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The Splendid and Eternal Miss Austen

You cannot say the name Jane Austen without immediately conjuring images in your mind of dances in fine halls, ladies on the verge of fainting fits, gallant young men in waistcoats and top hats, lavish manor homes, quaint cottages, ridiculous characters, and strong-willed young women who decorate the pages of her novels with a complete picture of Regency England.

This is a world revolving around love and marriage, of making a good match... and sometimes, a perfect match with a man who owns a barouche and ten thousand a year.

After all, in Miss Austen's own words, 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife'.

Between the books themselves, and the fascination built after Hollywood and BBC adapted the novels into cinematic wonders, it is no wonder that the fan-base has built to staggering numbers. All one has to do is visit Bath, England during the Jane Austen Festival (before Covid) and see the numbers. I'm sure everyone would agree that Miss Austen, herself, would be shocked with wonder!


So, what do we know about Miss Jane Austen?


Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, December 16, 1775. For much of Jane's life, her father, George Austen (1731–1805), served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon and at nearby Deane. He came from an old, respected, and wealthy family of wool merchants. Over the centuries as each generation of eldest sons received inheritances, their wealth was divided, and George's branch of the family fell into poverty. He and his two sisters were orphaned as children and had to be taken in by relatives. His sister Philadelphia went to India to find a husband and George entered St John's College, Oxford on a fellowship, where he most likely met Cassandra Leigh (1739–1827). She came from the prominent Leigh family; her father was rector at All Souls College, Oxford, where she grew up among the gentry. Her eldest brother James inherited a fortune and large estate from his great-aunt Perrot, with the only condition that he change his name to Leigh-Perrot.


George and Cassandra exchanged miniatures in 1763 and probably were engaged around that time. George received the living for the Steventon parish from the wealthy husband of his second cousin, Thomas Knight, who owned Steventon and its associated farms, one of which the Austen family rented to live in. Two months after Cassandra's father died, they married on 26 April 1764 at St Swithin's Church in Bath, by licence, in a simple ceremony. They left for Hampshire the same day.


Their income was modest, with George's small per annum living; Cassandra brought to the marriage the expectation of a small inheritance at the time of her mother's death. The Austens took up temporary residence at the nearby Deane rectory until Steventon, a 16th-century house in disrepair, underwent necessary renovations. Cassandra gave birth to three children while living at Deane: James in 1765, George in 1766, and Edward in 1767. Her custom was to keep an infant at home for several months and then place it with Elizabeth Littlewood, a woman living nearby to nurse and raise for twelve to eighteen months.


Steventon

Steventon rectory, as depicted in A Memoir of Jane Austen, was in a valley and surrounded by meadows. In 1768, the family finally took up residence in Steventon. Henry was the first child to be born there, in 1771. At about this time, Cassandra could no longer ignore the signs that little George was developmentally disabled. He was subject to seizures, may have been deaf and mute, and she chose to send him out to be fostered. In 1773, Cassandra was born, followed by Francis in 1774, and Jane in 1775.


According to Honan, the atmosphere of the Austen home was an "open, amused, easy intellectual" one, where the ideas of those with whom the Austens might disagree politically or socially were considered and discussed. The family relied on the patronage of their kin and hosted visits from numerous family members. Cassandra Austen spent the summer of 1770 in London with George's sister, Philadelphia, and her daughter Eliza, accompanied by his other sister, Mrs Walter and her daughter Philly. Philadelphia and Eliza Hancock were, according to Le Faye, "the bright comets flashing into an otherwise placid solar system of clerical life in rural Hampshire, and the news of their foreign travels and fashionable London life, together with their sudden descents upon the Steventon household in between times, all helped to widen Jane's youthful horizon and influence her later life and works."


Cassandra Austen's cousin Thomas Leigh visited a number of times in the 1770s and 1780s, inviting young Cassie to visit them in Bath in 1781. The first mention of Jane occurs in family documents on her return, "... and almost home they were when they met Jane & Charles, the two little ones of the family, who had to go as far as New Down to meet the chaise, & have the pleasure of riding home in it." Le Faye writes that "Mr Austen's predictions for his younger daughter were fully justified. Never were sisters more to each other than Cassandra and Jane; while in a particularly affectionate family, there seems to have been a special link between Cassandra and Edward on the one hand, and between Henry and Jane on the other."


From 1773 until 1796, George Austen supplemented his income by farming and by teaching three or four boys at a time, who boarded at his home. The Reverend Austen had an annual income of £200 from his two livings. This was a very modest income at the time; by comparison, a skilled worker like a blacksmith or a carpenter could make about £100 annually while the typical annual income of a gentry family was between £1,000 and £5,000.


During this period of her life, Austen attended church regularly, socialised with friends and neighbours,[g] and read novels—often of her own composition—aloud to her family in the evenings. Socialising with the neighbours often meant dancing, either impromptu in someone's home after supper or at the balls held regularly at the assembly rooms in the town hall. Her brother Henry later said that "Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it".


Education

In 1783, Austen and her sister Cassandra were sent to Oxford to be educated by Mrs Ann Cawley who took them with her to Southampton when she moved there later in the year. In the autumn both girls were sent home when they caught typhus and Austen nearly died. Austen was from then home educated, until she attended boarding school in Reading with her sister from early in 1785 at the Reading Abbey Girls' School, ruled by Mrs La Tournelle, who possessed a cork leg and a passion for theatre. The school curriculum probably included some French, spelling, needlework, dancing and music and, perhaps, drama. The sisters returned home before December 1786 because the school fees for the two girls were too high for the Austen family. After 1786, Austen "never again lived anywhere beyond the bounds of her immediate family environment".


The remainder of her education came from reading, guided by her father and brothers James and Henry. Irene Collins believes that Austen "used some of the same school books as the boys" her father tutored. Austen apparently had unfettered access both to her father's library and that of a family friend, Warren Hastings. Together these collections amounted to a large and varied library. Her father was also tolerant of Austen's sometimes risqué experiments in writing, and provided both sisters with expensive paper and other materials for their writing and drawing.


Private theatricals were an essential part of Austen's education. From her early childhood, the family and friends staged a series of plays in the rectory barn, including Richard Sheridan's The Rivals (1775) and David Garrick's Bon Ton. Austen's eldest brother James wrote the prologues and epilogues and she probably joined in these activities, first as a spectator and later as a participant. Most of the plays were comedies, which suggests how Austen's satirical gifts were cultivated. At the age of 12, she tried her own hand at dramatic writing; she wrote three short plays during her teenage years.


(1787–1793)

From the age of eleven, and perhaps earlier, Austen wrote poems and stories for her own and her family's amusement. In these works, the details of daily life are exaggerated, common plot devices are parodied, and the "stories are full of anarchic fantasies of female power, licence, illicit behaviour, and general high spirits", according to Janet Todd.[50] Containing work written between 1787 and 1793, Austen compiled fair copies of twenty-nine early works into three bound notebooks, now referred to as the Juvenilia. She called the three notebooks "Volume the First", "Volume the Second" and "Volume the Third", and they preserve 90,000 words she wrote during those years. The Juvenilia are often, according to scholar Richard Jenkyns, "boisterous" and "anarchic"; he compares them to the work of 18th-century novelist Laurence Sterne.


Among these works are a satirical novel in letters titled Love and Freindship [sic], written at age fourteen in 1790, in which she mocked popular novels of sensibility. The next year she wrote The History of England, a manuscript of thirty-four pages accompanied by thirteen watercolour miniatures by her sister, Cassandra. Austen's History parodied popular historical writing, particularly Oliver Goldsmith's History of England (1764). Honan speculates that not long after writing Love and Freindship [sic], Austen decided to "write for profit, to make stories her central effort", that is, to become a professional writer. When she was around eighteen years old, Austen began to write longer, more sophisticated works.


In August 1792, aged seventeen, Austen started writing Catharine or the Bower, which presaged her mature work, especially Northanger Abbey; it was left unfinished and the story picked up in Lady Susan, which Todd describes as less prefiguring than Catharine. A year later, she began, but abandoned a short play, later titled Sir Charles Grandison or the happy Man, a comedy in 6 acts, which she returned to and completed around 1800. This was a short parody of various school textbook abridgements of Austen's favourite contemporary novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753), by Samuel Richardson.


When Austen became an aunt for the first time at age eighteen, she sent new-born niece Fanny-Catherine Austen-Knight "five short pieces of ... the Juvenilia now known collectively as 'Scraps' .., purporting to be her 'Opinions and Admonitions on the conduct of Young Women'". For niece Jane-Anna-Elizabeth Austen (also born in 1793) Jane Austen wrote "two more 'Miscellanious [sic] Morsels', dedicating them to [Anna] on 2 June 1793, 'convinced that if you seriously attend to them, You will derive from them very important Instructions, with regard to your Conduct in Life.'"There is manuscript evidence that Austen continued to work on these pieces as late as 1811 (when she was 36), and that her niece and nephew, Anna and James Edward Austen, made further additions as late as 1814.


Between 1793 and 1795 (aged eighteen to twenty) Austen wrote Lady Susan, a short epistolary novel, usually described as her most ambitious and sophisticated early work.[62] It is unlike any of Austen's other works. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin describes the novella's heroine as a sexual predator who uses her intelligence and charm to manipulate, betray and abuse her lovers, friends and family. Tomalin writes:


Told in letters, it is as neatly plotted as a play, and as cynical in tone as any of the most outrageous of the Restoration dramatists who may have provided some of her inspiration ... It stands alone in Austen's work as a study of an adult woman whose intelligence and force of character are greater than those of anyone she encounters.


According to Janet Todd, the model for the title character may have been Eliza de Feuillide, who inspired Austen with stories of her glamorous life and various adventures. Eliza's French husband was guillotined in 1794; she married Jane's brother Henry Austen in 1797.


Tom Lefroy

Thomas Langlois Lefroy, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, by W. H. Mote (1855); in old age, Lefroy admitted that he had been in love with Austen: "It was boyish love."

When Austen was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a neighbour, visited Steventon from December 1795 to January 1796. He had just finished a university degree and was moving to London for training as a barrister. Lefroy and Austen would have been introduced at a ball or other neighbourhood social gathering, and it is clear from Austen's letters to Cassandra that they spent considerable time together: "I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together."


Austen wrote in her first surviving letter to her sister Cassandra that Lefroy was a "very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man". Five days later in another letter, Austen wrote that she expected an "offer" from her "friend" and that "I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat", going on to write "I will confide myself in the future to Mr Tom Lefroy, for whom I don't give a sixpence" and refuse all others. The next day, Austen wrote: "The day will come on which I flirt my last with Tom Lefroy and when you receive this it will be all over. My tears flow as I write at this melancholy idea".


Halperin cautioned that Austen often satirised popular sentimental romantic fiction in her letters, and some of the statements about Lefroy may have been ironic. However, it is clear that Austen was genuinely attracted to Lefroy and subsequently none of her other suitors ever quite measured up to him. The Lefroy family intervened and sent him away at the end of January. Marriage was impractical as both Lefroy and Austen must have known. Neither had any money, and he was dependent on a great-uncle in Ireland to finance his education and establish his legal career. If Tom Lefroy later visited Hampshire, he was carefully kept away from the Austens, and Jane Austen never saw him again. In November 1798, Lefroy was still on Austen's mind as she wrote to her sister she had tea with one of his relatives, wanted desperately to ask about him, but could not bring herself to raise the subject.


Which brings me to the first of my suggestions for movies to watch about Miss Austen's life!

"Becoming Jane" and "Miss Austen Regrets"

"Becoming Jane" released in 2007 and the storyline is based on the attraction between Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy. Jane is played by Anne Hathaway, and Tom is played by James McAvoy. I enjoyed this movie very much and felt it portrayed Jane very much like one of her own characters in one of her books. And of course, any movie which has Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey) is ranked high on my list of 'must-watch' movies!

The second offering - "Miss Austen Regrets" is by far my favorite movie based on her life.

Here we have Jane in later years reflecting back on missed opportunities for love, as she writes about love, and offers guidance and advice to her niece, Fanny, whose young days are filled with admiration for her aunt's stories and romance about love.

This one released on PBS Masterpiece Theatre in 2007, and hosts more fabulous actors and actresses: Olivia Williams as Jane Austen; Tom Hiddleston as John Plumptre; and Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey) as Rev. Brook Bridges. Very recommended!!

Here are the trailers for both:


"Becoming Jane"


"Miss Austen Regrets"


Now, on with Jane's life:


Early manuscripts (1796–1798)

After finishing Lady Susan, Austen began her first full-length novel Elinor and Marianne. Her sister remembered that it was read to the family "before 1796" and was told through a series of letters. Without surviving original manuscripts, there is no way to know how much of the original draft survived in the novel published anonymously in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility.


Austen began a second novel, First Impressions (later published as Pride and Prejudice), in 1796. She completed the initial draft in August 1797, aged 21; as with all of her novels, Austen read the work aloud to her family as she was working on it and it became an "established favourite". At this time, her father made the first attempt to publish one of her novels. In November 1797, George Austen wrote to Thomas Cadell, an established publisher in London, to ask if he would consider publishing First Impressions. Cadell returned Mr. Austen's letter, marking it "Declined by Return of Post". Austen may not have known of her father's efforts. Following the completion of First Impressions, Austen returned to Elinor and Marianne and from November 1797 until mid-1798, revised it heavily; she eliminated the epistolary format in favour of third-person narration and produced something close to Sense and Sensibility. In 1797, Austen met her cousin (and future sister-in-law), Eliza de Feuillide, a French aristocrat whose first husband the Comte de Feuillide had been guillotined, causing her to flee to Britain, where she married Henry Austen. The description of the execution of the Comte de Feuillide related by his widow left Austen with an intense horror of the French Revolution that lasted for the rest of her life.


During the middle of 1798, after finishing revisions of Elinor and Marianne, Austen began writing a third novel with the working title Susan—later Northanger Abbey—a satire on the popular Gothic novel. Austen completed her work about a year later. In early 1803, Henry Austen offered Susan to Benjamin Crosby, a London publisher, who paid £10 for the copyright. Crosby promised early publication and went so far as to advertise the book publicly as being "in the press", but did nothing more. The manuscript remained in Crosby's hands, unpublished, until Austen repurchased the copyright from him in 1816.


Bath and Southampton

In December 1800 George Austen unexpectedly announced his decision to retire from the ministry, leave Steventon, and move the family to 4, Sydney Place in Bath. While retirement and travel were good for the elder Austens, Jane Austen was shocked to be told she was moving from the only home she had ever known. An indication of her state of mind is her lack of productivity as a writer during the time she lived at Bath. She was able to make some revisions to Susan, and she began and then abandoned a new novel, The Watsons, but there was nothing like the productivity of the years 1795–1799. Tomalin suggests this reflects a deep depression disabling her as a writer, but Honan disagrees, arguing Austen wrote or revised her manuscripts throughout her creative life, except for a few months after her father died. It is often claimed that Austen was unhappy in Bath, which caused her to lose interest in writing, but it is just as possible that Austen's social life in Bath prevented her from spending much time writing novels. The critic Robert Irvine argued that if Austen spent more time writing novels when she was in the countryside, it might just have been because she had more spare time as opposed to being more happy in the countryside as is often argued. Furthermore, Austen frequently both moved and travelled over southern England during this period, which was hardly a conducive environment for writing a long novel. Austen sold the rights to publish Susan to a publisher Crosby & Company, who paid her £10. The Crosby & Company advertised Susan, but never published it.


Austen was a regular visitor to her brother Edward's home, Godmersham Park in Kent, between 1798 and 1813. The house is regarded as an influence on her works.

The years from 1801 to 1804 are something of a blank space for Austen scholars as Cassandra destroyed all of her letters from her sister in this period for unknown reasons. In December 1802 Austen received her only known proposal of marriage. She and her sister visited Alethea and Catherine Bigg, old friends who lived near Basingstoke. Their younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, had recently finished his education at Oxford and was also at home. Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. As described by Caroline Austen, Jane's niece, and Reginald Bigg-Wither, a descendant, Harris was not attractive—he was a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless. However, Austen had known him since both were young and the marriage offered many practical advantages to Austen and her family. He was the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters had grown up. With these resources, Austen could provide her parents a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a permanent home and, perhaps, assist her brothers in their careers. By the next morning, Austen realised she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. No contemporary letters or diaries describe how Austen felt about this proposal. Irvine described Bigg-Wither as a somebody who "...seems to have been a man very hard to like, let alone love".


In 1814, Austen wrote a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, who had asked for advice about a serious relationship, telling her that "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". The English scholar Douglas Bush wrote that Austen had "had a very high ideal of the love that should unite a husband and wife ... All of her heroines ... know in proportion to their maturity, the meaning of ardent love". A possible autobiographical element in Sense and Sensibility occurs when Elinor Dashwood contemplates that "the worse and most irremediable of all evils, a connection for life" with an unsuitable man.


In 1804, while living in Bath, Austen started, but did not complete, her novel The Watsons. The story centres on an invalid and impoverished clergyman and his four unmarried daughters. Sutherland describes the novel as "a study in the harsh economic realities of dependent women's lives". Honan suggests, and Tomalin agrees, that Austen chose to stop work on the novel after her father died on 21 January 1805 and her personal circumstances resembled those of her characters too closely for her comfort.


Her father's relatively sudden death left Jane, Cassandra, and their mother in a precarious financial situation. Edward, James, Henry, and Francis Austen (known as Frank) pledged to make annual contributions to support their mother and sisters. For the next four years, the family's living arrangements reflected their financial insecurity. They spent part of the time in rented quarters in Bath before leaving the city in June 1805 for a family visit to Steventon and Godmersham. They moved for the autumn months to the newly fashionable seaside resort of Worthing, on the Sussex coast, where they resided at Stanford Cottage. It was here that Austen is thought to have written her fair copy of Lady Susan and added its "Conclusion". In 1806 the family moved to Southampton, where they shared a house with Frank Austen and his new wife. A large part of this time they spent visiting various branches of the family.


On 5 April 1809, about three months before the family's move to Chawton, Austen wrote an angry letter to Richard Crosby, offering him a new manuscript of Susan if needed to secure the immediate publication of the novel, and requesting the return of the original so she could find another publisher. Crosby replied that he had not agreed to publish the book by any particular time, or at all, and that Austen could repurchase the manuscript for the £10 he had paid her and find another publisher. She did not have the resources to buy the copyright back at that time, but was able to purchase it in 1816.


Chawton

Around early 1809 Austen's brother Edward offered his mother and sisters a more settled life—the use of a large cottage in Chawton village that was part of Edward's nearby estate, Chawton House. Jane, Cassandra and their mother moved into Chawton cottage on 7 July 1809. Life was quieter in Chawton than it had been since the family's move to Bath in 1800. The Austens did not socialise with gentry and entertained only when family visited. Her niece Anna described the family's life in Chawton as "a very quiet life, according to our ideas, 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."



My Austen Recommendations from 4 to 1:

#4: "Emma" with Gwyneth Paltrow

I was not a fan of the new "Emma" with Anya Taylor-Joy, so much so that this brief mention is all I will say of it.


#3"Sense and Sensibility" with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman

Ahhh, I love this one so much that it is one of my go-to movies to watch when the weather turns cold and I want to snuggle in bed and watch a good Austen-esque historical!!


#2: "Mansfield Park" with Frances O'Conner

This is another one of my go-to Austen movies!


#1: "Pride and Prejudice" with Keira Knightly and Matthew McFayden

Yes, I expect to get some comments about my choice here as some are fixed fans of Colin Firth's BBC "Mr Darcy", and while I did love that series, this is my number one go-to movie when I just want to have a completely, perfectly, incandescently, happy evening escape to Pemberly. And oh, by the way, did I mention Dame Judi Dench is in the cast - nothing more to say, just go see it if you have not already... and if you have, go watch it again. I must admit that my tally is far beyond counting at this point!!


Other movies based on Jane Austen's novels, if you didn't know!

I am not recommending them, just listing in case you are interested!!


"Bride and Prejudice" - 2004

"Bridget Jones's Diary" - 2001

"Bridget Jones - The Edge of Reason" - 2004

"Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies" - 2016 (I think Miss Austen rolled over when this one released)

"Austenland" - 2013

"The Jane Austen Book Club" - 2007


And now, at last, here are the links to the books for you to enjoy, and links to HFC's own Riana Everly's books. Riana is one of our resident administrators for The Historical Fiction Club and an Editorial Reviewer - and her books continue the sagas of Miss Austen's books.


Jane Austen's Books:


Riana Everly's books:









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1 Comment


Malve von Hassell
Malve von Hassell
Oct 14, 2021

I can never get enough of Jane Austen, and this is a lovely overview of her life. I didn't know about that accepted proposal and her deciding against it the very next day. Meanwhile, wouldn't you like to have Alan Rickman read poetry to you? (One of my favorite scenes...albeit not strictly Jane Austen).

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