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Author Bio: Jane Austen

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Jane Austen

December 16, 1775 – July 18, 1817

Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another.
— Emma

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."

 

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Author Bio: Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888

Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us - and those around us - more effectively.
— L.M. Alcott

American author Louisa May Alcott was born one of four sisters in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832, but spent the majority of her life in Massachusetts. Her father, noted transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott, taught and experimented in communal living with his close friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The experiment, which was largely a failure, forced Alcott’s mother Abigail May Alcott, her sisters, and herself to assume the practical labor of running the community farm, while her father and his friends philosophized. Louisa, consequently, felt largely responsible for the financial needs of her family from a young age, and she taught, tutored, washed, mended, and performed whatever work she could find to support them. Even so, her father schooled her liberally, and she enjoyed frequent discourse with the men in his society, known today as the New England Transcendentalists, several of whom took an active role in her education. Bronson’s associations also introduced her to Margaret Fuller, who advocated women’s rights. 

Louisa began writing early, and her financial needs led her to attempt publication. She published her first poem, “Sunlight,” in 1852 under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield. Her first book, Flower Fables, followed in 1855. She began Little Women in 1868, drawing largely on her experiences with her own sisters at her family home, Hillside, in Concord, Massachusetts, and completing the first manuscript in only two and a half months. Readers will recognize Beth in Louisa’s sister Lizzie, who contracted scarlet fever in 1856 and passed away later that year. Likewise, Meg seems to have been drawn from Louisa’s sister Anna, who married shortly after Lizzie’s death, breaking up the close-knit family. 

Little Women chronicles the coming of age of the March family and the changes the sisters’ impending adulthood occasioned. Some speculate that Louisa drew the March family the way she wished her own family had been. At any rate, the book was a success and a sequel, Old Fashioned Girl, followed in 1870. At this point, her career blossomed. She published Little Men (1871), Work (1873), Eight Cousins (1874), and Rose in Bloom (1876). Her youngest sister, May, married in 1878, naming her first daughter after Louisa; when May died, Louisa became guardian to her namesake. 

Alcott moved with her niece to her father’s hometown of Boston in 1880. There, she continued to support her family, including her father, with her writing skills. She published Jo’s Boys in 1886, which would be her last novel. Her health declining, she died the accomplished author of over 30 books, short stories, and poems, in 1888, at the age of 56, two days after the death of her father.  She lies buried among other notable New England authors on Authors’ Ridge in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. 

 

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The March sisters live and grow in post-Civil War America. (Little Women 1994 directed by Gillian Armstrong.)