Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Through her piercing social observation and subtly subversive style, Jane Austen drew from ordinary circumstances to produce extraordinary works of English literature. Known by many as a novelist who focuses on marriage plots and happy endings, Austen's works can more deeply be understood to be a study of the complex class and gender relations which underscored early-19th century English middle-class society.

Born on December 16, 1775 in Steventon, a village in Hampshire, England, Jane Austen was the seventh of eight children of George and Cassandra Leigh Austen. George Austen, born of the gentleman-farmer class, appreciated education and chose to study theology at Oxford. There he met Cassandra Leigh, who would become his wife. Though personally they had much in common, Cassandra’s titled relations thought she was of a higher social status than George. Nevertheless, in 1764, they chose to marry and had eight children in quick succession: six boys and two girls.

As rector of the parish in Steventon, George Austen instilled in his children respect for God, manners, and propriety. Yet the burden of so many children meant that money was tight for the Austen family. In debt, they continued to live frugally, and George took a second job tutoring pupils out of their home. Education and learning were highly valued in the Austen home and Jane quickly imbibed a love for reading.

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 and 35 percent of people in Jane Austen’s time remained single. Yet Austen’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.

By the time she reached the age of twenty-five in 1800, Austen had already written three novels, although Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first novel to be published, was not released until 1811. In the early 19th century, publishing was one of the few ways middle-class women could earn money. In 1813, 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. Austen followed it in 1816 with Emma, the last novel to be published before her early death in July of 1817. In failing health, Austen wrote her final novel, Persuasion, in under a year. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously in 1818. Together, these last two novel earned little over 500 pounds, a small amount by today’s standards, but more money than Austen herself ever saw in her lifetime.

Background on Persuasion

Persuasion represents the maturity of Austen's work, and more than her other novels. It also provides evidence of Austen’s comic yet biting satire of the titled upper classes. Austen’s own social position, as the daughter of a parish clergyman, placed her firmly in the respected middle-class, but as an author she was free to step outside her sphere and write about the personal flaws and mistakes of the proud gentry. Such subtle criticism is especially apparent in her descriptions of the ridiculous and vain Sir Walter Elliot, who is forced to leave his family's house because of his lavish and imprudent overspending.

Austen’s final novel also stands out for the nationalistic pride expressed by the characters throughout the work. The reverence which the female characters of Persuasion hold for the Naval officers reflects the esteem in which the Navy was held in Austen’s day. At the height of the British Empire, amidst wars with both France and the United States of America, the Navy was admired as the defender of British interests throughout the world. Such Navy heroes in the novel introduce a new, rougher ideal of manliness into Austen’s world, for which the feminized Sir Walter serves as the unfortunate foil.