Jane Austen was born in Steventon, England, in 1775. Her father, George Austen, was the rector of the local parish and taught her largely at home. The seventh of eight children, Austen lived with her parents for her entire life, first in Steventon and later in Bath, Southampton, and Chawton. Her father was the parish rector in Steventon, and, though not wealthy, her family was well connected and well educated. Both Jane and her sister Cassandra were mostly educated at home, though they spent a short period of time at Abbey School. Jane's relationship with her sister was perhaps the strongest connection which existed in her life. Her numerous letters to and from Cassandra provide the basis for much of the knowledge Austen scholars have gleaned about Jane. And this close relationship may have provided the basis for the many novels in which Austen explores the connections among sisters.
Neither Jane nor Cassandra ever married, though they had early offers. Yet this situation was not entirely uncommon for the time. Perhaps due to the added burden of finding a suitable mate within one's social class, between 10–35% of people in Jane Austen's time remained single. Yet Jane's status as a single woman did not upset her. The lack of a husband allowed her the freedom to concentrate on her writing, and the opportunity to be a keen observer of the actions of those around her.
Austen began writing stories at a very young age and completed her first novel in her early twenties. By the age of twenty-five, Austen had already written three novels, though Sense and Sensibility, Austen's first novel to be published, was not released until 1811. All of her work was published anonymously, and few outside of her family were aware of her writing. In the early nineteenth century, publishing was one of the few ways middle-class women could earn money, and Austen used her modest earnings to supplement her income. Two years later, her second novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813) was published and proved to be extremely popular, ending Austen's anonymity. Her next novel, Mansfield Park (1814), did not sell as well, and Austen followed it in 1816 with Emma, the last novel to be published before her early death. In failing health, Austen wrote her final novel, Persuasion, in under a year. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously in 1818, and together earned little over 500 Pounds, a small amount by today's standards, but more money than Austen herself ever saw in her lifetime.
The social milieu of Austen’s Regency England was particularly stratified, and class divisions were rooted in family connections and wealth. In her work, Austen is often critical of the assumptions and prejudices of upper-class England. She distinguishes between internal merit (goodness of person) and external merit (rank and possessions). Though she frequently satirizes snobs, she also pokes fun at the poor breeding and misbehavior of those lower on the social scale. Nevertheless, Austen was in many ways a realist, and the England she depicts is one in which social mobility is limited and class-consciousness is strong.
Socially regimented ideas of appropriate behavior for each gender factored into Austen’s work as well. While social advancement for young men lay in the military, church, or law, the chief method of self-improvement for women was the acquisition of wealth. Women could only accomplish this goal through successful marriage, which explains the ubiquity of matrimony as a goal and topic of conversation in Austen’s writing. Though young women of Austen’s day had more freedom to choose their husbands than in the early eighteenth century, practical considerations continued to limit their options.
Even so, critics often accuse Austen of portraying a limited world. As a clergyman’s daughter, Austen would have done parish work and was certainly aware of the poor around her. However, she wrote about her own world, not theirs. The critiques she makes of class structure seem to include only the middle class and upper class; the lower classes, if they appear at all, are generally servants who seem perfectly pleased with their lot. This lack of interest in the lives of the poor may be a failure on Austen’s part, but it should be understood as a failure shared by almost all of English society at the time.