidence about Jane herself, has become significant. She also intersected with larger history in another way, as her husband was guillotined in 1794 as a royalist. Eliza came back further into the family fold when, in 1797, she was married a second time, to Jane’s brother Henry. This side-thread of Jane Austen’s life, in its connections with Britain’s imperial history and France’s Revolution, reminds us that, for all that the domesticity of her circumstances is often emphasised, Austen lived through interesting times, and was intimate with those who had been even closer to those times.

In domestic terms, the big change in Austen’s life was her father’s retirement in 1801 and their move from Steventon to Bath. In 1805 her father died, and from this point onwards the family was peripatetic; eventually they found a settled place at Chawton, in 1809, where Austen would end her days. In personal terms, her life is hard to assess. There are two documented relationships with men. One, with Tom Lefroy, at the end of 1795, seems to have been a genuine exchange of emotion, but it came to nothing. One of the few significant letters of Austen’s that survives describes this encounter, which is how we know about it. The other, in 1802, was a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither. She accepted it on the evening it was given, and withdrew her acceptance the following morning.  

The documentary evidence of both Austen’s life and her writing career is thin. Of her complete novels, only one manuscript survives, and that is of the original final two chapters of Persuasion (replaced by the version we now know in published form). Cassandra destroyed most of her letters. No diary remains, if there ever was one. Her few remaining letters, her published works, and the remains of her Juvenilia and fragments, are thus the main record. It means that we can’t know what is left out. What is left in is the published work itself; the germination and gestation of that work is speculative. Elinor and Marianne – an early, epistolary version of Sense and Sensibility – was begun in 1795, when she was nineteen; First Impressions, which would become Pride and Prejudice, was begun in 1796 and finished in 1797, when she was twenty-one. She immediately began to revise Elinor and Marianne, changing to an omniscient narration; and from 1798 to 1799 wrote Susan, which would become Northanger Abbey.  In 1797, Revd. Austen, on behalf of his daughter, offered First Impressions to the publisher Cadell, who refused it. In 1803, Jane Austen sold Susan to Crosby, but in the end no publication was forthcoming. At this point, Austen had three of her key novels in progress, perhaps close to completion; but she lacked publication. Not until 1810 was Sense and Sensibility accepted, to appear in 1811.  Pride and Prejudice appeared in 1813. Mansfield Park was published in 1814, and Emma in 1815. Persuasion was completed in 1816, Austen’s last novel. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously. Austen’s Juvenilia and some of her unpublished work can be found in Wordsworth’s Lady Susan and Other Works.

Jane Austen showed the first signs of her illness in the early months of 1816. She was able to complete Persuasion by the end of that year, and in 1817 began Sanditon, but became too unwell to continue with it. In May she went with Cassandra to Winchester, to be under the care of surgeons there. Cassandra was with her to the end; she died on July 18th 1817. After her death, Cassandra said of her: ‘She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself’. 

Sally Minogue


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