Today marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Iris Lutz and Claire Bellanti of the Jane Austen Society of North America review some interesting highlights of Austen’s life, career, and literary impact.
1. Although she never married, Jane Austen did become engaged — for one night. She received and accepted a proposal of marriage on December 2, 1802, two weeks before her 27 birthday. According to family tradition, Jane Austen and her sister were visiting longtime friends Alethea and Catherine Bigg at Manydown Park when their friends’ brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, made the offer. Five-and-a-half years younger than Jane, Harris was, according to the author’s niece Caroline Austen, “very plain in person — awkward, & even uncouth in manner . . . I conjecture that the advantages he could offer, & her gratitude for his love, & her long friendship with his family, induced my Aunt to decide that she would marry him . . . .”
Jane Austen changed her mind overnight, however, and refused the proposal the next morning. The awkwardness of the situation caused her to leave Manydown immediately. We can only speculate what Jane Austen’s thoughts were about the proposal. Perhaps she initially accepted because the marriage would have given her financial security and the means to assist her parents and sister. And, perhaps she changed her mind because she believed – as she later wrote to a niece considering a marriage of convenience – that “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without Love.” Fortunately for her readers, she chose to remain single and was able to focus on writing rather than running a household and raising children.
2. Jane Austen continued to imagine how the lives of her characters evolved long after she finished a novel. In A Memoir of Jane Austen, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote, “She would, if asked, tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of some of her people.” For example, Anne Steele, Lucy’s silly and vulgar sister in Sense and Sensibility, did not catch Dr. Davies after all. And, after the close of Pride and Prejudice, Kitty Bennet eventually married a clergyman near Pemberley, while Mary ended up with a clerk who worked for her Uncle Philips. Some of the most interesting revelations, however, related to Emma. Mr. Woodhouse not only survived Emma’s marriage to Mr. Knightly, but also kept his daughter and son-in-law living at Hartfield for two years. Deirdre Le Faye has also noted in Jane Austen: A Family Record that “According to a less well-known tradition, the delicate Jane Fairfax lived only another nine or ten years after her marriage to Frank Churchill.”
3. The surnames of a number of Austen’s characters can be found within the prominent and wealthy Wentworth family of Yorkshire — which also happens to intersect with Jane Austen’s own family tree. Her mother, Cassandra Austen, née Leigh, was the great grandniece of the first Duke of Chandos (1673-1744) and Cassandra Willoughby. Her mother was also connected to Thomas, Second Baron Leigh of Stoneleigh (1652-1710), who was married twice: first to Eleanor Watson and then to Anne Wentworth, daughter of the first Earl of Strafford.
As the late Professor Donald Greene pointed out, “When the snobbish Sir Walter Elliot says of the hero of Persuasion, ‘Mr. Wentworth was nobody … quite unconnected, nothing to do with the Strafford family. One wonders how the names of many of our nobility become so common,’ it adds to the piquancy of the satire that Jane Austen’s family was in fact ‘connected’ with the real-life Strafford Wentworths.”
Austen also used names from the Wentworth genealogy tree while writing Pride and Prejudice. Her hero Mr. Darcy, the nephew of an earl, bears the names of two wealthy and powerful branches of the Wentworth family: Fitzwilliam (as in the Earls Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse, in Yorkshire) and D’Arcy.
Professor Janine Barchas of the University of Texas at Austin and author of Matters of Fact in Jane Austen has also noted that Austen used yet another Wentworth family name in the novel Emma: “In the thirteenth century, a Robert Wentworth married a rich heiress by the name of Emma Wodehouse.”
4. Jane Austen took her writing very seriously. She began writing stories, plays and poetry when she was 12 years old. Most of her “Juvenilia,” as the material she wrote in her youth is called, was in the comic vein. She wrote a parody of textbook histories, The History of England … by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian, when she was 16 years old. She also wrote parodies of the romantic novels of “sensibility” that were popular in her day. Austen’s family members read aloud and performed plays for each other, and she learned about writing from these activities and the comments her family made about her own efforts. By the age of 23, Austen had written first drafts of the novels that later became Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.
From the letters she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, and other family members, one can see that Jane Austen was proud of her writing. She enjoyed discussing her latest work, sharing news about a novel’s progress at the printer, and offering advice on the craft of writing to other aspiring authors in the family. She also carefully tracked comments made by family members and friends about Mansfield Park and Emma and referred to Pride and Prejudice as her “own darling child.” Jane Austen continued writing throughout her adult life until just before she died in July of 1817.
5. Jane Austen’s life was not limited to a sheltered country existence. On the surface, her life seems to have been quiet and secluded; she was born in a small country village and lived there for 25 years. Her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869, which reinforced the image that she was a demure, quiet maiden aunt in the best Victorian tradition. However, she led a very active life with travel and social contacts of many types. Through her family and friends she learned a great deal about the world around her.
Jane Austen frequently stayed with her brother Henry in London, where she regularly attended plays and art exhibits. Her brother Edward was adopted by wealthy cousins, eventually inheriting their estates in Kent (Godmersham) and Hampshire (Chawton) and taking their name (Knight). Over a period of 15 years, Austen visited Edward’s Godmersham estate for months at a time, mixing with his fashionable and wealthy friends and enjoying the privileged life of the landed gentry. These experiences are reflected in all of her fiction.
Jane Austen was also well aware of the horrors of the French Revolution and the effect of the Napoleonic Wars on the people and the economy of Britain. Her cousin’s husband was guillotined during the French Revolution, and her brothers Francis (Frank) and Charles were officers in the Royal Navy, serving on ships around the world during the conflict. Sir Francis William Austen (one year older than Jane) advanced through the ranks and was eventually knighted. He was promoted to Admiral of Fleet in 1860. Rear Admiral Charles John Austen (four years younger than Jane) had his own command and was serving in North America by 1810. From correspondence and frequent visits with these two brothers and their families she learned much about the Navy, which she incorporated into Mansfield Park and Persuasion.
6. Men read Jane Austen, too. Jane Austen’s novels are sometimes viewed as “chick-lit” romances, leading some men to think they wouldn’t enjoy reading them. But, Jane Austen has always had male admirers. Her books are not just about romance; they have a serious instructional purpose clothed in novel form. Her believable characters, realistic plots, moral themes, comedy, and dry wit appeal to both men and women.
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan admitted to reading Austen’s novels, and Winston Churchill credited her with helping him win World War II. Rudyard Kipling read Jane Austen aloud to his wife and daughter each evening in an effort to raise their spirits after his son, fighting in WWI, was reported missing and believed dead. Even after the war, Kipling returned to Jane Austen with “The Janeites,” a short story about a group of British artillery soldiers in WWI who bonded through their shared appreciation of the novels of Jane Austen. And one of her male contemporaries, Sir Walter Scott, praised her writing in his journal: “Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. 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.”
About The Jane Austen Society of North America:
The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering the study, appreciation, and understanding of Jane Austen’s works, life, and genius. The Society has over 5,000 members and 75 regional groups in the United States and Canada, and its members are of all ages and diverse walks of life. They share an enjoyment of Austen’s fiction and gather at regional meetings to discuss the author and her works, listen to lectures, learn English Country Dancing, celebrate her birthday on December 16, and more. Members also receive JASNA’s publications and are invited to attend the Annual General Meeting in the fall. Membership in JASNA is open to everyone who shares an interest in Jane Austen. n’s novels; listen to lectures about her writing, her life, and her era; learn English country dancing; toast Jane Austen on her birthday in December, and much more.
From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on December 16, 2015.