It’s difficult to imagine a world without the uptight, genteel and so very proper heroines penned by Jane Austin. But it was only two centuries ago that she published perhaps the most popular of her tales – Emma.
That still-popular novel explores the youthful over-confidence and romantic meddling of the “handsome, clever and rich” Emma Woodhouse – detailing the perils of her interpersonal misadventures. In a letter, Austen wrote, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like."
Indeed, Emma is petulant, self-indulgent, obstinate and far too self-assured of her matchmaking abilities. She is oblivious to the damage she does. The fictional Miss Woodhouse was a polar opposite of the real-life Miss Austin, who was shy, withdrawn and had very few friends. She was born December 16, 1775, in Steventon, England, the seventh of eight children. Throughout her life, her older sister, Cassandra, would be her companion and closest confidant.
Called “Jenny” by her brothers, Jane was born into a world in which women couldn’t vote or hold public office. Women could inherit wealth if they were married – but it passed to the control of the husband. Her dad, George, was a Church of England vicar whose only wealth came from marrying Jane’s upper-class mother. Their marriage reduced her social status and they ran a school for boys in the parsonage to boost their income.
As a child, Jane caught typhus and almost died. She was home-schooled until age eight when she and Cassandra were sent away to be privately tutored. Then they briefly attended a boarding school for girls, but returned to Steventon for financial reasons. Jane never again left home.
All eight siblings had literary ambitions – apparently everybody wrote and read their works aloud to each other. Life in the Austen household was "an open, amused, easy intellectual atmosphere." The kids wrote, produced and performed private theatrical plays for their own amusement. Most were comedies, explaining how Jane developed her satirical sense of humor.
Three of her childhood notebooks remain, filled with 29 of her youthful works, including her 34-page “History of England,” which declares it was written by "a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian," who apparently was 11 years old. Illustrated by Cassandra’s watercolors, it reads in part: "Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2nd, to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered."
As a teenager, she wrote her first novel, Elinor and Marianne, a series of letters detailing a romance. Perhaps it was what would become Sense and Sensibility, but no copies survive. Right about that time, young Jane met a neighbor’s visiting nephew, Tom Lefroy. "I am almost afraid to tell you how my friend and I behaved,” the very prim and proper pastor’s daughter wrote in a note. “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together."
But marriage was impractical and the Lefroy family was horrified, particularly since she was without any title or social standing. He was sent away. Jane never saw him again. In his old age, after he had become the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, Tom admitted he had been in love with her: "It was boyish love," he wrote in a letter to a nephew.
Jane buried herself in her writing. She finished Pride and Prejudice at age 21, reading it aloud to her family. It became an "established favorite," according to a brother’s letter to a friend. By age 23, Jane had finished Sense and Sensibility. Without her knowledge, her father sent a copy to London publisher Thomas Cadell, offering to pay for its printing. Cadell rejected it. Women back then only wrote dark, romantic Gothic novels – such as Jane Eyre, not clever, ironic pieces poking fun at society.
Jane responded by writing a Gothic novel satire, Northanger Abbey. In early 1803, her brother Henry offered it to a publisher, who paid Jane a £10 advance, but didn’t go to press. When Henry demanded to know why, the publisher offered to give back the rights if the Austens would return the £10. They couldn’t raise the money.
Once when the family was vacationing, Jane met and fell in love with a young clergyman who made plans to meet the family again later in the summer – a good sign that he planned to propose marriage. However, he died unexpectedly before he could join them.
Her father retired from the ministry and moved the family from the only home Jane had ever known, the church parsonage at Steventon, to the city of Bath, England. Depressed, Jane didn’t write anything for more than a year.