About Jane Austen: Her later life and literary career
Jane Austen’s idyllic youth in the Hampshire countryside came to an abrupt end when her father retired and moved with his wife and two daughters to Bath in 1801. His son James took over the parish, to be later succeeded by his brother Henry. The family’s self-sufficiency at Steventon has been cited as a reason for George Austen’s insufficient grasp of financial matters, which became apparent after the Austens had moved to Bath, where they had to move to smaller and smaller houses to continue to afford the rent.
When George Austen died in 1805, Mrs Austen and her daughters were left with little more to live on than the small inheritance Cassandra Austen had been left by her fiancé, who had died before they could marry.
Although Jane Austen disliked Bath and attempted only one novel whilst she lived there – The Watsons, left unfinished – her experiences there clearly inspired many of the events in her later completed novels. The similarity of her situation to that of the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility is obvious, and the loss of Cassandra’s fiancé parallels Captain Benwick’s mourning for his fiancée in Persuasion. It is clear that the mature Jane Austen experienced a very different Bath from that depicted in her first completed novel, Susan, which was to become Northanger Abbey, and it is therefore perhaps unsurprising that she chose to return to Bath as the setting of her final and most mature novel Persuasion.
No longer able to sustain themselves in Bath, the Austen ladies were invited to share the household of Jane Austen’s newly married brother, naval captain Francis, in Southampton, in order to keep his wife company whilst he was at sea. By 1808, however, Frank moved to the Isle of Wight, and his mother and sisters left to stay with another brother, Edward Austen-Knight, who had been adopted as a teenager by wealthy relatives.
Edward inherited both of the Knight family estates, and his mother and sisters joined him initially at Godmersham Park in Kent, until he was able to offer them a cottage on the Hampshire estate, within sight of Chawton House where he made his own home. Jane Austen, having returned home to her beloved Hampshire, settled down to write in earnest at Chawton Cottage.
From this secure position she was able to rework earlier drafts of novels, including First Impressions, which became Pride and Prejudice, for publication, and to demand to have the manuscript for Susanreturned by the publishers to whom it had been sold years before, to allow her to rework it and make another attempt at publishing it. With her brother Henry acting as her agent, she was able to publish four novels in the six years from 1811 to her death in 1817, with her first and last completed novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published the year after her death.
Her letters suggest that she thoroughly enjoyed her official authorship and success: she wrote to her brother Frank, ‘You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140 – besides the Copyright, if that shd ever be of any value. – I have now therefore written myself into £250. – which only makes me long for more. – I have something in hand – which I hope on the credit of P.&P. will sell well, tho’ not half so entertaining.’ (letter dated 3 July 1813)
This indicates that she knew well what her audience wanted, and that her new style of novel-writing, inspired by eighteenth-century novels such as those by Fanny Burney as well as by the theatre , was appreciated by her readers. Mansfield Park was a new idea, not a reworking of a draft by her younger self, but by this time she had the confidence to venture onto the literary market on her own initiative.
Her family was very supportive throughout, which is reflected by her father’s and later her brother’s more successful efforts to represent her as agents, but also by the enthusiasm with which she wrote to Frank and Cassandra about the practical as well as the creative aspects of her work. On a trip to London in 1813, the year in which Pride and Prejudice was published, she wrote to Cassandra that she visited art exhibitions in the hope of finding images resembling her characters, and triumphantly mentioned a portrait that looked like Jane Bennet: ‘Mrs Bingley’s is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I daresay Mrs D. will be in Yellow.’ (letter dated 24 May 1813)
It is a pity that we cannot trace these portraits, as any lover of Pride and Prejudice would be eager to see the face of Jane Bennet as her author pictured her. Yet, as is fitting for an author of whom no reliable portrait survives, Jane Austen’s strength is in her ability to leave her characters to the reader’s imagination, and perhaps this is responsible for the wide and enduring appeal of Jane, Lizzy and Darcy.
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