The English novelist Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, the seventh of eight children, in the Parsonage House of Steventon, Hampshire, where she spent her first twenty-five years. During her brief lifetime Austen witnessed political unrest, revolution, war, and industrialization, yet these momentous events are not the central subjects of her finely focused novels. Rather, Austen wrote of her immediate experience: the microcosm of the country gentry and its class-conscious insularity. Jane’s father, the Reverend George Austen, was the erudite country rector of Steventon, and her mother, Cassandra (née Leigh), was descended from an aristocratic line of learned clergymen. By no means wealthy, the Austens nonetheless enjoyed a comfortable, socially respectable life, and greatly prized their children’s education.
Jane and her beloved elder (and only) sister, Cassandra, were schooled in Southampton and Reading for a short period, but most of their education took place at home. Private theatrical performances in the barn at Steventon complemented Jane’s studies of French, Italian, history, music, and eighteenth-century fiction. An avid reader from earliest childhood, Jane began writing at age twelve, no doubt encouraged by her cultured and affectionate family. Indeed, family and writing were her great loves; despite a fleeting engagement in 1802, Austen never married. Her first two novels, “Elinor and Marianne” and “First Impressions,” were written while at Steventon but never published in their original form.
Following her father’s retirement, Jane moved in 1801 with her parents and sister to Bath. That popular watering hole, removed from the country life Jane preferred, presented the sociable young novelist with a wealth of observations and experience that would later emerge in her novels. Austen moved to Southampton with her mother and sister after the death of her father in 1805. Several years later the three women settled in Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, where Austen resided until the end of her life. She relished her return to the countryside and, with it, a renewed artistic vigor that led to the revision of her early novels. Sense and Sensibility, a reworking of “Elinor and Marianne,” was published in 1811, followed by Pride and Prejudice, a reworking of “First Impressions,” two years later.
Austen completed four more novels (Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion) in the Chawton sitting room. Productive and discreet, she insisted that her work be kept secret from anyone outside the family. All of her novels were published anonymously, including the posthumous release, thanks to her brother Henry, of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion .
The last years of Austen’s life were relatively quiet and comfortable. Her final, unfinished work, Sanditon, was put aside in the spring of 1817, when her health sharply declined and she was taken to Winchester for medical treatment of what appears to have been Addison’s disease or a form of lymphoma. Jane Austen died there on July 18, 1817, and is buried in Winchester Cathedral.
The World of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice
1775 The American Revolution begins in April. Jane Austen is born on December 16 in the Parsonage House in Steventon, Hampshire, England, the seventh of eight children (two girls and six boys).
1778 Frances (Fanny) Burney publishes Evelina, a seminal work in the development of the novel of manners.
1781 German philosopher Immanuel Kant publishes his Critique of Pure Reason.
1782 The American Revolution ends. Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia is published.
1783 Cassandra and Jane Austen begin their formal education in Southampton, followed by study in Reading.
1788 King George III of England suffers his first bout of mental illness, leaving the country in a state of uncertainty and anxiety. George Gordon, Lord Byron, is born.
1789 George III recuperates. The French Revolution begins. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence is published.
1791 American political philosopher Thomas Paine publishes the first part of The Rights of Man.
1792 Percy Bysshe Shelley is born. Mary Wollstonecraft publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
1793 A shock wave passes though Europe with the execution of King Louis XVI of France and, some months later, his wife, Marie-Antoinette; the Reign of Terror begins. England declares war on France. Two of Austen’s brothers, Francis (1774-1865) and Charles (1779- 1852), serve in the Royal Navy, but life in the countryside of Steventon remains relatively tranquil.
1795 Austen begins her first novel, “Elinor and Marianne,” written as letters (the fragments of this early work are now lost); she will later revise the material to become the novel Sense and Sensibility. John Keats is born.
1796-1797 Austen authors a second novel, “First Impressions,” which was never published; it will later become Pride and Prejudice.
1798 Poets Samuel Taylor