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Jane Austen's Life and Times

A Brief Life of Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born on December 16 1775 at Steventon in the county of Hampshire in Southern England. She was the seventh of eight children, and the second of two daughters. As her family were members of the upper middle class of English Society – her father, George, was a minister of the Church of England (Anglican Church) – she enjoyed a comfortable, though by no means opulent lifestyle.

It was while the family still lived in Steventon that Jane Austen began to write seriously: her juvenilia date from 1787 to 1793, and the novels that would later be published under the titles "Sense and Sensibility", "Pride and Prejudice", and "Northanger Abbey" were begun, and worked on from 1795 to 1799.

In 1800 George Austen, at the age of 70, suddenly decided to retire to Bath, and the family moved there the following year. They lifestyle that his family enjoyed here is very accurately portrayed in Jane's novels, which quite apart from the marvellous plots, contain finely observed and recorded snapshots of the particular stratum of English society in which the Austen family lived.

In 1805 George Austen died. As the majority of the family income had derived from his various livings, which lapsed at his death, the family became very largely dependent on his sons – Jane's brothers – among whom were two naval officers and two church ministers.

The family moved away from Bath in 1806, first to Clifton, and then to Southampton on the south coast of England. They remained less than three years in Southampton before moving to Chawton, near Alton in Hampshire, where Jane was to spend the rest of her life.

Shortly after the move to Chawton, Jane resumed her literary work, and in October 1811 "Sense and Sensibility", the first of her novels to be published appeared anonymously, bearing only the intriguing attribution "By A Lady". "Pride and Prejudice" was published in January 1813, followed by "Mansfield Park" in May 1814. "Emma", the fifth of her six novels, and the last to appear during her lifetime, appeared in December 1815. During 1816 Jane, who suffered from Addison's disease, became increasingly unwell, and though she continued to work on her novels, it was clear that she did not have much time remaining to her. She died on 18 July 1817, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral six days later.

Jane's brother Henry prepared "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion", the last of her novels, for publication, and they appeared posthumously at the end of 1817.

An excellent place to look for more information about Jane Austen's life and family is the section of Henry Churchyard's Jane Austen Information Page which deals with her life and family. For much more information try the excellent biography, Jane Austen: A Life by Whitbread Prize winner Claire Tomalin.

Jane Austen's Time
The times during which Jane lived saw some of the most momentous events in European and World history, and it has often been commented upon that it seems peculiar to many that she makes virtually no reference to the upheavals that were taking place on the political and national stage.

Some of the major events that occurred during her lifetime are:

  • 1776 The American Declaration of Independence
  • 1783 India incorporated into British Empire
  • 1789 Beginning of the French Revolution
  • 1793 First French Republic proclaimed
  • 1799 Bonaparte overthrows French Directory
  • 1800 Act of Union - Great Britain annexes Ireland
  • 1805 Battle of Trafalgar
  • 1812 Napoleon invades Russia
  • 1815 Battle of Waterloo

As is evident from the foregoing list, during Jane Austen's adolescent and adult life, the history of Great Britain is intimately interwoven with that of France under Bonaparte. It is, of course, impossible that Jane would not have been acutely aware of the threat that France represented to Britain during this period: since two of her brothers were officers in the Royal Navy, she could not have helped hearing about the situation from them. In any case, the Bonapartist regime was an ever present threat to Britain from 1799 until his capture and exile in 1815, and no literate Briton could have been unaware of it. However, Jane Austen chose – with the exception of the barest allusions – not to let the world outside intrude into her literary world, and perhaps for this reason, the acuity and piquancy of her observations about her social world are heightened and do not suffer from the distractions that such intrusions would almost inevitably bring.

Last update: 2nd November 2012

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