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Jane Austen

From Women in European History

A Critical Biography by Chelsea Vail

Spring 2010

Based on Jane Austen's Letters, Collected and Edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 3rd. Ed. Oxford University Press, 1995.



Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was a prolific writer of fiction. Her work embodies the genre of domestic realism, but Austen never took her own life as subject – at least, not explicitly. Consequently, there is no written history of Austen’s life in her own words. She did, however, leave 161 letters, written both to and from her, and they have been most completely collected and edited by noted Austen biographer Deirdre Le Faye.[1] Le Faye has also compiled an accompanying volume, Jane Austen: A Family Record. It is an expansion on the earlier Life and Letters of Jane Austen put forth by Richard Austen-Leigh and Willie Austen-Leigh, who were descended from Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. James Edward was the first to write an account of Austen’s life in his 1869 Memoir.[2] Together, these publications present Austen’s life in the specific and complement the abstract autobiography of her fiction. Austen's novels are settled in the genre of domestic realism, and her correspondence brings all the satire and subversion of her prose to her own domestic reality.


Jane Austen was born the seventh of eight children belonging to Reverend George Austen and his wife, Cassandra Austen, née Leigh. Austen had four older brothers – James, George, Edward, Henry, and Francis; one older sister – Cassandra; and one younger brother – Charles.[3] The Austen family was a close one, and they endured more than a few hardships together. Austen’s brother George was developmentally disabled, and was sent to live with a local family at a young age. Her brother Edward was adopted by the Knight family, who were distant relatives of the Austen family and could better support the boy. Austen and her sister Cassandra contracted Typhus while away at school and Austen nearly died. Through all this, Austen maintained especially close relationships with both her sister Cassandra and her brother Henry.[4] Cassandra would be Austen’s lifelong companion and confidant, and Henry would be Austen’s literary agent. Austen's corpus was necessarily influenced by the personal and professional ties she maintained with her family.


Although Austen remained single for the duration of her life, it was not devoid of romantic episodes. Her novels were based in domestic realism, and marriage was an important part of domestic reality. There were not many options for young women of the middle class like Austen and her sister Cassandra. More often than not, a family would seek financial security for its daughters in an advantageous marriage. Austen's family was no exception, but neither of the Austen sisters married and instead clung to each other for support.

In a letter to her sister Cassandra dated 9/10 January 1796, Austen wrote of a visit from Tom LeFroy.[5] She joked, “he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove – it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light.” In the next surviving letter to Cassandra, dated 14/15 January 1786, her tone was of the same satiric vein as any of her novels.[6] On January 14 she mused, “I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat.” It seems that by January 15 she had had quite enough of the young man -- Austen dramatized, "At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over –- My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea." Austen's flirtation with her "Irish friend" was over, and her school of subversion was present even in the relative privacy of this letter.

Almost seven years later, on 2 December 1802, Austen did receive a legitimate marriage proposal.[7] She and her sister Cassandra were visiting the Bigg family at Manydown when Harris Bigg-Wither asked for her hand. Austen agreed, but retracted her decision the next morning. The nuptials would have guaranteed Austen financial security, but she refused to settle for anything but love. Mary Lloyd, Austen’s brother James’s second wife, thought the match was apt: “I beleive [sic] most young women so circumstanced would have taken Mr W & trusted to love after marriage.” Lloyd knew that it would have been a welcome financial boon to the family for Austen to accept Bigg-Wither's proposal. Austen simply would not have a perfunctory relationship – a conviction that is evident in her work. This derivative evidence is all that is left of Austen's feelings on the matter; all correspondence regarding the incident was destroyed by Cassandra.[8]

Another, less documented would-be suitor was William Seymour. Austen's encounter with Seymour was likely brief and one-sided; it happened in the Autumn of 1812 on a trip to visit Austen's brother Henry.[9] Seymour claimed to have accompanied Austen to Chawton in a postchaise, “considering all the way whether he should ask her to become his wife!” Nothing came of the purported notion, however. Seymour went on to marry twice, neither time to Austen.

The conventional image of Austen as a repressed spinster is misleading. There were a handful of other men in Austen’s romantic purview, but she remained unwed. The details of these incidents have been muddled with talk and time, but Austen’s letters show that she had run-ins with courtship not unlike those of her heroines. Although the episodes she narrated were not biographical in the strict sense of the word, neither were they mere practices in wish fulfillment. Austen's romantic experiences, within her writing and without, speak to the situations of women in her station, even as she dealt with them in her distinctly Austen way.

Literary Works


As a young woman, Austen produced several short works – results of her greener literary ambitions. Austen shared these pieces with her family, and in return she received their encouragement. She saved them in three manuscripts and bound them as Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third. Among those stories are “The Beautifull [sic] Cassandra,” “Love and Freindship [sic],” and “The History of England.”[10] The last was a spoof on Oliver Goldsmith’s serious 1771 The History of England, and her sister Cassandra painted watercolor miniatures of monarchs to accompany it. Her father George Austen inscribed the inside of the third manuscript with this: "Effusions of Fancy by a very Young Lady consisting of Tales in a Style entirely new."[11] It is not with her family, then, that she would meet resistance to her work.


Austen produced six major novels – Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Northanger Abbey (1818), and Persuasion (1818) – and began a seventh – Sandition, sometimes known as The Brothers – that was unfinished at the time of her death. The Austen corpus is situated in the genre of domestic realism, which was popular with the female demographic throughout Austen's professional writing career. At a time when courtesy books were all the rage, Austen's satirical take on domestic life was a welcome relief from the pressures of an extremely class conscious society.

At first, Austen retained her anonymity as an author - Sense and Sensibility was attributed to "A Lady," and Pride and Prejudice was attributed to "The Author of Sense and Sensibility." Only the critical and popular successes of those first two novels convinced Austen to reveal herself as author to the public.[12] Austen wrote at a time when the academic sentiment maintained that novels were inferior works meant for the inferior female demographic, and writing them was not considered a respectable profession. It was not until the Victorian era that novels were respected as a genre.


Austen neither lived outside the family unit nor traveled outside of England. She led a mostly quiet life, or “not a life of event,” as her brother Henry put it in a revised version of the "Biographical Notice" which accompanied her novels. Austen did, however, gain inspiration from her worldlier cousin, Eliza.[13] Eliza was the daughter of Austen’s Aunt Philadelphia and Tysoe Saul Hancock, but rumors of dubious paternity circulated among their social circle during their time in India.[14] The family moved back to England until financial straits required Hancock to return to India. He left Philadelphia and Eliza in London, but the pair soon realized they could not afford to stay there and began to travel the Continent. Eventually, Eliza married Jean-François Feuillide. He claimed to be of French nobility, but Eliza soon found that he had falsified his lineage. The couple spent a season at Versailles before Eliza fled to England from both her dishonest husband and her impending execution during the French Revolution. This exotic tale, particularly enchanting to the young Austen, fueled her imagination and gave way to a character with a similarly astonishing background in her short “Love and Freindship [sic],” which she dedicated to Eliza.[15] Although most of Austen's heroines stayed home and pursued marriage rather than grand adventures, Eliza did provide fodder for her younger cousin's literary ambitions. Eliza's whirlwind lifestyle exposed Austen to adventures that her characters sometimes dreamed of taking, and sometimes actually did -- in Pride and Prejudice, Lydia eloped with the intolerable Wickham, for instance. Austen's heroines did most of their traveling within county borders, but their experiences were no less life-altering than Eliza's.


Austen’s novels are based in domestic realism, but her narratives unfailingly tend toward the subversive. Her satirical bent was so critical to the original novels' successes that critics today are concerned with its preservation in modern media outlets. This distinctive quality has mitigated the wear of time; Austen’s novels have transcended generation gaps since their publication in the early 19th century, satisfying all manner of consumers and critics alike.

Once Austen’s novels made it through the publishing process, they were well received by her contemporaries. Among Austen’s fans was Prince Regent (George IV). At the Prince’s request, Austen dedicated Emma in this way:
"Gent, No Gent and Regent," c. 1816 by George Cruikshank. Austen was not alone in her dislike of Prince Regent –- this political cartoon lampooned the increasingly irresponsible monarch.











[Original not bolded.]

Austen’s 27 March 1816 and 1 April 1816 correspondence with James Stanier Clarke is laced with more than a little sarcasm on this point. Still, she could hardly refuse a request from her own England's monarch.[16] If there is any doubt about Austen's feelings toward Prince Regent, her disgust with him is apparent in a 16 February 1813 letter to Martha Lloyd. Austen referenced a publicly printed letter from the Prince’s wife, Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, in which Caroline stated grievances against Prince Regent: "Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband..." For all the solidarity Austen felt with Caroline as a woman, though, the author still disapproved of her overall demeanor.[17] Austen's social position and professional ambitions disallowed her to afford to pass up even an unwanted endorsement from royalty. As such, the Emma dedication became something of an inside joke for Austen and her family.


Modern reception of Austen’s novels is characterized by a renewed engagement with the classic texts. Her works have been adapted repeatedly for cinema and television, and have often been the subject of artistic and scholarly discourse. Several groups of "Janeites" have formed in recent years - among the most popular are Austenfans and The Republic of Pemberley.

The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) has filmed adaptations of each of Austen’s novels, all of which are period pieces that stay close to the original text. Their collective textual accuracy makes the BBC version of each novel an adequate substitute for its corresponding original, and they have been well received by the majority of “Janeites.” Contrarily, the editors of Jane Austen in Hollywood have suggested that the BBC’s attention to detail has come at the expense of conveying the subversion that is essential to Austen’s novels.[18]

"Sex. Clothes. Popularity. Is there a problem here?" Clueless movie poster, 1995.

In 1995, Paramount Pictures released a more contemporary take on Austen’s Emma – Amy Heckerling’s screen adaptation, Clueless. Austen scholar Suzanne Ferris argued that the 1990s Beverly Hills setting made for a truer representation of the novel’s intentions: “Clueless features the same key themes relating to the roles of women [as Emma] (the fallibility of matchmaking and flirtation; the danger, in the words of the novel, of a girl ‘having rather too much her own way’ and thinking ‘too well of herself).’”[19] Rather than reconstructing the trivial details of the story, Heckerling put it in terms relevant to the late 20th and early 21st centuries and embraced the satire that made Austen so popular with her contemporaries.

In recent years there have been kitschier updates to Austen's novels in print media. Quirk Books has published three Austen-related fan fiction mash-up tales since 2009 -- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, its prequel, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, and Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters. They have since become niche market sensations, but have met with mixed critical reviews.

WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly 34: 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2006), © 2006 by Mira Schor. All rights reserved.

American artist Mira Schor (1 June 1950 – ) wrote a critical commentary on Austen for the Fall/Winter 2006 Women's Studies Quarterly. It accompanies her didactic piece done in ink and gesso on linen that comments on Austen’s relationship to her most popular heroine, Elizabeth Bennett. The palimpsest is done with the words “Jane Austen Never Married” superimposed over “Miss Elizabeth Bennett Married Mr. Darcy.”

In the article, Schor explained the artwork as a way of demonstrating that “the gap between the author’s and the heroine’s life is perpetually suspended in an irresolvable tension of coexistence and non-parity.”[20] Schor’s ink and gesso statement challenges the known scholarship on Austen and encourages further discourse. It is a good example of what modern media can do to provoke new thought on original works.

Jane Austen and Modern Media Survey

Jane Austen and Modern Media Survey Results


  1. Jane Austen's Letters.
  2. Jane Austen: A Family Record
  3. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Family pedigrees III.
  4. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Ch. 2, pp. 28.
  5. Jane Austen’s Letters. Pp. 1-2.
  6. Jane Austen’s Letters. Pp. 3-4.
  7. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Ch. 10, pp. 137-8
  8. "Jane Austen: A Family Record." Pp. 138.
  9. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Ch. 13, pp. 192.
  10. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Ch. 6, pp. 66, 70, 74.
  11. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Ch. 6, pp. 78.
  12. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Ch. 14, pp. 205.
  13. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Ch. 17, pp. 269.
  14. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Ch. 3, pp. 29-40.
  15. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Ch. 6, pp. 70.
  16. Jane Austen’s Letters, Pp. 311-2.
  17. Jane Austen's Letters, Pp. 208.
  18. Jane Austen in Hollywood. Introduction, pp. 6.
  19. Jane Austen in Hollywood. Emma Becomes Clueless, pp. 122-3.
  20. "Jane Austen Never Married." Women's Studies Quarterly Envy 34.3/4 (2006): 180-81.

Annotated Bibliography

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters. Comp. Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.

This is an updated edition of Jane Austen's collected letters. It includes notes and biographical information compiled by Austen scholar Dierdre Le Faye. Many of Austen's surviving letters were written to her sister Cassandra, some to other family members and close family friends, and a very few to publishers. Austen's letters are the closest to an autobiographical work that she produced. Read alongside her fiction, Austen's letters offer new insight to the popular 18-19th century author.

Clueless. Dir. Amy Heckerling. By Amy Heckerling. Perf. Alicia Silverstone, Stacy Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd. Paramount Pictures, 1995. Film.

This film is a Amy Heckerling's 1995 adaptation of Austen's 1815 Emma. It is situated in Beverly Hills High School, circa 1990. In Jane Austen in Hollywood, the editors note that some Austen scholars have pointed to this film as truer to the "spirit" of Austen's original than the BBC period adaptation.

Fritzer, Penelope Joan. Introduction. Jane Austen and Eighteenth-century Courtesy Books. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997. 1-7. Print.

The introductory essay of this book makes an argument for a likely correlation between eighteenth-century courtesy literature and Jane Austen’s socially conscious novels. Fritzer maintains that Austen’s satire is not intended to mock the courtesy novels of her time, but rather to mock the type of people who could not gracefully “adhere” to the moral standards of the time. Of course, this is only one interpretation of Austen’s moral sentiments -– it will be best examined in light of additional essays concerned with her satirical leanings.

Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction. "Part Two: The Publication and Reception of Jane Austen's Novels, 1797-1818." London: Athlone, 1997. 51-77. Print.

This chapter, excerpted from a larger work on feminism and fiction, details the complications of publishing Austen’s work in a previously male-dominated sector. It addresses the time Austen spent in Bath and the origins of “Mrs Ashton Dennis” (M.A.D.). In addition, it offers feminist criticism of early carelessness in accurately chronicling her life for future scholars. It will be useful on many fronts, not the least of those being public reception of Austen both in her time and ours.

Le Faye, Dierdre, and William Austen-Leigh. Jane Austen, A Family Record. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

This book gives an authoritative chronology of Jane Austen’s life and family tree. It will be useful in contextualizing her work historically, in terms of her real middle-class female life, alongside Fritzer's book.

Schor, Mira. "Jane Austen Never Married." Women's Studies Quarterly Envy 34.3/4 (2006): 180-81. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40003535>.

Artist Mira Schor produced a collection of paintings that capture authors in relation to their heroines. Here, she explains both her purpose and procedure. It pits the author against her work in an unconventional way, exploring a heretofore unused media in which to provide critical commentary on Austen.

Watching Ourselves Watching." Introduction. Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1998. 1-12. Print.

The editors of this compilation of essays have concerned themselves with Jane Austen’s work as it has been realized on film. In their introductory essay, they address the appeal of modern interpretations to contemporary audiences, and also what the screenplays have lost in translation. They give particular attention to the role of satire within her novels, as well, and examine several films on this point. This essay will be useful in demonstrating the “timelessness” of Austen’s work, especially as opposed to the “timeliness” of modern day productions.

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