Jane Austen, one of England’s most cherished and frequently read novelists, was born into the landed gentry in the town of Steventon on December 16, 1775. She was the sixth of seven children raised by strong parents: Cassandra, the daughter of an Oxford University scholar, and George, an Oxford-educated country clergyman. Never married, Austen lived comfortably with her family in Steventon until 1800, and thereafter in Bath, Southampton, and Chawton.
Many of her biographers have written that Austen’s life lacked dramatic or noteworthy incidents. She and her older sister Cassandra were educated primarily at home by their father. As a youth she read literature avidly, wrote fragments of novels and histories, and took part in standard social activities such as formal dances and visiting. In adulthood her daily life included assisting her parents at home and looking after her many nieces and nephews. Two adult experiences do stand out: in 1801 a mysterious romantic interest of hers died, and in 1802 she accepted and then declined an offer of marriage from a man she did not love. Otherwise Austen seems to have lived happily and uneventfully. During her mature years, when she was an author of solid repute, she remained at home, preferring rural domesticity to the London literary scene. She died in Winchester of Addison’s disease on July 18, 1817.
In her early twenties, Austen wrote in earnest, completing Lady Susan, Elinor and Marianne, and First Impressions, and drafting other works. Her father sent the novels to a publisher, but all were rejected, as was Susan in 1803. In 1804 she began The Watsons but abandoned it after her father’s death. Perhaps because of these disappointments, Austen’s interest in writing waned until 1809-1811, when she revised Elinor and Marianne and won it an anonymous printing as Sense and Sensibility. In 1812 she greatly revised First Impressions and saw it published, also anonymously, as Pride and Prejudice. Working intensely in a busy parlor in her Chawton home from 1813 to 1816, she composed Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion and revised Susan into Northanger Abbey, a spoof of the popular romance and horror novels of the era. At the time of her death she was working on a manuscript entitled Sanditon.
All of these works deal with the lives of young, marriageable men and women in England’s nineteenth-century rural landowning and aristocratic classes. Young readers have long admired Austen’s endearing, if imperfect heroes and heroines, whose struggles to find the right partner are complex, moving, and often humorous. Austen’s work is also known for its finely crafted plots, masterful language, and subtle irony, and for its vivid and sometimes satirical presentation of the only society in which Jane Austen lived.