Jane Austen

England recently released a new ten-pound note, featuring beloved author Jane Austen. She will become the second woman only to the Queen to grace the front of an English bank note, which is clear evidence in her continuing fandom and the enduring interest in her work.

The author of the classics Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey published her work anonymously and did not claim notoriety until her siblings took it upon themselves to publish two previously unprinted books following her death. It was, therefore, not until the mid-19th century that she gained widespread notability.

Unlike some authors, however, there is not as much known about her life and the interest largely circles around her work itself. As the ten-pound note hits the streets, it is worth looking at some of the highlights of this prolific writer’s life and career. Some lesser known facts about her life include:

  • Jane was a lifelong writer who was very dedicated to her craft. Her first manuscripts appeared by the age of 12 and were largely comic in nature. Her satirical History of England, written at age 15, pokes fun at various kings, from their names to their achievements (or lack thereof).
  • While it is true that her novels may appeal to the feminine sensibility, Jane Austen has had several notable male admires. Rudyard Kipling was a ardent fan who read her novels aloud to his family to lift their spirits during WWI, and Sir Walter Scott was found to have greatly praised Jane’s work, remarking “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.” Even political figures such as Winston Churchill and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan were said to have enjoyed reading her books.
  • It is believed that Jane wrote over 3,000 letters during the course of her life. She was apparently a huge fan of gossip, which prompted her beloved sister Cassandra to destroy the majority of the letters once she began to gain celebrity status, due to the critical and exposing content that involved family, friends, and neighbours. Then again, others believe that Cassandra destroyed the letters during an argument, leaving the sisters the true keepers of the mystery.
  • It is widely known that Jane never married, but what is lesser known is that she was actually very unlucky in love. Her unsuccessful affairs included the following:
    • Her first documented romance, with the nephew of a family friend, ultimately became a debacle that likely inspired some of the stories from her novels. The man, Tom Lefroy, was ordered to skip town and end the affair when his family caught wind of the possibility that he would marry someone from a lower social class. He did so, and would later become Chief Justice of Ireland.
    • Interest in her life has become so widespread that there are heated and provoking debates and theories about her second known lover, a clergyman Jane met whilst on holiday in Bath. While it has been popularly believed that the young man died before the couple was able to meet up later in the year as planned, it is now suggested that he broke Jane’s heart and married another.
    • Famously, Jane was engaged once, but for just one night. After accepting a proposal from a family friend, Harris Wither, Jane changed her mind, broke off the relationship, and left town the next morning. An interesting series of choices for a woman who wrote so extensively about logical partnerships!
  • While debates about the reasons Jane never married are enjoyed by academics, it might simply have been that her interests did not reside in having a husband and family, but rather that her writing was her priority and deepest commitment. Jane was so determined to make money off of her work that she self-published her first book, Sense and Sensibility.

  • As with some of her characters, Jane had an exceptionally close relationship with her sister, Cassandra. Remarkably neither of the women married, and remained each other’s closest companions their entire lives (though some scholars argue that the two of them had a very rocky relationship).

Jane Austen died in 1817 at the tragically young age of 41 after suffering for years from an illness that remains mysterious to this day (some believe it to be Addison’s disease and some lymphoma). There is no mention of Jane being a writer on her simple gravestone, and as interest in visiting her grave began to grow toward the middle of the 19th century it is rumoured that a staff member at the cathedral remarked, “Was there anything special about this lady?”

Shortly following her death her siblings published her remaining finished works (she had novels in progress when she passed), and for the first time identified Jane as the author. The books sold well and by 1833 all of the rights to the novels had been purchased and have remained in print ever since. To date her novels have been translated into 40 different languages, have inspired more fan fiction than any author, and have inspired movies from the 1940s Pride and Prejudice to the 1995 teen classic Clueless.

While there has been an inundation of criticism related to why Austen’s work has gained more popularity over the past decade, it is a topic worth a continuing exploration, given the subjects of her books and their focus on gender relations, families, relationships, and coming of age. Jane penned the stories in a day when there was growing romanticism around the independence of women, which is a clear reason why the characters entice readers today. Yet at a time when the entire world is fraught with so much complication and distractions of a multitude compete for our attention each day, perhaps it is also a welcome retreat to escape to a time when so many issues came down to how one behaved at the Saturday night ball.

Written for Sheroes of History by Janice Formichella


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