Jane Austen (1775–1817) wrote her novels over 200 years ago, but she remains one of the most recognized names in English literature today.
Celebrated for her strong female characters and her sharp insights into English middle-class life in the early 19th century, the six novels Austen penned – Pride and Prejudice; Sense and Sensibility; Persuasion; Mansfield Park; Northanger Abbey and Emma – are classics beloved it seems by every new generation of reader.
But while many fans of the novelist feel they are intimately acquainted with the characters she brought to life in her books, few know about her life as a writer.
Here then are some fascinating facts about Jane Austen, the author.
Jane Austen Began Writing as a Child
Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and picked up the pen when she was only 11 years old. She wrote plays and parodies to amuse her family but began writing novels in her teens.
Professor Kathryn Sutherland, the curator of the 2017 Which Jane Austen? Exhibition at Oxford University that commemorated the bicentenary of Austen’s untimely death, claimed her early tales were of high-spirited, teenage shenanigans.
In an interview with Vogue Magazine, Prof. Sutherland said, “She wrote about groups of teenage girls having far too much wine, stealing each other’s boyfriends, and even getting into fistfights.”
She Was Not an Overnight Success
Austen read one of her novels First Impressions (later to be retitled as Pride and Prejudice) out loud to her family. Her father thought it was wonderful and sent a query letter to the London publisher, Thomas Cadell. The letter returned quite quickly, with the words “declined by Return of Post” written across the top.
In fact, there would be 16 years between that first attempt at securing a publisher and the eventual appearance of Pride and Prejudice as a novel in 1813.
Likewise, Austen wrote an early draft of Sense and Sensibility in 1795 when she was just 19 years old but didn’t see it published until 1811.
So... Have hope, all would-be authors reading this!
She Felt Maternally Bound to her Books
Austen never married, though it is known she had at least two affairs of the heart.
She was also engaged to be married but broke it off because, as she later wrote to a niece - “nothing can be compared to the misery of being bound without love.”
However, though she may have forsaken a life of marriage and kids that didn’t stop her lavishing a mother’s love on her writing. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, she referred to Pride and Prejudice as her “own darling child,” while in another she comments that “I am never too busy to think of S & S (Sense and Sensibility). I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child.”
None of her letters hint at regret for remaining unwed either. And certainly, it is to be assumed that she herself realized that if she had married, chances of her having any time at all for her real “children” – her books – would have been slim.
She Wrote Anonymously
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes, “I would venture to guess that Anon…was often a woman.”
Jane Austen proves she had a good point: The author’s name, known widely around the world today, did not appear in any of her own novels during her lifetime. Sense and Sensibility was credited as being written “by a Lady,” while the others had, “by the author of…”
It was her brother Henry who revealed her true identity. He ensured her name was on the posthumously published edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818.)
Her Sister Cassandra Burned Her Letters
Austen was exceptionally close to Cassandra and in her lifetime wrote over 100 letters to her sister. However, following Austen's untimely death at age 41, Cassandra either burned or redacted most of the letters.
The reason for this is not wholly known, though it is believed that all of Austen’s family at the time wanted to avoid any potential embarrassment, and preserve the writer’s legacy, and privacy.
Prof. Sutherland highlights the fact that Austen’s growing popularity in the 19thcentury saw her relative Lord Brabourne selling off many of her notes as fast as he could. “And as Caroline Spurgeon, the first woman professor at London University, wrote in 1927, 'every scrap of information and every ray of light on Jane Austen are of national importance'."
Jane Austen Influenced as Many Men as Women
Often those who haven’t read her books assume Jane Austen wrote primarily for a female audience. While books written for women are to be applauded, Austen’s appeal was embraced by both genders and, in fact, many notable men in politics and literature have publicly announced their love of Jane.
Winston Churchill, for example, has written how Pride and Prejudice comforted him during a period of sickness in the middle of World War II.
Rudyard Kipling claimed he read Austen’s books aloud to his daughter and wife each evening to keep their spirits buoyed after his son, fighting in WWI, was reported missing and believed dead.
The Scottish historical writer, Sir Walter Scott, also lavished praise on Jane, writing in his diaries after re-reading 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.”