Author Jane Austen: Sorting the facts from the fiction
Jane Austen's masterpiece Emma celebrated its 200th anniversary on Christmas Day. Liadan Hynes traces the life of the woman behind the myth
Jane Austen could as easily have been speaking about her own work Emma, upon which she was working at the time, when giving the following advice to her favourite niece Anna, an aspiring writer: "You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on."
Generally regarded as Austen's masterpiece, Emma, published in 1815, was the last book published before her death. Dedicated to the prince regent, a fan, it was the first novel in which the style of free indirect speech, in which the voice jumps from narrator to heroine's direct thoughts, was consistently used. It is also Austen at the height of her powers, combining a headstrong heroine and an engaging love story with brilliantly cutting social satire and pragmatic moralising.
It was her fourth work to be published. Now in her late thirties, almost 20 years after she started to write First Impressions - as Pride and Prejudice was originally titled - she was finally enjoying a modicum of financial autonomy.
"Do not refuse me, I am very rich," she wrote gleefully to her older sister when giving her some dress fabric. Her cloak of anonymity was dropping and she was starting to enjoy her success. Life was full of trips to London, visits to the theatre, and cosy outings with beloved nieces. Less than two years later, Jane Austen, then only 41, would be dead.
Born on December 16, 1775, in Hampshire, Jane was the second youngest in a family of eight. They were a close, intelligent lot. From her father down, the Austens supported Jane's aspirations to writing. Mr Austen gave her access to his extensive library and approached a publisher with an early copy of Pride and Prejudice. Jane would read her works to her family in the evening.
It's often cited that she led an uneventful life, a myth first established by her brother Henry, who was responsible for publishing her two final novels posthumously.
"A life of usefulness, literature and religion was not by any means a life of event," he wrote. This pious image was given further credence by her nephew James's A Memoir of Jane Austen, which said: "Of events her life was singularly barren."
It was, in fact, thanks to her family that Austen's life was anything but the sedate, sheltered spinsterhood so often associated with a woman who, in her six works, produced some of the finest novels of all time.
Several of the Austen brothers were involved in the Napoleonic Wars. Edward Austen was adopted by his father's patron, inheriting substantial estates, thereby allowing the rural, middle-class Austens to experience the life of wealthy landed gentry. Henry married their adored first cousin Eliza, who had spent her formative years in India, before marrying a French Count who was a victim of the guillotine during the French Revolution.
Her brother Francis became Admiral of the Fleet and achieved a knighthood. And, of course, there was Cassandra, the adored older sister by three years. It was she who destroyed most of the letters that survived Jane and heavily edited the mere 160 that remain. The two sisters were often present at the births of their nieces and nephews, and four of their sisters-in-law died in childbirth, one after giving birth to 11 children. It's hardly the stuff of a dull, sheltered life.
Mrs Austen breastfed Jane for several months, then handed her over to a family in the village to be looked after for 12-18 months. On her return, her parents had taken on a small number of live-in pupils, to earn much-needed extra money. It must have been something of a wrench when Jane was sent off again from this rambunctious home. At the age of seven the sisters were sent to boarding school in Oxford. Her mother commented that Jane wasn't old enough to necessitate going away, but "if Cassandra's head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too".
The Austen girls fell sick with typhoid. Jane, near death's door, was nursed back to health by her own mother. A year later they were sent to another school, where they remained until Jane was 12. This was the end of her formal education.
What Jane Austen actually looked like as she approached womanhood is hard to say. Descriptions vary from "fair and handsome", to having "darkish brown" hair, to "long black hair down to her knees". A contemporary described her as "certainly pretty - like a doll - quite like a child, very lively and full of humour".
"My hair was at least tidy," she herself wrote after a ball, which suggests a certain lack of vanity. By age 17, she was attending balls in the nearby Assembly Rooms, describing in one letter how her hand shook the next day from drinking too much wine.
It was here that she met Irishman Tom Lefroy. Over Christmas he pops up repeatedly in letters to her sister, described as a "gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man". Jane was now 20, of a marriageable age. In one letter she tells Cass to imagine "everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together". After three balls Tom was being "laughed at about me" by his aunt and uncle. Her letter writing is actually interrupted at this point as the gentleman himself has called to the house. "I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening," she writes of their last meeting. "I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat."
Opinion is divided on how deep her feelings for Tom went. "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 as I write at the melancholy idea." Tom, who eventually became the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, left shortly after, allegedly hurried away by relatives keen for him not to make a match with penniless Jane - he himself had no fortune. He was engaged by the following year. As an old man in his nineties, he told a nephew that he had been in love with Jane, although saying it was boyish love.
Whatever disappointed feelings she may have nursed, her writing flourished. Before she turned 24, she had completed her first three novels. In 1797 her father wrote to a London publisher asking if he would look at First Impressions, adding he was prepared to put up money for it. That foolish man sent it back by return post. Maybe this precipitated a crisis of confidence. Austen produced nothing for 10 years. Her biographer Claire Tomlinson, in Jane Austen: A Life, puts it down to her parents' sudden decision to move to Bath. Jane fainted on being told. Tomlinson suggests that she suffered from depression after the move. Bath meant interminable social obligations with irritating acquaintances, little peace in which to write.
As one would expect of the creator of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen seems to have been of an independent temperament. It must have been frustrating to be forever subject to the whims of others.
During this time, a possible escape route presented itself. In 1802, Jane and Cassandra were staying with friends, the Bigg sisters. Their younger brother, Harris, was home from Oxford. Jane would have known him as a boy, he had a bad stammer, and was still somewhat awkward, but had grown into an attractive young man, and was an heir to generous estates. He proposed, she accepted, and the evening passed in celebration. However, the next morning Jane retracted. "Nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love," she later warned a niece. This was the end of romance. Cassandra's fiancé had died in the West Indies. The two sisters prematurely embraced middle-age.
In 1805, her father died suddenly. It left Jane, her sister and their mother heavily reliant on the donations of their brothers. Sense and Sensibility had been purchased by a publisher for £10, but it languished unpublished in his hands. Eventually it was decided they would share a house in Southampton with her brother Francis's new wife - he was on naval duties. This proved a temporary measure and finally Edward, her wealthy elder brother, offered them the use of a cottage on his estate.
She immediately began to work again, revising Sense and Sensibility, which was published in late 1811. "I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child," she told her sister of the book. By mid 1813 it had sold out - it's likely about 1,000 were published - and made Jane £140.
Early in 1816 Austen began to feel unwell, developing a pain in her back, and with Cassandra visited a spa in Cheltenham. In early 1817 she set aside work on her seventh novel, Sanditon, too ill to continue.
On July 18 she died, lying with her head on her sister's lap. Addison's disease, lymphoma, and most recently tuberculosis have all been blamed.
"She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself," Cass wrote after her death.
While it was not the marrying kind of love, Jane Austen went to her grave beloved to the end.