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Jane Austen´s Life

What did it mean to be a woman in Jane Austen times? Let's go back to 1811. The beginning of regency period. King George III is declared unfit to rule (he probably suffered of porphyria, a disorder in the production of hemoglobin, which causes sensitivity to light, severe abdominal pain, mental changes, such as anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, disorientation or paranoia among others). Prince of Wales, his son (later King George IV) assumed the role of Prince Regent, but instead of trying to bring back the popularity to the Crown lost together with the American colonies, he indulged into excesses.

At the same time the first experiments with electricity are made, Mary Shelley publishes “Frankenstein” (1818), the gas is brought to the London streets to illuminate them by the Britosh Gas Company funded in 1812 and the first steamer crosses the Atlantic. All the improvements didn't change much the situation of women. The young ladies ready to get married are officially presented into a society at the official dances, it's in fashion to have visit cards. Curiously enough those that belong to women are bigger than the ones that belong to men.

But to be a woman in regency period is reduced to be under the supervision of a father, a husband or some other kind of male relative. Women are always dependent on men. That's the world that Jane Austen experienced.

Pencil and watercolour portrait done by her sister, Cassandra

Waxwork based on a work of an FBI expert, who analysed Austen's letters and diaries

What is more, a spinster is not in a good position. She usually lives with the relatives and takes care of the house, children, tries to be as useful as possible to pay back for the place she's living at. That was the situation in which Jane was. One of the examples of her obligations, one which was a little bit more pleasent than others, esa tea. Tea was considered a luxury and was quite expensive (to that point that some shops to make it cheaper mixed it with other things including arsenic and sheep excrement). Fot that reason the person who took care of it had to be a responsible one and usually it was some less important family member, not servants. In he house of Austen's brother, the one who took care of it was Jane and she kept the tea and all the things necessary to prepare it under lock and key. The only one with the access to it was her. 

Twinnings where Austen was buying tea

Twinnings today

The dining room at Chawton The cupboard on the left was where Jane locked away the tea

She prepared tea and breakfast, which consisted of toasts, muffins or rolls with butter, homemade jam or honey from her sister´s hive. That rituals are reflected in some of her novels: in “Mansfield Park” it is Fanny Price who takes care of tea, not a servant, due to her position in the family. Austen bought tea always in the same shop: Twinnings in London, as that was the place she could be sure it would be unadulterated. The shop is still there, on the Strand and it's popular as ever.
Tea and its price were the recurring topic in her letters to her sister Cassandra: “I suppose my mother recollects that she gave me no money for paying Brecknell and Twining, and my funds will not supply enough.”; “My mother made her entrée into the dressing-room through crowds of admiring spectators yesterday afternoon, and we all drank tea together for the. first time these five weeks.”; “We began our China tea three days ago, and I find it very good. My companions know nothing of the matter. As to Fanny and her twelve pounds in a twelvemonth, she may talk till she is as black in the face as her own tea, but I cannot believe her -- more likely twelve pounds to a quarter.”; “I am sorry to hear that there has been a rise in tea. I do not mean to pay Twining til later in the day, when we may order a fresh supply.”.

On the other hand, the first half of XVIIIth century witnessed the growth of a novel and shortly after that, the progress of Romanticism into literature. However, towards the end of the century, a new genre appeared in England: a novel of manners, repeating after Wikipedia: “work of fiction that re-creates a social world, conveying with finely detailed observation the customs, values, and mores of a highly developed and complex society.
The conventions of the society dominate the story, and characters are differentiated by the degree to which they measure up to the uniform standard, or ideal, of behaviour or fall below it. The range of a novel of manners may be limited, as in the works of Jane Austen, which deal with the domestic affairs of English country gentry families of the 19th century and ignore elemental human passions and larger social and political determinations. It may also be sweeping, as in the novels of Balzac, which mirror the 19th century in all its complexity in stories dealing with Parisian life, provincial life, private life, public life, and military life. Notable writers of the novel of manners from the end of the 19th century into the 20th include Henry James, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, and John Marquand.”

Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in rectory in Steventon, a little village in north-east Hampshire. She was the second daughter, seventh child of the Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra Leigh, who he married in 1764. Apart from her older sister, also called Cassandra Jane also had 6 brothers. The fact that there were only two sisters in teh family and six boys, brought the girls very close. In order of birth, all the Austen siblings were: James, George, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, Francis, Jane and Charles. Of all of the brothers, Jane was closest to Henry, who acted as her literary agent in the later stages of her writing. Of her brothers, two were clergymen, one inherited rich estates in Kent and Hampshire from a distant cousin and the two youngest became Admirals in the Royal Navy; her only sister, like Jane herself, never married.

The Rectory, Steventon, Hampshire

The Rectory was Jane's house for the first 25 years of her life. The family believed in open learning and dialogue between adults and children and it is known Jane was very close to her father, who apart from working in the rectory, also did some farming and teaching to maintain the family.
In 1783, Cassandra and Jane, just 8 at the time, were sent to a boarding school to Oxford and Southampton to be educated. Formal education for girsl includes French, music and dancing. During an outbreak of typhus at the boarding school, Jane almost died and finally both girls returned home to continue their studies. That meant that the further education was done by the father and older brothers and was radically different to that official one. Also, the extensice library that belonged to the reverend was open without any limitations to both girls and the reverend was eager to provide Jane with writing materials. The family debated together, organised plays of known works, in general the environment was very creative.
From 1785 to 1786, Jane and Cassandra attended the Reading Ladies Boarding School, where they studied French, spelling, needlework, music, and dancing, but the economic problems forced the family to bring the girls back home again.
More or less in 1795 she wrote her first novel, “Elinor and Marianne”. In the years 1787 – 1793 she wrote numerous poems, comic pieces, stories and those were compiled in 3 notebooks, which experts refer to as the Juvenilia.
In December 1795, Jane met Tom Lefroy, the nephew of her neighbor at Steventon, a student at London to become barrister. It's the only time we know she fell in love: in her letters to Cassandra, she wrote about spending time with Lefroy and mentioned her romantic feelings for him. However, Tom's family considered that union impractical, and sent him away. They also took care of them never seeing each other again.
After that, Austen began work on a second novel called First Impressions, which would later become Pride and Prejudice. The first draft was completed in 1799. And then, Austen began to revise her initial outline for Sense and Sensibility and worked on Northanger Abbey, a satire of the Gothic literary genre.
At the same time Mr. Austen wanted to help his daughter and tried to publish one of her works through Thomas Cadell, a publisher in London, who refused to even open the package. Jane probably never knew about that attempt.
In December 1800, George Austen told the family that he was retiring from the clergy. That meant that the family had to leave the house in Steventon and they moved to Bath. It made Jane profoundly unhappy and her creativity and productivity in writing fell down. The family first rented number 4 on Sydney Place (1801-1804), to move later to number 3 on Green Park Buildings East.

4, Sydney Place Bath

It was in Bath that Austen received her only known marraige proposal. In December 1802, Harris Bigg-Wither, a childhood friend of the family asked her to marry him and she agreed. But knowing she was not in love and only looking only at the practical outcome of the relation, she revoked her acceotance the very next day. It is easy to imagine reading her novels, or a letter she wrote some years later to her niece, that she believed a marriage should be based on true love and her not being in kove with Harris Bigg-Wither made it impossible for her to go on with the arrangement.
In 1803 her brother Harry visited a publisher, Benjamin Crosby and sold the rights to “Susan” (later to become “Northanger Abbey”) for 10 pounds with the promise that it will be soon published. It never was and the fight over the rights to the novel took some years.
On January 21st 1805 George Austen died and left his wife and daughters with no means to live. The brothers stepped in and took care of them. They first moved to Southhampton and then to Chawton (1809) to a little cottage on Edward's property. The cottage is known as Chawton cottage. It made their lives easier and gave Jane new strength to continue with her work.
Her brother Henry stepped in again to help with publishing and in October 1811 “Sense and Sensibility” was released by Thomas Egerton. It was well received and sold out by 1813. Then Egerton published “Pride and Prejudice” in January 1913. By October the second edition is ordered. Next one was “Mansfield Park”, which even though not as well received by the vritics as other novels, was the biggest economic success as long as Jane was alive.
To make her works even more popular Austen left Egerton and started working with John Murray, who published “Emma” and the second edition of “Mansfield Park”. At that time businesses led by the prothers Henry, James, Frak and Edward were passing through some really difficult moments and all the family was in a precarious situation.
At the beginning of 1816 Jane's health rapidly declines but she continues working more then ever on “The Elliots”, which she finished by January 1817. She immediately starts working on “The Brothers”, but she manages to write only 12 chapters before her health declines even more. At the age of 41 she suddenly can't even walk. By April she is completely confined to her bed. In May 1817 Henry and Cassandra take Jane to Winchester for medical treatment. On July 18th, 1817 Jane Austen died in Winchester (College Street 8) and was burried in Winchester Cathedral. She possibly died of Addison's Disease. In 1967 the commemorative plaque was presented in the place of her burial.

Henry and Cassandra published “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” with Murray as a collection set and relieved the author's identity up to that point unknown.Jane Austen was for the first time publicly connected to her works.

As a final curiosity I would like to tell you that at the beginning of XXth century Austen became extremely popular and her enthusiasts received the name “janeites” (first used in “A memoir of Jane Austen”, 1870). According to Austen scholar Claudia Johnson Janeitism is "the self-consciously idolatrous enthusiasm for 'Jane' and every detail relative to her"