The Enigmatic Jane

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our spring/summer MainStage production of Pride and Prejudice.

There is something enigmatic about Jane Austen that makes it difficult for readers to have a sense of her beyond her novel and a few meager biographical details and this sense of her as a canny observer of human nature in her. Her family burned many of her letters and her brother and literary executor was careful about her image. Often she has been portrayed as the retiring daughter of a country clergyman, when in fact she wrote lively letters, travelled and had a network of friends and correspondents.

“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony”
– Jane Austen in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, March 13, 1817

Jane Austen was born in 1775 to George and Cassandra Austen. She was raised in the village of Steventon. Her father was a clergyman who had been educated at Oxford who supplemented his income with proceeds from farming. The Austen children in order of birth are: James, Edward, Henry, Cassandra, Francis, George, Jane and Charles. Jane would be closest with her sister Cassandra and brother Henry, who also served as her literary agent.

At the age of 8 Jane was sent, with her sister Cassandra to boarding school where she would have learned language, music and dancing. Reverend Austen had a significant library, which was open to all the members of his family including Cassandra and Jane who both read widely. The family also enjoyed amateur theatricals of their own creation. By 1787 Jane was keeping notebooks of her writings and she completed her first novel by age 15. Austen’s stories were read aloud to her family and they encourage her work. She had created drafts of the books that would become Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice by the age of 23.

In 1795, Jane began spending time with the nephew of their neighbors, a law student named Tom Lefroy. Both families noticed the pair spending time together and felt an engagement would be impractical since Tom was being supported by his family while training to be a barrister and Jane and her family could not offer financial settlement to make the match. Lefroy’s family sent him away and the families made efforts to make sure the pair did not see each other again.

“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend (Lefroy) 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.”
-Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra Austen, January 9, 1796

Her father retied in 1800 and the family moved from Steventon to Bath. In 1802, Austen accepted a proposal from Harris Big-Wither, the wealthy brother of her friend, only to retract the next day because she did not care for him, but knew that a marriage meant social mobility and stability, the subject of many of her novels.

Her father died in 1805 and Austen, her Mother and her elder sister Cassandra lived in a small house in Chawton, which was provided by her brother. Her own personal stability fluctuated as her brother’s fortunes changed leaving her and her mother in a precarious situation. She seems aware of both the benefits and dangers of a single life. In letters to her niece, Fanny Knight, she playfully refers to the poverty being a reason in favor of matrimony, yet in another letter she urges Fanny not to commit her self if she doesn’t really care for the man.

“Anything is to preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.”
-Jane Austen in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, November 18, 1814

Her books were published anonymously because writing novels would still not have been an acceptable occupation for a woman of her class and background. She did get to enjoy a sense of success for her writing. She died on July 18, 1817 at age 41 after a protracted illness.

“I must make use of this opportunity to thank you dear Sir, for the very high praise you bestow on my other novels. I am too vain to wish to convince you that you have praised them beyond their merit.”
-Jane Austen in a letter to James Stanier Clarke, Librarian and chaplain to the Prince Regent, December 11, 1815

It is somehow irresistible not to find in her biography something of the concerns of her novels, the financial precariousness of being a middle class woman, attempts to balance love and security, interfering and embarrassing relations. In both her letters and her books she is keenly observes the foibles of those around her and herself. Yet for all that readers feel such a kinship with Austen, much like one of the portraits painted by her sister Cassandra, in which her face is obscured by her bonnet, there is something in the humor of her letters and lightness of her tone that seems to keep Austen’s deepest emotions out of reach. We have to be content with the play of emotions of her beloved characters.

Above: An enigmatic portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra
Sources: The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen, Penelope Hughes-Hallett; A Memoir of Jane Austen, J.E. Austen-Leigh; Jane Austen: The World of her Novel, Deirdre Le Faye