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 The fictional Miss Woodhouse was a polar opposite of the real-life Miss Austin, who was shy, withdrawn and had very few friends.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.
But she received her only proposal of marriage. Ever since they both were children, Jane had known Harris Bigg-Wither, an unattractive, large, plain-looking heir to a large fortune, who stuttered and spoke boorishly without humor, tact or style. She agreed to his proposal since marriage was a practical solution to her family’s financial woes. She could provide her parents a comfortable old age and give them and Cassandra a home in a cottage on Bigg-Wither’s extensive family estates.
However, all night long Jane fretted. By morning’s light, she realized she did not love him. She asked to be released from the engagement – which infuriated and humiliated him. Years later, Jane wrote to her niece, Fanny Knight, who had asked for romantic advice: "having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection."
Jane started but did not complete a new novel, The Watsons, about an invalid clergyman with little money and unmarried daughters. Then her own father took ill, becoming, as Austen wrote to her brother Frank, "quite insensible of his own state." When he died, Jane, Cassandra and their mother were left in desperate financial straits. Jane stopped work on The Watsons since the story too closely mirrored her life.
Fortunately, her brothers were doing well. In early 1809, Edward provided his mother and sisters a rural cottage. The Austen women settled in, but did not socialize. Jane's niece Anna would write: "It was a very quiet life, but they were great readers, and besides the housekeeping our aunts occupied themselves in working with the poor and in teaching some girl or boy to read or write."
Henry persuaded a London publisher, Thomas Egerton, to publish Sense and Sensibility. The first edition did not use her byline. Book reviews of the anonymous work were flattering and it sold out, providing Jane with financial independence for the first time in her life. Egerton then published Pride and Prejudice – this time with the byline “by the author of Sense and Sensibillity.” It was an immediate success. Later, Egerton obtained the rights to Mansfield Park and it, too, became a bestseller. Mansfield Park makes the first recorded mention of baseball, described as one of the main characters’ favorite pastimes.
Britain’s crown prince, who would become King George IV, loved her books, talked about them to friends and invited Jane to his home. When the painfully shy Jane did visit, the prince’s official librarian, James Stanier Clarke, hinted broadly that Jane should dedicate her next book – what would become the blockbuster Emma – to the prince. However, Jane thoroughly disliked the superficial George. She later wrote a short piece, Plan of a Novel, which was a satiric, biting outline of the "perfect novel" based on the obnoxious librarian's absurd suggestions.
However, the first edition of Emma is dedicated to the prince.
Jane described her novels as her children.
She became an international sensation. Her fans referred to themselves as Austenites and Janeites. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Jane Austen Society of North America began holding annual meetings – and still does. Mark Twain, the bestselling author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, let it be known that he detested Austen’s works, once declaring that that an ideal library is one “that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”
Virginia Woolf wrote about her, "Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote."
Literary critic Gary Kelly observed, "Jane Austen is one of the few novelists who is regarded as a 'classic' and yet is widely read." There have been many period film and television adaptations of all six of her novels. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and its three sequels are admittedly based on Pride and Prejudice. The film Clueless with Alicia Silverstone is an adaptation of Emma.
But the most startling recent incarnation has been the New York Times bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, on which author Seth Grahame-Smith shares the by-line with Jane. Entertainment Weekly has given Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a thumbs up. Library Journal recommends it. Before it was published in the United Kingdom, pre-sales required a second printing. It has now been published as a Random House/Del Rey graphic novel. The film version was originally planned to be financed and distributed through Lionsgate, with Natalie Portman in the lead role, but she decided instead to serve as a producer. Screen Gems has purchased the U.S. rights.
Author Grahame-Smith insists, perhaps tongue in cheek, that Austen originally meant Pride and Prejudice to be a tale of the undead. “You have this fiercely independent heroine,” he writes, “you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason whatsoever nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there . . . It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence. From my perspective anyway.”
Jane suffered from a mysterious disease that was never diagnosed accurately, starting around 1816 until her death in 1817. Today it is believed that she suffered from Addison’s Disease, a rare chronic endocrine disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce sufficient steroid hormones – an illness that also affected President John F. Kennedy.
Her novels have been continuously in print since 1833. She has never been more popular in America than today. Candidates on both sides of the political divide vie with one another to quote her in their speeches. "And you know what?" a top Republican candidate told a group. "Jane Austen loved Iowa every bit as much as I do."
On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton has shown herself eager to invoke Austen's name. "If Jane Austen can win the heart of Minnesota, then so – with your help – can I!"
Jane passed away at the age of 41 in the arms of her sister Cassandra. "He is rich, to be sure,” she once wrote, “and you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than anyone. But will they make you happy?”
She was buried in Winchester Cathedral.