December 16, 1775 – July 18, 1817
Born in 1775, during the reign of King George III of England, novelist Jane Austen is now widely regarded as the crown jewel of British Regency Period literature. Her six novels, Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), all of which achieved recognition after her death, caricatured 18th c. England’s upper class and satirized their complex social mores.
She was born to George and Cassandra Austen, and one of 8 siblings. Her sister, Cassandra, was her best friend; the majority of what is known of her is the result of Cassandra’s notes. So too must we blame Cassandra for the silence that surrounds her, since she destroyed many of Jane’s letters in an effort to preserve her privacy from both the family and the public eye.
Jane was born in Steventon in December of 1775, where she remained for the majority of her short life. Her father, a rector and teacher, was largely responsible for her education. She enjoyed a close relationship with her brother Henry, who became her literary agent. She began writing at the age of eleven. Her earliest work, a collection of three notebooks entitled Juvenalia, contains her novels Love and Friendship and Lady Susan.
Although Jane espoused marriage and romantic love as her major themes, she herself never married. In a letter to her niece, she warned against marrying for social and economic reasons, arguing, “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.” Her sentiments marked a sea change in general sentiiments regarding the honorable purpose of marriage. The effects of her influence in this regard are still visible in 21st c. culture.
Today, however, Austen’s novels are still read for their amiable and realistic portrayal of human nature. A 19th c. Realist, Austen satirized the popular Sentimentalist and Gothic novels of her own day, preferring instead to present a realistic, if comic portrayal of the world.
Austen remains the originator and master of romantic comedy as a genre. Her varying use of narration and dialogue were ground breaking as was her participation, as a woman, in writing comedic novels. During her lifetime, she published anonymously, identifying herself only as “A Lady.” This obfuscation indicates the groundbreaking nature of her significant contribution to literature.
Austen died in 1817 at the age of 42 and is buried at Winchester Cathedral. Her brother memorialized her passing in verse:
"In her, rare union, were combined a fair form, and a fairer mind;
Hers fancy quick, and clear good sense,
And wit which never gave offence;
A heart as warm as ever beat, A temper even; calm & sweet.
Though quick & keen her mental eye Poor nature's foibles to espy,
And seemed for [ever?] on the watch,
Some trails of ridicule to catch
Yet not a word she ever penned
Which hurt the feelings of a friend."