From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
English novelist Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, the seventh of eight children of Rev. George Austen and his wife Cassandra Austen, nee Leigh. Her six major novels concern the pursuit of security, and love, for women dependent upon marriage among the landed gentry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England.
Jane Austen’s Popularity and Acclaim
Valued for her humorous, and often biting, social commentary, the subject and tone of her stories is a precursor to the new realistic narrative style that developed in the mid-Victorian era in English literature. Since the publication of her first novel Sense and Sensibility (1811), her popularity and acclaim have grown with readers and critics alike. Her subsequent novels: Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816) were published during her lifetime, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1817. She died on July 18, 1817, at the age of 41 in Winchester, Hampshire.
Jane Austen on Film
Austen’s novels have been adapted for the screen numerous times, notably the television mini-series of Pride and Prejudice (1995) staring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, Sense and Sensibility (1995), which won an Academy Award for best screenplay for its writer Emma Thompson, and Emma (2020), staring Anya Taylor-Joy as Austen’s troublesome creature, Miss Emma Woodhouse.
In a very small nutshell, that sums up Jane Austen’s life, work, and legacy.
Here Are 10 Facts That You May Not Know
1. Jane Austen was an Outlier
Jane lived a life atypical to her class and gender. As the daughter of a country vicar her family and society expected her to become a wife and mother. She wanted to write and passed over opportunities to marry. This was an unusual choice for a woman during the Georgian and Regency eras. It would not become socially acceptable to be a career-woman for centuries after her death.
2. Jane Austen Had Agency Before It Was Hip
Jane learned to work the system to become a published author. Since it was not socially acceptable for a woman to publish in their own name, she published anonymously. In her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, she used the moniker “By a Lady.” Subsequent novels attributed the writer as, “By the author of Sense and Sensibility.” Very few people outside of her family knew that she was the acclaimed author of Pride and Prejudice or any of her other novels. With the help of her brother Henry as her front man, she was able to negotiate her contracts with her publishers and earn £575 from her writing equaling about £57,000.00 ($74,500) in 2022 prices.
3. Jane Austen’s Most Popular Novel Made Her the Least Money
Today, Pride and Prejudice is the novel that is most identifiable to readers as Jane’s most popular work. In 1813, she chose to sell the copyright outright to Thomas Egerton, Whitehall for £110 (about £6,700 in 2022 prices). It has been estimated that Egerton subsequently made £450 (about £27,700 in 2022 prices) from just the first two editions of the book. It would be another 30 years before her sister Cassandra, the heir to her estate, was able to negotiate the purchase of the copyright back from Egerton so that it could be included in the set of her novels published by Richard Bentley in 1833.
4. Conversely, Jane Austen’s Least Popular Novel Made her the Most Money
During her lifetime, Jane’s most lucrative novel was Mansfield Park. The first edition was published in 1814, by Thomas Edgerton. This time their financial agreement was on commission, which meant that it was at the author’s financial risk. The publisher would advance the cost to produce and distribute the book against the sales and a commission. Seeking more profits and cache, she changed publishers for the second edition to John Murray in 1816. In total, Jane made £310 (about £23,500 in 2022 prices), on Mansfield Park. That equals a little over half of her total £45,000 she made during her writing career. Today, Mansfield Park is the least popular of her novels, though Fanny Price would meekly disagree with you.
5. All Jane Austen’s Heroines Married, Yet She Did Not
Jane chose to remain a spinster her entire life. For many, one of the most puzzling aspects of her novels is her ability to write about love and romance so sensitively when she was never married herself. This is twenty-first-century thinking applied to early nineteenth century social standards. Most marriages in her day were not love matches, but financial arrangements. Even if she had married, she may not have known the degree of esteem and love that her heroines experienced in her novels.
Jane knew about courtship and love because she experienced them herself and observed them through her family, friends, and society. Her own romances are mentioned in her letters (Edward Taylor and Tom Lefroy), and later alluded to by family members after her death (Mr. Blackwell). She also accepted a marriage proposal in 1802 from Harris Bigg-Wither which was rescinded the next morning. She could not marry without love. Later, Aunt Jane astutely advised her niece Fanny Austen Knight on romance.
“And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection; and if his deficiences of manner, &c. &c., strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once.” 18 November 1814
Jane shared her wisdom on love with her young niece from experience and gave all her heroines their “happily-ever-after” offering her readers the life story that they wished for themselves.
6. Sense and Sensibility was Published on Commission
“People are more ready to borrow & praise, than to buy–which I cannot wonder at;–but tho’ I like praise as well as anybody, I like what Edward calls Pewter too.” Jane Austen, 30 November 1814
Jane was keen to be published. She took a gamble in 1811 with her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, and paid for the cost to publish the book with Thomas Egerton in London, a Leigh cousin on her mother’s side of the family. Since she was not an independently wealthy woman it is believed that her brothers covered the cost. Egerton accepted the manuscript on a commission basis, earning a percentage of sales. This arrangement could be compared to hybrid publishing today. Happily, Sense and Sensibility did sell out its first edition print run of 750 copies by 1813 making Jane £140 (about £8,824.97 in 2022 prices). She was now a published author and profitable writer.
7. Emma, is Dedicated to the Prince Regent, Even Though Jane Austen Detested Him
In 1815, as Jane was preparing Emma for publication by the prestigious John Murray, she received an invitation by the Prince Regent to visit his library at Carlton House in London. Her tour guide was the librarian, Mr. Clark, who at the request of the prince suggested that Jane dedicate a future publication to him. This was an honor that she most likely was not keen to immediately accept. We know her opinion of the prince was not favorable. In a letter to her dear friend Martha Lloyd she had this to say about the son of her Monarch:
“I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband.” 16 February 1813
Being the sharp businesswoman that she was, of course Jane agreed to dedicate the book to “Prinny,” as he was unaffectionately called by those who detested him as much as she did. A presentation copy of the novel was gifted to the prince, though there is no surviving correspondence between his household, her publisher, or Austen regarding it. The silence is reward enough.
8. Several of the Antiheroines in Jane Austen’s Writing Resemble Her Cousin, Eliza de Feuillide
An eleven-year-old Jane Austen was first introduced to Madame la Comtesse de Feuillide in 1786. She was Jane’s first cousin, the daughter of her father’s sister, Philadelphia Hancock. Born in 1761 in Calcutta, India, Eliza was fourteen years older than Jane and socially a world apart.
Eliza is believed to be the inspiration for several of Austen’s antiheroines. In her juvenilia Jane dedicated her short story, Love and Freindship, “To Madame la Comtesse de Feuillide this novel is inscribed by her obliged humble servant The Author.” Read the story to discover why. In another short story, Henry and Eliza, she writes about the courtship and marriage of Eliza and her brother Henry directly. Austen’s early novella, Lady Susan, contains a wicked, scheming widow who flirts with several men, similar to Eliza’s actions with Jane’s older brothers. In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford also manipulates men’s emotions to suit her needs. Scholars who have studied Eliza’s life and Jane’s writing believe that his is more than a coincidence.
9. Jane Austen Was a Fashionista & Foodie
Throughout Jane letters are numerous mentions to her sister Cassandra about clothing and hat fashions. She is as keenly aware of the London trends as she is of the characteristics she gleans from family and society for her characters.
“I am amused by the present style of female dress;—the coloured petticoats with braces over the white Spencers & enormous Bonnets upon the full stretch, are quite entertaining.” 2 September 1814
While visiting relatives in Bath, Jane shares her shopping pursuit of the latest rage of fake fruit on bonnets and writes to her sister Cassandra of her dilemma.
“I cannot decide on the fruit till I hear from you again. Besides, I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit. What do you think on that subject?” 11 June 1799
Jane also rhapsodizes about food quite frequently. While visiting her wealthy brother Edward in Kent, she shares her impressions with her sister.
“… In the meantime, for elegance and ease and luxury, the Hattons and Milles’ dine here to-day, and I shall eat ice and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy.” 20 June 1808
There is no doubt that our Jane loved a pretty frock and fine food when she could get them.
10. Jane Austen is Buried in a Cathedral Even Though She was Not Royalty, a Politian, an Aristocrat, or Exalted in Her Lifetime
The cause of Jane Austen’s early death remains a mystery. Some believe that Addison’s disease took her life, others feel it was arsenic poisoning. Recently author Stephanie Barron came across a new possibility while researching her book, Jane and the Year Without a Summer.
While we may never know what illness took her life on July 18, 1817, at the age of 41, the location of her final resting place only amplifies the mystery around the end of her days. Amazingly, Jane is buried in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral. Because of the limited space inside a cathedral, those who are buried there are aristocrats, politicians, or the very wealthy. Jane does not fit this profile. She remained unknow and unexalted in her lifetime. Again, her front man brother Henry worked his connections and secured a grave for her on short notice. Her memorial gravestone was written by her older brother James and does not mention her achievements as a writer, only the “extraordinary endowments of her mind.”
- Jane Austen’s Letters, Fourth Edition, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (2011)
- Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin (1999)
- The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, by Paula Byrne (2014)
JANE AUSTEN BOOKSTACK PRINT
The lovely illustration of the seven Jane Austen novels in the Penguin Clothbound Classics editions is by the talented artist Bea Harvie. Visit her at her Etsy shop, LittleStarsStories.
We purchased or received review copies of the books from the publishers that were used as reference in this article. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2022, austenprose.com.
Hello Dear Readers,
Can you share any interesting facts about Jane Austen and her novels with our readers?
We would love to hear from you!
Laurel Ann Nattress, editor