Jane Austen: A brief biography

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Family

Jane Austen was born in 1775 at the Rectory Steventon, Hampshire, the daughter of the Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Austen (nee Leigh). She had five older siblings: James, George, Edward, Henry and Cassandra, and two young ones: Frank and Charles.

Childhood and Schooling

Jane’s childhood was spent at home in Steventon. The Reverend George Austen supplemented his income by tutoring his sons at home alongside the sons of other country gentlemen who lived with the family during term time. There were a couple of attempts to send Jane and Cassandra to boarding schools for girls but neither lasted for very long, and the first very nearly resulted in Jane’s death from a rather nasty fever. Instead the girls benefited from their brother’s education and were given the run of their father’s library.

Leaving the Nest

James and Henry both went to Oxford, preparing to join the clergy. Henry, however, was to pursue a brief career in the militia before finally settling on banking. He was not to become a clergyman until many years later when his bank finally collapsed, forcing him to reconsider his options.

Edward was the lucky son, adopted by the Knights, childless wealthy relatives, he grew up at home while enjoying holidays at their Kent estate. The Knights took him on the traditional Grand Tour of Europe and eventually made him heir to their Kent and Hampshire estates.

Less, lucky, the second son, George, was born with some kind of disability and was sent to live with a family in the village. He is rarely mentioned by the family.

The final two brothers, Charles and Frank, went to the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth, and from there, went on to have very successful careers in the navy.

Coming Out

Meanwhile, like most young women of the time, Jane and Cassandra, when they reached their mid teens “came out”. This meant they were allowed to join the circle of dinners, parties and dances that took place amongst the local gentry including the balls at the local Basingstoke Assembly Rooms. Meanwhile, Jane had begun to write in earnest and early drafts of the first three of her novels were already taking shape.

Broken Hearts

Jane, so the story goes, fell in love with the dashing Tom Lefroy, an intelligent young Irishman. By her own account, the couple danced and flirted outrageously, but Tom never proposed and disappeared off to a very successful career in Ireland, eventually marrying a woman more conveniently endowed with a large fortune. Just how serious Jane’s attachment was is difficult to tell.

Meanwhile, Cassandra fell in love with the Revd Tom Fowles one of her father’s old pupils and the couple became engaged. Unable to afford to marry on Tom’s limited income, he set off for the East Indies as a chaplain. Sadly, he was never to return, killed by a fever he picked up in the Caribbean. Heartbroken, Cassandra would never marry.

A New Life in Bath

When Jane was 25 years old, her parents announced, rather unexpectedly, their decision to take the girls and move to Bath. James, they were told, was taking over his father’s position as vicar at Steventon, and with it, the Rectory. The decision to move to Bath was perhaps also influenced by the need to secure the girls’ futures by finding them husbands, and Bath, in the public mind at least, was full of eligible young men. The plan didn’t work.

A Proposal of Marriage

Jane did finally receive a proposal of marriage, from Harris Bigg-Wither. Harris was indeed a very eligible young man with a good fortune. He was not, however, an acquaintance met in Bath, but from Hampshire, the awkward, stammering younger brother of the three Bigg sisters who were good friends of Jane and Cassandra. Jane accepted, but by the following day she had changed her mind, and she and Cassandra fled the house in embarrassment.

A Holiday Romance

Once he had retired to Bath, the Rev Austen took the opportunity to take his wife and daughters on holiday to seaside destinations along the south west coast, including Sidmouth and Lyme Regis. Another family story tells of a holiday romance during which Jane established a friendship with a young man who returned her affection. Arrangements, the story goes, were made for the two young people to meet again, but tragically, the young man was not to live long enough. Jane was never to marry.

Life after Bath

When their father died in 1805, the Austen women were forced to leave rethink their living arrangements. They took a short trip north to visit relatives, before choosing to settle in Southampton where they had the benefit of both close links to Hampshire and to the ports where Frank and Charles came in when they returned on leave.

Returning to Hampshire

Finally, in 1809, Edward gave the women the opportunity to return to Hampshire, by offering them a cottage on his Chawton estate. They said yes. Here, they lived a much quieter life than they had done as girls, but seemed very content in their quiet domestic routine. And Jane, finally, began to return to writing and her brother Henry too, helped to get her books published for the first time.

Ill Health

Sadly, in 1816, Jane’s declining health became more and more obvious. Today we are still not certain what it was that ailed her. Jane faced her illness with stoicism and an unfailing optimism, but local doctors could do nothing to stop her steady decline and in 1817 finally recommended the family seek further advice from the city of Winchester. Here the case was pronounced hopeless, and too ill return home, Jane passed away in the shadow of the cathedral where she was finally buried. Her simple gravestone speaks volumes for the loss felt by those she left behind.