Those of us who appreciate Jane Austen have probably read a few essays about her, or seen the various biographical movies that shed light on her private life. Maybe you are a true Austen expert who has delved into the finer minutiae of her life so that these facts won’t be a revelation. Then again, maybe some of this will surprise you!
Jane was the second daughter and seventh child out of eight total born to Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra Leigh Austen. Cassandra was of a higher class than her husband, thus “marrying down” if you will. By all accounts it was a happy marriage with no regrets. Cassandra’s social connections and upbringing obviously influenced Jane, giving her a ready knowledge for her novels that a typical clergyman’s daughter may not have had.
Aside from a brief attendance at a girl’s boarding school with her sister, Jane was entirely educated at home by her father. A great deal of her knowledge was gained by reading books and various connections, such as two of her brothers becoming Naval officers (admirals) providing insight into that world.
All the Austen children were literary and talented. They wrote plays, stories, and poems primarily designed to entertain each other. Jane was the most prolific and her early work – called her “juvenilia” – date from the time she was six years old and have been compiled into three volumes. Her first novel was begun when a mere fourteen!
Jane was a bit wild, unlike Cassandra who was the sensible one. She never married but had at least three romances: Tom LeFroy, an Irishman who later became Chief Justice of Ireland and who was probably “encouraged” not to marry someone considered beneath him (see Becoming Jane); a clergyman met in Devon who died unexpectedly before able to pursue the relationship; and Harris Wither, whose proposal of marriage she accepted due to his wealth, but then broke off the following day, creating a minor scandal.
Finances, particularly after Rev. Austen died in 1805, forced Jane to move numerous times in her life. She lived in Bath for roughly five years but hated it there, her writing nearly non-existent during that time. She also disliked London, although apparently she loved attending theatre performances and balls. Her happiest and most productive times were her younger years at Stevenage and later in Hampshire.
Only four of Jane’s six novels were published in her lifetime. All of her novels were published as written by “A Lady.” Her brother Henry added a forward to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published after her death, revealing that she was the author of the others, yet oddly her burial stone at Winchester Cathedral does not mention that she was an author. Few knew she was a writer, although the Prince Regent was a huge fan and asked that Emma be dedicated to him, a request she could not refuse although she detested the Prince!
Her books received generally favorable reviews but were not hugely popular. They were never reprinted until after 1831, and Jane only made some 700 pounds from her work in her lifetime. She would not be considered a great novelist until late in the nineteenth century; however, her books have never been out of print since 1833.
Outside the room where Jane Austen would write while living at Chawton House in Hampshire there was a swinging door that creaked. Austen refused to allow it to be fixed because the creaking gave her warning when anyone was entering the room, allowing her time to hide her work.
There is evidence that Jane’s relationship with her mother was not a good one. Experts suspect this is one reason why a large percent of the mothers in her novels are not exactly perfect specimens!
The first known appearance of the word “baseball” is in Northanger Abbey. It is named as one of Catherine Morland’s favorite pastimes.
The use of the term “Janeites” to describe Austen’s fans dates from at least the early twentieth century. While most Austen fans today are women, early Janeites were often men. Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story called “The Janeites” about a group of World War I soldiers who were closet Austen fanatics.
Jane died in 1817 at the age of 41. Her cause of death is unknown, although speculation based on current medical knowledge is that she suffered from Addison’s Disease. Others speculate she was poisoned, accidentally most likely, but….
Was that fun? Did you learn something? I hope so! The truth is that Jane’s life is shrouded in mystery. Only a few private letters remain since most were destroyed by her sister, and her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh edited the ones published in A Memoir to Jane Austen in 1869 to color Jane in a softer light than her true caustic self. Her words are often humorous and wry, thus not always clear whether she was joking or expressing a serious belief.
What do you think? Any fun Jane Austen facts to share?