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Cheat sheet... Jane Austen

It's Tuesday, so we're pleased to bring you another in our weekly series of quick guides to great authors. This week we're taking a look at Jane Austen...

Posted on 15th January 2013 by Waterstones

Jane AustenJane Austen

Just the facts:

  • Full name - Jane Austen
  • Lived 1775 – 1817
  • She was the daughter of George, a rector in Hampshire, and Cassandra Austen.
  • She had six brothers and one sister, named Cassandra after their mother, who was Jane's closest friend.
  • Although her parents were members of the gentry class, her father's financial situation was such that he also had to work as a farmer and teacher to support his large family.
  • Her brother Henry acted as her literary agent.
  • Jane and Cassandra were initially sent away to be educated but when they both contracted typhus, from which Jane nearly died, they were brought home.
  • That is until they were sent away to boarding school...
  • They were only at school for a year however as their parents' finances forced them to return home again.
  • Her father encouraged both girls in artistic and intellectual pursuits and Austen merrily devoured his library.
  • Her family and friends enjoyed staging productions of popular comedies of the day. Yes, it does sound sickeningly idyllic...
  • She began writing at an early age, initially for her own amusement, composing poems and short satirical novels such as Love and Freindship. That's her spelling not mine. She was only 14 years-old though.
  • Together with her sister Cassandra who provided illustrations, she wrote the comic parody The History of England at the age of fifteen.
  • in 1795 she finished her first attempt at a longer form story, Lady Susan, however her first full length novel, Elinor And Marianne, followed the year later. Both were epistolary novels and the latter was to become the basis for 1811's Sense And Sensibility.
  • She met, and quite likely fell in love with, a young barrister called Tom Lefroy in 1795.
  • Although Jane confessed to her sister that they spent a great deal of time together, Lefroy's family appear to have frowned on him making a low marriage and quickly whisked him away from Hampshire in 1796. They never met again.
  • Soon after, she began work on First Impressions, the novel which would become Pride And Prejudice.
  • The family moved to Bath in 1800 when George retired, much to the consternation of Jane.
  • Becoming published was no easier back then. Her father made some unsuccessful efforts on her behalf, perhaps unbeknownst to Jane.
  • A London publisher, Benjamin Crosby, purchased Lady Susan in 1803 and promptly did nothing with it. Austen bought it back in 1816.
  • Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to Jane in 1802. Despite his ridiculous name, she accepted.
  • The next day, presumably having written considered the impact that being called Jane Bigg-Wither might have on her career as a writer, she changed her mind and withdrew her acceptance. It probably didn't help that Harris was fat, ugly, aggressive and prone to stuttering.
  • It was almost definitely the name that did it though.
  • Her father, George, became ill and died in 1805, leaving the family in an even more precarious financial situation.
  • Between 1803 and 1805 Austen wrote and then abandoned a new novel, The Watsons.
  • Jane's brother, Edward, provided a home for his mother and sisters on his estate at Chawton.
  • In 1811 she finally became a published author when Sense And Sensibility appeared and sold out.
  • Pride And Prejudice, Mansfield Park were to follow and provide her with some degree of financial stability.
  • The final book published during her lifetime, Emma, was published by John Murray, and though it sold well, the cost of a second print run of Mansfield Park, which subsequently failed to sell, absorbed most of her profits.
  • Although she had completed Persuasion by July 1816, she was unable to publish the book as the family were again thrown into financial turmoil when her brother Henry's bank collapsed, taking with it most of their savings.
  • Jane became ill in 1816, suffering an illness which has been variously diagnosed as Addison's Disease, Hodgkin's lymphoma, typhus and tuberculosis.
  • She continued to work on a novel called The Brothers, which was published in 1925 as Sanditon.
  • Austen died at 41 years of age in 1817 and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
  • Her brother Henry and sister Cassandra had Persuasion and Northanger Abbey published later that year.


Key work: This can only be Pride And Prejudice. Misunderstood as a romance, this satire of love and manners displays Austen's biting yet subtle wit perfectly.


Anecdote: The Prince Regent was something of a fan. His librarian wrote to Austen to let her know, and to offer his thoughts on future novels. Jane's reply is something rather special.

Dear Miss Austen,
I have to return you the thanks of His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, for the handsome copy you sent him of your last excellent novel (Emma) ... The Prince Regent has just left us for London; and having been pleased to appoint me Chaplain and Private English Secretary to the Prince of Coburg, I remain here with His Serene Highness and a select party until the marriage. Perhaps when you again appear in print you may choose to dedicate your volumes to Prince Leopold: any historical romance, illustrative of the history of the august House of Coburg, would just now be very interesting.

Believe me at all times, Dear Miss Austen, Your obliged friend,

J. S. Clarke.

My dear Sir,
I am honoured by the Prince's thanks and very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which you mention the work.... You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could not more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

I remain, my dear Sir, Your very much obliged, and very sincere friend,

J. Austen.

DO say: There's so much more to Austen than the soft filtered TV adaptations would have you think. And what was with Lost In Austen anyway? Who commissions these things?

DON’T say: Why isn't the Mr Darcy lake scene in the book? That's the only reason I read it!

You can find all of our past cheat sheets here.


Dan Lewis, for Waterstones.com/blog

Watch an interview with John Mullan, author of What Matters In Jane Austen.


Is there an author you'd like a cheat sheet to feature? Let us know in the comments below...