Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire. She was the daughter of a clergyman and her mother had aristocratic connections to the Leigh family of the Stoneleigh estate in Warwickshire. There were six brothers, James, Edward, George, Henry, Francis and Charles and one sister Cassandra. James became a clergyman, Edward was adopted by his wealthy Knight relatives, George suffered fits and was possibly deaf so did not live at home, Henry was firstly a soldier, then became a banker and ended up a clergyman, Francis and Charles were in the Navy.
Jane’s godparents were Great Uncle Francis’s wife Jane, a Mrs Musgrave who was a connection of Mrs Austen, and the Reverend Samuel Cooke. Jane’s father wrote to the Walters at Seal in Kent a day after she was born, ‘She is to be Jenny, and seems to me as if she would be as like Henry as Cassy is to Neddy.’ He was talking of physical characteristics: Henry had his father’s hazel eyes, and it seems Jane inherited them also.
Like her siblings before her Jane was put out to nurse in the village, and came home a year or eighteen months later when weaned and manageable. This was common practice at the time amongst gentry families, and with Mrs Austen’s growing family she was probably able to get on with her many household tasks without having to worry about looking after babies. At the time of Jane’s birth, she already had James, George, Edward, and Cassandra, though George who failed to develop normally was sent to live elsewhere.
Steventon was, and is, a small hamlet, and Jane’s father was the rector of St Nicholas Church. The rectory is no longer there as it was demolished in the 1820s. It was an unpretentious house with a sitting room and parlour at the front, Mr Austen’s study at the back, 7 bedrooms and 3 attics. The Austen family enjoyed the life of gentry folk and mixed in the highest circles because of their connections, though they were not wealthy.
Cassandra must have been teacher and playmate to her sister in that busy household, showing Jane how to help with the chores, telling her stories and listening to her attempts to read them herself. The girls enjoyed outdoor games, perhaps rolling down the green slope at the back of the house like Catherine Morland, and playing cricket or ball games with their younger brothers, Frank and Charles.
The girls were encouraged to follow the pursuits they enjoyed. Jane loved to write and Cassandra painted. Jane wrote and Cassandra illustrated A History of England in a humorous style. The sisters must have had a lot of fun making it; perhaps sitting at the table on a rainy day after their chores were done, quills and paint brushes to hand, laughing at their ideas and each other’s contributions. Jane dedicated this work to Cassandra and they must have regarded it as a special treasure, because they kept it all their lives. Besides writing and painting, the girls learned to sew, play the piano, and dance. They had lessons at home, most probably sharing the tuition their father gave to paying pupils. Mr Austen took in scholars and prepared them for university.
In 1782 Cassandra was to go away to school. Jane insisted on going too, as she could not bear to be separated from her sibling. They set off together with their cousin, Jane Cooper to Oxford, to be tutored by Mrs Cawley. The following year, a contagious throat infection struck the school. Jane Cooper wrote to her mother, who immediately came with her sister Mrs Austen, to take the girls home. Unfortunately, Mrs Cooper caught the putrid infection and died. The girls were then sent to the Abbey House School at Reading in 1785, where the attitude to their education seemed carefree and casual. Schooling consisted of a couple of hours each morning and then they were free to do as they pleased. By 1787 their education was complete and they returned home.
The Austens farmed their land and grew their own vegetables. Jane’s sister Cassandra kept bees and made mead and honey. They were a close-knit family; Jane and her sister were particularly close, sharing a bedroom all their lives. We know that the wallpaper was blue and that there were blue striped curtains, a press and shelves for books, Jane’s piano and a looking glass between two windows. Cassandra would likely have kept her drawing materials there and Jane her writing desk. It’s easy to imagine the sisters working together in their very own dressing/sitting room, away from prying eyes.
Jane’s contemporaries describe her as being tall and slim, with brown, curly hair, large hazel eyes and a high colour in her cheeks, which were said to be full and round in her youth. The paintings that Cassandra executed show, on the one hand, a rather cross looking Jane probably in her mid thirties, and on the other, give nothing away in another portrait where Jane faces away from the viewer, except for a glimpse of the curve of her cheek. The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen shows Jane at the age of around thirteen to fourteen. Painted by Ozias Humphry it captures her round face, and a hint of a smile.
When the sisters were apart, they wrote to each other constantly. The letters that Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra were written from1796 in her 21st year until 1816. Unfortunately, none of Cassandra’s letters to Jane have survived and we have to guess their content from Jane’s correspondence. The letters are fascinating and tell us much about Jane’s life, although Cassandra edited them after Jane’s death. Some of the letters were burned, and others have snippets cut out of them. They were private letters, full of every day news and gossip, written to her only confidante.
The first letter we have that Jane wrote to Cassandra, wishes her sister a happy birthday and then introduces us to a young man she cannot stop talking about. She is obviously very keen on this ‘very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man,’ and his name is written again and again. She tells her sister how shockingly she has behaved with him and seems to be relating these incidents to provoke a reaction from Cassandra, who has already scolded her in a previous letter. They have danced three times in a row, sat down with each other and it seems had little time for anyone else.
Steventon: Saturday (January 9).
In the first place I hope you will live twenty-three years longer. Mr. Tom Lefroy's birthday was yesterday, so that you are very near of an age.
You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago.
Cassandra noted that her sister started writing First Impressions in the same year. This was the book that she revised later on to become Pride and Prejudice.
Tom Lefroy was a young Irishman who came to stay with his aunt, Madame Lefroy in the neighbouring village of Ashe. We know that they met at the local balls and that there was a mutual attraction. Clues in Pride and Prejudice which suggest Jane may have been thinking about Tom when she wrote this book include the fact that Mr Lefroy had five elder sisters and that his mother’s maiden name was Gardiner. Mrs Gardiner was Mrs Bennet’s maiden name in the book.
Jane Austen’s father first attempted to get First Impressions published in 1797. He sent it to a publisher named Cadell who declined it by return of post. It had been a difficult year as Cassandra’s fiancé, Tom Fowle, from Kintbury had died at San Domingo of yellow fever. He was a clergyman and had gone out with his kinsman, Lord Craven’s expedition as a chaplain. Cassandra never considered marriage again and it seems that she kept her feelings of grief to herself.
Jane stayed in Queen Square in 1799 and it’s possible these early visits to Bath inspired Northanger Abbey and that Catherine’s delight in Bath must have mirrored Jane’s own initial pleasure in the town. A visit to the Pump Rooms, Bath fashions and a walk down Bath Street are discussed in Jane’s letters, and she writes about confections of orange blossom for bonnets and sprigged and spotted muslins, or lamentations on the weather or affected quizzes, flirts and fops.
Jane and her family moved to Bath in 1801 to number 4, Sydney Place, to make room for her brother James and his family. From what is left of the letters that Cassandra didn’t burn we can see that Jane was upset, but resigned to her fate and determined to be cheerful about the prospect of living in Bath and holidaying in Devon, Dorset and Wales. During this time Jane is supposed to have met a young man in the West Country whilst on holiday, possibly at Sidmouth. Cassandra said that Jane held him in high regard, but before their acquaintance could be strengthened further, news reached them of his death.
When Harris Bigg-Wither, the heir to Manydown proposed in 1802 Jane initially accepted, but during the night she changed her mind. Her brother James arrived next day to escort the sisters home.
Jane's father died in 1805 while they were living in Bath after suffering ill health for some time, and afterwards their finances were depleted though Cassandra had her legacy from Tom Fowle, and the brothers helped out where they could.
They moved to Southampton in 1806 to live with Jane’s brother Francis, but it wasn’t until Edward’s wife died giving birth to her eleventh child that the Austen ladies were offered Chawton cottage on his estate. Jane felt settled again in a Hampshire village not dissimilar to Steventon, and started to revise her books.
Sense and Sensibility was published at her own expense with Henry’s help in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice was published on January 28 1813. It was sold for £110 and there were probably 1500 copies in the first edition. Emma, Mansfield Park followed, and finally Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published after Jane’s death.
By 1816 Jane’s health was deteriorating, and though she had periods of time where she seems to have rallied, by April 1817 Jane had made her will leaving everything to Cassandra apart from £50 to her brother Henry and £50 to his housekeeper Madame Bigeon. Cassandra nursed her through her last illness until Jane died in her arms, at the age of 41, whilst staying in Winchester on July 18. Cassandra wrote in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, ‘I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.'