Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature, her realism and biting social commentary cementing her historical importance among scholars and critics.
Austen keenly observed the shifting of social class during her day.
She was born on December 16, 1775, at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, the seventh child of a country clergyman and his wife, George and Cassandra Austen. She was primarily educated at home, benefiting from her father’s extensive library and the schoolroom atmosphere created by Mr. Austen’s live-in pupils. Her closest friend was her only sister, Cassandra, almost three years her senior.
Though Austen lived a quiet life, she had unusual access to the greater world, primarily through her brothers. Francis (Frank) and Charles, officers in the Royal Navy, served on ships around the world and saw action in the Napoleonic Wars.
When Jane received a proposal from the wealthy brother of a close friend, for whom she felt no affection, she initially accepted him, only to turn him down the next day. This was a painful decision for her, as she understood deeply that marriage was the sole option women had for social mobility. She further understood the vulnerability of single women without family estates who depend on wealthy relatives for a home. This subject is at the heart of Sense and Sensibility.
As a child Austen began writing comic stories, now referred to as the Juvenilia. Her first mature work, composed when she was about 19, was a novella, Lady Susan, written in epistolary form (as a series of letters). This early fiction was preserved by her family but was not published until long after her death.
Those who returned from the Napoleonic wars with both wealth and notoriety were able to break through class barriers that were previously impenetrable. She wrote elegantly about this sea change in her last novel, Persuasion.
Although her novels focused on courtship and marriage, Jane Austen never married.
Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, at age 41. She never wrote a memoir, sat for an interview, or recorded whether she had herself felt the joys and disappointments of love.
Jane Austen focused on middle-class provincial life with humor and understanding. She depicted minor landed gentry, country clergymen and their families, in which marriage mainly determined women's social status. Most important for her were those little matters, as Emma says, "on which the daily happiness of private life depends."
Jane Austen's first published novel was Sense and Sensibility in 1811. It was printed anonymously with "By a Lady" on the title page, enabling Austen to keep her privacy and her femininity in the eyes of society. The text originally was a series of letters between two sisters, but evolved into novel form.
She started to write for family amusement as a child. Her parents were avid readers; Austen's own favorite poet was Cowper. Her earliest-known writings date from about 1787. Very shy about her writing, she wrote on small pieces of paper that she slipped under the desk plotter if anyone came into the room.