Jane Austen was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony and social commentary have gained her historical importance among the reading public, scholars and critics alike.
Austen was born on 16th December 1775, and lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. Biographical information on Jane Austen is incredibly scarce however, as only some personal and family letters remain. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. Jane spent most of her early years being schooled at home, until leaving for boarding school at the age of ten, alongside her elder sister Cassandra. They left one year later though (1786) as the family could not afford to send both of their daughters to school. According to Park Honan, a biographer of Austen, life in the Austen home was lived in ‘an open, amused, easy intellectual atmosphere’ where the ideas of those with whom the Austens might disagree politically or socially were 'considered and discussed.' After returning from school in 1786, Austen ‘never again lived anywhere beyond the bounds of her immediate family environment.’
Her artistic apprenticeship lasted from her teenage years into her thirties. As Austen grew into adulthood, she continued to live at her parents' home, carrying out those activities normal for women of her age and social standing: she practiced the fortepiano, assisted her sister and mother with supervising servants, and attended female relatives during childbirth and older relatives on their deathbeds. During this period, she experimented with various literary forms, including the epistolary novel (a novel written as a series of documents) which she then abandoned, and wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. Lady Susan, written between 1793 and 1795 was an experiment of this kind; taking the form of a series of letters, it is described as Austen’s most ambitious and sophisticated early work. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin describes the heroine of the novella as a 'sexual predator who uses her intelligence and charm to manipulate, betray, and abuse her victims, whether lovers, friends or family.'
In 1800, George Austen (Jane’s father), announced his decision to retire from his post in the ministry and move the family to Bath. Jane Austen was incredibly unsettled and unhappy in Bath, and sadly her father passed away during this period. This left the family in a precarious financial position and in 1805 Jane, her sisters and her mother lived in rented quarters. They moved to ‘Chawton Cottage’ in Hampshire in 1809. A gift from Austen’s brother Edward, this cottage allowed the family a more settled life and in a quieter, more tranquil setting. Austen was thus able to concentrate on her writing. From 1811 until 1816, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer.
Through her brother Henry, the publisher Thomas Egerton agreed to issue Sense and Sensibility, and the earnings from the novel provided Austen with some much needed financial and psychological independence. Egerton then published Pride and Prejudice, a revision of First Impressions, in January 1813. He advertised the book widely and it was an immediate success, garnering three favourable reviews and selling well. Mansfield Park followed, but was not popular, and the failure of this title offset most of the profits Austen earned on Emma. These were the last of Austen’s novels to be published during her lifetime. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon, but died before completing it.
Early in 1816, Jane Austen began to feel unwell. She ignored her illness at first and continued to work and to participate in the usual round of family activities. By the middle of that year, her decline was unmistakable to Austen and to her family, and Austen's physical condition began a long, slow deterioration, culminating in her death the following year. Some biographers assign her symptoms to Addison’s disease, and others to Hodgkin’s lymphoma or even bovine tuberculosis from drinking unpasteurised milk; she was weak and couldn’t walk from stiff joints. Austen died in Winchester, whilst seeking medical treatment, on 18th July 1817, at the age of forty-one. She is buried in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral.
Austen's works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the eighteenth century and are part of the transition to nineteenth century realism. Her plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. Her works though usually popular, were first published anonymously and brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews during her lifetime. It was the publication in 1869 of her nephew's A Memoir of Jane Austen that introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer. The second half of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of Austen scholarship and the emergence of a Janeite fan culture. Her novels are still well-read, studied and loved right up to the present day.