Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Austen, Jane
AUSTEN, JANE (1775–1817), novelist, was born at Steventon, near Basingstoke, 16 Dec. 1775. Her father, George Austen, was rector of Deane and Steventon. He was married in 1764 to her mother, Cassandra, youngest daughter of the Rev. Thos. Leigh, and niece of Theophilus Leigh, for more than fifty years master of Balliol. Jane was the youngest of seven children. Her brothers were James (died 1819); Edward, who inherited the property and took the name of his second cousin, Mr. Knight; Henry, a clergyman (died 1850); Francis William, and Charles; the two last became admirals, Francis dying in 1865, aged 92 [see Austen, Francis William], and Charles in 1832, aged 73. Her sister, Cassandra, who died unmarried in 1845, was three years older than herself. For the first twenty-five years of her life, Jane Austen lived with her family at Steventon. We are told that she took part in some private theatricals given in a barn in summer, and the dining-room in winter, between her thirteenth and sixteenth years, and occasionally visited Bath, where her uncle. Dr. Cooper, vicar of Sonning, lived for some years with his family. Her father took pupils to increase a modest income; and Jane learned French, a little Italian, could sing a few simple old songs in a sweet voice, and was remarkably dexterous with her needle, and 'especially great in satin-stitch.' She read standard literature; was familiar with the 'Spectator;' minutely acquainted with Richardson; fond of Johnson and Cooper, and specially devoted to Crabbe, of whom she used to say that if she ever married at all, she could fancy being Mrs. Crabbe. In later years she was charmed with Scott's poetry, and admired the first Waverley novels. In 1801 the family moved to Bath, living first at 4 Sydney Terrace, and afterwards at Green Park Buildings. She spent some weeks at Lyme in 1804: and upon her father's death in February 1805, his widow and daughters, after a few months in lodgings, moved to Castle Square, Southampton, whence Jane visited Kent and Bath. In 1809 they settled in a cottage at Chawton, about a mile from Alton, on the property of her brother, Mr. Knight. There she spent the rest of her life, with occasional visits to London, till her health, which had given symptoms of decline in 1816, broke down. In May 1817 she moved to Winchester, to be near Mr. Lyford, a doctor of reputation. She took lodgings in College Street, Where she was nursed by her sister and attended by her two brothers, who were clergymen in the neighbourhood. She died quietly 18 July 1817, and was buried in the centre of the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral. The grave is marked by a slab of black marble. Jane is described as tall, slender, and remarkably graceful; she was a clear brunette with a rich colour, hazel eyes, fine features, and curling brown hair. Her domestic relations were delightful, and she was specially attractive to children. A vague record is preserved of an attachment for a gentleman whom she met at the seaside, and who soon afterwards died suddenly. But there is no indication of any serious disturbance of her habitual serenity.
Jane began to write stories in her childhood. Many had been written before she was sixteen. They were good-humoured non-sense; and one of them—a burlesque 'comedy'—is given in her memoir. She began 'Pride and Prejudice' in October 1796, and finished it in August 1797, having already written something similar to 'Sense and Sensibility ' called 'Eleanor and Marianne.' 'Northanger Abbey' was written in 1798, but not prepared for the press until 1803. At Bath, about 1804, she began a story, never finished, called 'The Watsons.' In the first year at Chawton she prepared for the press 'Sense and Sensibility,' begun in November 1797, and 'Pride and Prejudice.' Between February 1811 and August 1816 she wrote 'Mansfield Park,' 'Emma,' and 'Persuasion.' She then began, but never finished, another nameless story. Besides these she wrote another story, called 'Lady Susan,' which, like 'Sense and Sensibility, when first composed, was in the form of letters. Her father offered 'Pride and Prejudice' to Cadell on 1 Nov. 1797; but the proposal was rejected ]by return of post, without an inspection of the manuscript. 'Northanger Abbey' was sold to a publisher in Bath for 10l. in 1803. He did not venture to print it, and was glad to take back his money and return the manuscript to one of her brothers a few years later, not knowing, till the bargain was complete, that the writer was also the author of four popular novels. 'Sense and Sensibility' appeared in 1811; 'Pride and Prejudice ' in 1813; 'Mansfield Park' in 1814; 'Emma' in 1816; 'Northanger Abbey' and 'Persuasion' in 1818 (posthumously). She received 150l. from the sale of 'Sense and Sensibility;' and under 700l. up to the time of her death from the four then published. Egerton was the publisher of the first, and Murray of the last three. They were published anonymously, though the authorship was an open secret to her friends. It was first made public in a short biographical notice prefixed to the two posthumous novels in 1818. Miss Austen's genius received little recognition during her life. In 1815 she was nursing her brother in London, when the Prince Regent, hearing of her visit through one of his physicians, sent his chaplain, Mr. Clarke, to wait upon her, to show her Carlton House, and to give her permission, of which she took advantage, to dedicate her next novel ('Emma') to him. Mr. Clarke recommended her to describe an accomplished clergyman, who should resemble Beattie's minstrel and the vicar of Wakefield; and, upon Miss Austen's declaring her incompetence for such a task, suggested that a 'romance illustrative of the august house of Cobourg would just now be very interesting.' Miss Austen politely ridiculed this brilliant suggestion. No writer ever understood better the precise limits of her own powers. She speaks of the 'little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour.' All critics agree to the unequalled fineness of her literary tact; no author ever lived, as G. H. Lewes told Miss Bronte (Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte, ch. xvi.), with a nicer sense of proportioning means to ends. Given the end, the lifelike portraiture of the social aspects with which alone she was familiar, the execution is flawless. The unconscious charm of the domestic atmosphere of the stories, and the delicate subsatirical humour which pervades them, have won her the admiration, even to fanaticism, of innumerable readers. Miss Bronte acknowledged the statement quoted from Lewes, but would not admit his further assertion that Miss Austen was also amongst the greatest artists or portrayers of human character. She was. Miss Bronte admitted, shrewd and observant, but devoid of poetry or sentiment. Such criticism applies to the limits of her sphere, not to her perfection within it. Miss Austen was first reviewed in the 'Quarterly' for October 1815, and afterwards (by Whately) in the same review for July 1821. Amongst her admirers were Warren Hastings, Southey, Coleridge, Sir Jas. Mackintosh, Lord Holland, Sydney Smith, and Sir Henry Holland. G. H. Lewes says that he would rather have written 'Pride and Prejudice,' or 'Tom Jones,' than any of the Waverley novels. Lord Macaulay declares (art. on Mme, d'Arblay) that she approaches Shakespeare nearer than any of our writers in drawing character; and he once proposed to edit her works with a memoir to raise funds for a monument. Sir Walter Scott declared (diary for 14 March 1826) Miss Austen's talent to be 'the most wonderful he had ever met with:' 'The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinaiy common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so young!' Her first biographer in 1818 had only ventured to say that some readers ventured to place her books beside those of Miss Burney and Miss Edgeworth.
[Memoir of Jane Austen, by her nephew, J. E. Austen Leigh, London. This contains some letters and a few fragments of verse and other trifles. To the second edition, 1871, are added 'Lady Susan' and the imperfect 'The Watsons.' Letters of Jane Austen, edited by Lord Brabourne (1884), is a collection of letters to her sister Cassandra from 1796 to 1816. They are trivial, and give no new facts.]