Biography: Life (1775-1817) and Family

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The main source of information about Jane Austen's life is family letters, especially those of Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra from 1796 onwards, supplemented by family recollections (which were generally not written down, however, until half a century after Jane Austen's death).

Her childhood and early creative work (Steventon, 1775-)

*Map of England, showing important places in Jane Austen's life
*Jane Austen and places in the County of Hampshire, England
*Austen family genealogical charts

Jane Austen was born December 16th, 1775 at Steventon, Hampshire, England (near Basingstoke). She was the seventh child (out of eight) and the second daughter (out of two), of the Rev. George Austen, 1731-1805 (the local rector, or Church of England clergyman), and his wife Cassandra, 1739-1827 (née Leigh). (See the silhouettes of Jane Austen's father and mother, apparently taken at different ages.) He had a fairly respectable income of about £600 a year, supplemented by tutoring pupils who came to live with him, but was by no means rich (especially with eight children), and (like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice) couldn't have given his daughters much to marry on.

More than one reader has wondered whether the childhood of the character Catherine Morland in Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey might not reflect her own childhood, at least in part -- Catherine enjoys "rolling down the green slope at the back of the house" and prefers cricket and baseball to girls' play.

In 1783, Jane and her older sister Cassandra went briefly to be taught by a Mrs. Cawley (the sister of one of their uncles), who lived first in Oxford and then moved to Southampton. They were brought home after an infectious disease broke out in Southampton. In 1785-1786 Jane and Cassandra went to the Abbey boarding school in Reading, which apparently bore some resemblance to Mrs. Goddard's casual school in Emma. (Jane was considered almost too young to benefit from the school, but their mother is reported to have said that "if Cassandra's head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too".) This was Jane Austen's only education outside her family. Within their family, the two girls learned drawing, to play the piano, etc. (See "Accomplishments" and Women's Education.)

Jane Austen did a fair amount of reading, of both the serious and the popular literature of the day (her father had a library of 500 books by 1801, and she wrote that she and her family were "great novel readers, and not ashamed of being so"). However decorous she later chose to be in her own novels, she was very familiar with eighteenth century novels, such as those of Fielding and Richardson, which were much less inhibited than those of the later (near-)Victorian era. She frequently reread Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, and also enjoyed the novels of Fanny Burney (a.k.a. Madame D'Arblay). She later got the title for Pride and Prejudice from a phrase in Burney's Cecilia, and when Burney's Camilla came out in 1796, one of the subscribers was "Miss J. Austen, Steventon". The three novels that she praised in her famous "Defense of the Novel" in Northanger Abbey were Burney's Cecilia and Camilla, and Maria Edgeworth's Belinda. (See also the diagram of Jane Austen's literary influences).

*See the Index of allusions to books and authors in Jane Austen's writings.

In 1782 and 1784, plays were staged by the Austen family at Steventon rectory, and in 1787-1788 more elaborate productions were put on there under the influence of Jane's sophisticated grown-up cousin Eliza de Feuillide (to whom Love and Freindship is dedicated). This throws an interesting light on Jane Austen's apparent disapproval of such amateur theatricals in her novel Mansfield Park (though Mansfield Park was written over twenty years afterwards, in a moral climate closer to the Victorian era; also, in 1788 one Charlotte Anne Frances Wattell eloped to Scotland with a son of the scandal-plagued Twistleton family, remotely connected by marriage with Jane Austen's family -- Mr. Twistleton and Miss Wattell had been acting together in amateur theatricals; see Tucker, p.152).

Jane Austen wrote her Juvenilia from 1787 to 1793; they include many humorous parodies of the literature of the day, such as Love and Freindship, and are collected in three manuscript volumes. They were originally written for the amusement of her family, and most of the pieces are dedicated to one or another of her relatives or family friends.

Earlier versions of the novels eventually published as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey were all begun and worked on from 1795 to 1799 (at this early period, their working titles were Elinor and Marianne, First Impressions, and Susan respectively). Lady Susan was also probably written during this period. In 1797, First Impressions/Pride and Prejudice was offered to a publisher by Jane Austen's father, but the publisher declined to even look at the manuscript.


Jane Austen's Brothers and Sister

*Austen family genealogical charts
  • Jane's eldest brother James (1765-1819) was studious, went away to Oxford university at the age of 14 in 1779, and was ordained a clergyman in 1787. He had some literary pretensions (see his poem on Sense and Sensibility), and in 1789-1790 edited (with Henry) a university magazine at Oxford called The Loiterer, which ran for sixty issues. (Some issues of The Loiterer are available on-line.) He took on the duties of the Steventon parish after his father's retirement. His second wife, Mary Lloyd, was not a favorite of Jane Austen's.
  • Edward (1767-1852) was steady and business-like, and in the early 1780's was adopted by rich childless cousins of the Austens, Thomas and Catherine Knight. He was sent by them on the "grand tour" of continental Europe in 1786-1788, and eventually inherited their estate of Godmersham, Kent, and took the last name of "Knight".
  • Henry (1771-1850) was Jane Austen's favorite brother; he was witty and enthusiastic in whatever he did, but not always successful. He entered Oxford University in 1788, married Eliza de Feuillide (who died in 1813), and eventually ended up as a Calvinist-leaning minister, after a business bankruptcy in 1815. He saw Jane Austen's novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey through the press after her death.
  • Cassandra Elizabeth (1773-1845) was Jane Austen's only sister, and her closest confidante. Over a hundred letters from Jane Austen to Cassandra have survived, giving us our most intimate look at some of the details of Jane Austen's life. Cassandra's fiancé Thomas Fowle died of yellow fever in the Caribbean in 1797; he had gone there as a military chaplain. Possibly Cassandra's experience is reflected in Mrs. Musgrove and Mrs. Croft's abomination of "long engagements" and "uncertain engagements" in Jane Austen's Persuasion (he and Cassandra had continued engaged since about 1794, due to lack of money; see "Money and Marriage"). After this, Cassandra never married. (See Cassandra's poem on love.) Cassandra (like Jane) frequently visited her brothers and their families, and other relatives and friends (it was the separations between herself and Jane, resulting from visits on which they did not both go, that necessitated the letters between them).
    * See the silhouette of Cassandra.
  • Frank (1774-1865) and Charles (1779-1852) both entered the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth at the age of 12, fought in the British navy during the Napoleonic wars, and both eventually rose to become admirals. (Nelson once called Frank Austen "an excellent young man".) This naval connection influenced Jane's novels Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Frank was away at sea in the Far East from age 14 to 18.


Early adulthood at Steventon (-1801), and Bath (1801-1806)

*Map of England, showing important places in Jane Austen's life
*Rough map of Bath ca. 1800
*Austen family genealogical charts

Jane Austen enjoyed social events, and her early letters tell of dances and parties she attended in Hampshire, and also of visits to London, Bath, Southampton etc., where she attended plays and such. There is a famous statement by one Mrs. Mitford that Jane was the "the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers" (however, Mrs. Mitford seems to have had a personal jealousy against Jane Austen, and it is hard to reconcile this description with the Jane Austen who wrote The Three Sisters before she was eighteen).

There is little solid evidence of any serious courtships with men. In 1795-6, she had a mutual flirtation with Thomas Lefroy (an Irish relative of Jane Austen's close older friend Mrs. Anne Lefroy). On January 14th and 15th 1796, when she was 20, she wrote (somewhat sarcastically), in a letter to Cassandra:

"Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his estate to her for her sole use and benefit in future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence. Assure her also, as a last and indisputable proof of Warren's indifference to me, that he actually drew that gentleman's picture for me, and delivered it to me without a sigh.
Friday. -- At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow at the melancholy idea."

However, it was always known that he couldn't afford to marry Jane (see "Money and Marriage"). (Many years later, after he had become Chief Justice of Ireland, he confessed to his nephew that he had had a "boyish love" for Jane Austen.) A year later, Mrs. Lefroy (who had disapproved of her nephew Tom's conduct towards Jane) tried to fix Jane Austen up with the Rev. Samuel Blackall, a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but Jane wasn't very interested.

In late 1800 her father, who was nearly 70, suddenly decided to retire to Bath (which would not have been Jane Austen's choice), and the family moved there the next year. During the years in Bath, the family went to the sea-side every summer, and it was while on one of those holidays that Jane Austen's most mysterious romantic incident occurred. All that is known is what Cassandra told various nieces, years after Jane Austen's death, and nothing was written down until years after that. While the family were staying somewhere on the coast (probably in south Devonshire, west of Lyme), Jane Austen met a young man who seemed to Cassandra to have quite fallen in love with Jane; Cassandra later spoke highly of him, and thought he would have been a successful suitor. According to Caroline "They parted -- but he made it plain he should seek them out again"; however, shortly afterwards they instead heard of his death! There is no evidence as to how seriously this disappointment affected Jane Austen, but a number of people have wondered whether or not Jane Austen's 1817 novel Persuasion might not reflect this experience to some degree, with life transmuted into art; Jane Austen would have been 27 (the age of Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion) during 1802-1803, and a crucial scene in Persuasion takes place in Lyme.

A more clearly-known incident occurred on December 2nd. 1802, when Jane Austen and Cassandra were staying with the Bigg family at Manydown, near Steventon. Harris Bigg-Wither, who was six years younger than herself, proposed to Jane, and she accepted, though she did not love him (see "Marriage and the Alternatives"). However, the next day she thought better of it, and she and Cassandra showed up unexpectedly at Steventon (where their brother James was now the clergyman), insisting they be taken out of the neighbourhood to Bath the next day. This was socially embarrassing, but her heart does not seem to have been seriously affected -- Mr. Bigg-Withers, though prosperous, was "big and awkward".

Notoriously, none of Jane Austen's letters to Cassandra from June 1801 to August 1804, in which she probably would have alluded to these incidents, have been preserved. In the end, Jane Austen (like Cassandra), never married.

In 1803 Jane Austen actually sold Northanger Abbey (then titled Susan) to a publisher, for the far-from-magnificent sum of £10; however, the publisher chose not to publish it (and it did not actually appear in print until fourteen years later). It was probably toward the end of the Bath years that Jane Austen began The Watsons, but this novel was abandoned in fragmentary form.

In January 1805 her father died. As would have been the case for the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice if Mr. Bennet had died, the income due to the remaining family (Mrs. Austen and her two daughters, the only children still at home) was considerably reduced -- since most of Mr. Austen's income had come from clerical "livings" which lapsed with his death. So they were largely dependent on support from the Austen brothers (and a relatively small amount of money left to Cassandra by her fiancé), summing to a total of about £450 yearly. Later in 1805, Martha Lloyd (sister of James Austen's wife) came to live with Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, and Jane, after her own mother had died.


Maturity in Southampton (1806-1809) and Chawton (1809-1817)

*Map of England, showing important places in Jane Austen's life
*Jane Austen and places in the County of Hampshire, England
*Austen family genealogical charts

In 1806 they moved from Bath, first to Clifton, and then, in autumn 1806, to Southampton. Two years later, Jane remembered (in a letter to Cassandra) with "what happy feelings of Escape!" she had left Bath. Southampton was conveniently near to the navy base of Portsmouth and the naval brothers Frank and Charles.

In 1809 Jane Austen, her mother, sister Cassandra, and Martha Lloyd moved to Chawton, near Alton and Winchester, where her brother Edward provided a small house on one of his estates. This was in Hampshire, not far from her childhood home of Steventon. Before leaving Southampton, she corresponded with the dilatory publisher to whom she had sold Susan (i.e. Northanger Abbey), but without receiving any satisfaction.

She resumed her literary activities soon after returning into Hampshire, and revised Sense and Sensibility, which was accepted in late 1810 or early 1811 by a publisher, for publication at her own risk. It appeared anonymously ("By a Lady") in October 1811, and at first only her immediate family knew of her authorship: Fanny Knight's diary for September 28, 1811 records a "Letter from Aunt Cass. to beg we would not mention that Aunt Jane wrote Sense and Sensibility"; and one day in 1812 when Jane Austen and Cassandra and their niece Anna were in a "circulating library" at Alton, Anna threw down a copy of Sense and Sensibility on offer there, "exclaiming to the great amusement of her Aunts who stood by, ``Oh that must be rubbish, I am sure from the title.''" There were at least two fairly favorable reviews, and the first edition eventually turned a profit of £140 for her.

Encouraged by this success, Jane Austen turned to revising First Impressions, a.k.a. Pride and Prejudice. She sold it in November 1812, and her "own darling child" (as she called it in a letter) was published in late January 1813. She had already started work on Mansfield Park by 1812, and worked on it during 1813. It was during 1813 that knowledge of her authorship started to spread outside her family; as Jane Austen wrote in a letter of September 25th 1813: "Henry heard P. & P. warmly praised in Scotland, by Lady Robert Kerr & another Lady; -- & and what does he do in the warmth of his brotherly vanity and Love, but immediately tell them who wrote it!". Since she had sold the copyright of Pride and Prejudice outright for £110 (presumably in order to receive a convenient payment up front, rather than having to wait for the profits on sales to trickle in), she did not receive anything more when a second edition was published later in 1813. A second edition of Sense and Sensibility was also published in October 1813. In May 1814, Mansfield Park appeared, and was sold out in six months; she had already started work on Emma. Her brother Henry, who then conveniently lived in London, often acted as Jane Austen's go-between with publishers, and on several occasions she stayed with him in London to revise proof-sheets. In October 1813, one of the Prince Regent's physicians was brought in to treat an illness that Henry was suffering from; it was through this connection that Jane Austen was brought into contact with Mr. Clarke.

At Steventon she and Cassandra had had a private "dressing room" next to their bedroom (in the later years, after their brothers had mainly moved out), which she used to write her Juvenilia and early versions of her first three novels in relative privacy. At Chawton, she didn't have any such study, and James Edward tells the story of the famous creaking door, which Jane Austen requested not be fixed, since it gave her warning of any approaching visitors, so that she could hide her manuscript before they came into the room.

In addition to her literary work, she often visited her brothers and their families, and other relatives and friends, and they sometimes came to Southampton or Chawton. She had a reputation for being able to keep young children entertained, and was also attached to her oldest nieces Fanny and Anna. In a letter of October 7th 1808, she wrote about her niece Fanny: "I found her... just what you describe, almost another Sister, -- & could not have supposed that a neice would ever have been so much to me". In a letter of October 30th 1815 she wrote to her young niece Caroline, after her sister Anna's first child had been born: "Now that you are become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great interest whatever you do. I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible, & I am sure of your doing the same now."

In a letter of November 6th 1813 (when she was 37 years old) she wrote: "By the bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of chaperon [at dances], for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like." A few days earlier she had written, "I bought a Concert Ticket and a sprig of flowers for my old age." (See also the reflections on the recompenses of old-maidhood from Emma.)

In December 1815 Emma appeared, dedicated to the Prince Regent. A second edition of Mansfield Park appeared in February 1816, but was not a sales success; her losses on the reprint of Mansfield Park ate up most of her initial profits on Emma.

She had started on Persuasion in August 1815, and finished it in August 1816 -- although during 1816 she was becoming increasingly unwell. In early 1816 her brother Henry's business went bankrupt; Edward lost £20,000.

In early 1817 she started work on another novel, Sanditon, but had to give it up in March. On April 27th she made her will (leaving almost everything to Cassandra), and on May 24 she was moved to Winchester for medical treatment. She died there on Friday, July 18th 1817, aged 41. It was not known then what had caused her death, but it seems likely that it was Addison's disease. (See also Cassandra's letters to Fanny Knight announcing Jane's death.) She was buried in Winchester Cathedral on July 24th 1817 (at that time, so we are told, women did not usually attend funerals -- three years afterwards, Victoria's mother was not allowed to attend her husband's funeral -- so Cassandra was not present).

*Read the light poem that Jane Austen wrote soon before her death.

The inscription on her grave in the cathedral has become rather notorious in recent years. First, because it lays such emphasis on her "sweetness" and Christian humility, even though it is rather clear from Jane Austen's novels (let alone her letters) that she was no Fanny Price. However, this could well be simply the conventional (and somewhat empty) eulogistic pieties of the day, heightened by Henry Austen's mid-life crisis.

The more serious question is why there was no mention at all of her writings (except in the somewhat oblique allusion to "the extraordinary endowments of her mind").

In memory of
youngest daughter of the late
formerly Rector of Steventon in this County.
She departed this Life on the 18th July 1817,
aged 41, after a long illness supported with
the patience and the hopes of a Christian.

The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind
obtained the regard of all who knew her, and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.

Their grief is in proportion to their affection
they know their loss to be irreparable,
but in the deepest affliction they are consoled
by a firm though humble hope that her charity,
devotion, faith and purity have rendered
her soul acceptable in the sight of her

See also the Obituary of Jane Austen from the Gentleman's Magazine (1817) (derived from an image scanned in by Mark Turner)

(The following additional memorial placque was set up in the cathedral in 1872, after the publication of James Edward Austen Leigh's Memoir:)

known to many by her
writings, endeared to
her family by the
varied charms of her
Character and ennobled
by Christian faith
and piety, was born
at Steventon in the
County of Hants Dec.
XVI MDCCLXXV, and buried
in this Cathedral
"She opened her
mouth with wisdom
and in her tongue is
the law of kindness."
-- Prov. XXXI v. XXVI.

The novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were readied for the press by Henry, and published posthumously at the end of 1817 in a combined edition of four volumes. As with the earlier novels, Jane Austen's name did not appear on the title page (which simply says "By the author of ``Pride and Prejudice'', ``Mansfield Park'', &c"), but the work did contain a "Biographical Notice of the Author" by Henry, written in much as the same tone as the epitaph, which for the first time identified Jane Austen as the author.


Portraits of Jane Austen, etc.

There have been only two authentic surviving portraits of Jane Austen, both by her sister Cassandra, one of which is a back view! (A poor-quality greycale JPEG and a poor-quality color JPEG of this are available.) The other is a rather disappointing pen and wash drawing made about 1810 (a somewhat manipulated JPEG of this original sketch is available). The main picture of Jane Austen referenced at this site (JPEG) is a much more æsthetically pleasing adaptation of the same portrait, but should be viewed with caution, since it is not the original (for a more sentimentalized Victorian version of this portrait, see this image, and for an even sillier version of the portrait, in which poor Jane has a rather pained expression and is decked out in cloth-of-gold or something, see this image -- for some strange reason, it is this last picture which has been frequently used to illustrate popular media articles on Jane Austen). Here's the silliest version of this portrait ever.

For a fun modern re-creation of the Jane Austen portrait, see the "Photograph" of Jane Austen lounging at a Hollywood poolside <JPEG> (as seen in Entertainment Weekly). See also a deliberately contemporized (but not silly) version of the portrait by Amy Bellinger. The silhouette included at the top of these files (if you have a graphic browser) is not actually known with certainty to be Jane Austen's. Here is another silhouette said to be of Jane Austen, taken from The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen edited by Penelope Hughes-Hallett (formerly published as My Dear Cassandra: The Letters Of Jane Austen).

Silhouettes of Jane Austen's father and mother (that of her father apparently taken at a rather earlier age), a silhouette of Cassandra, and Cassandra's portrait of their niece Fanny Knight (JPEG) are also available.

In 1994, another portrait, claimed to be of Jane Austen, has been discovered among Mr. Clarke's papers, and published in a limited edition (this portrait was reportedly printed in the Daily Telegraph book section of Saturday, March 4 1995). Go to this site for more information (and a scanned image) of the portrait.

A picture of the Austen family coat of arms is also available (both the original greyscale and a rudimentary colorization). The heraldic "blazon" (description) is "Or, a chevron gules between three lions' gambs erect, erased sable armed of the second. Crest: on a mural crown or, a stag sejant argent, attired or." (Note that the ornamental winged child's head at the bottom of the heraldic shield is not actually part of the coat of arms.) The Latin motto, "QUI INVIDIT MINOR EST", can be translated as "Who(ever) envies (me) is lesser/smaller (than I)".

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