70 facts you might not know about iconic British novelist Jane Austen
Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817. Celebrated for her sharp wit, descriptions of domestic life and subtle criticism of England's economic and class structure, Austen's works continue to be dissected and analyzed in classrooms and beyond.
To commemorate the anniversary of her death, CBC Books has compiled a list of 70 facts you might not know about the celebrated English novelist.
1. Jane Austen was born on Dec. 16, 1775 in Steventon, United Kingdom.
2. She was a Georgian-era author who depicted English country life throughout her work.
3. Her parents were George and Cassandra Austen. Her father was a rector and her mother belonged to the gentry as part of the aristocratic Leigh family.
4. The Austen family loved the arts and enjoyed reading aloud to one another.
7. The make-up of Austen's family was markedly different from those of her characters. Only two of her protagonists have elder brothers.¹
8. Austen's sister Cassandra was her biggest confidant. They were extremely close throughout their lives.
9. Austen's mother breastfed the children for three to four months and then they were abruptly weaned and sent into the village. There, children were looked after by "the good women," whose identities are not known. They learned to walk, speak and use the bathroom while in the care of these women. They were raised there until they reached 18 months to two years, at which point they were returned to the family home — except for George. He was fostered by another family and is believed to have had an intellectual disability.
11. Austen grew up in a family that valued education. Although it was not compulsory for Jane to attend school, her parents sent both her and her sister to a girls' boarding school.
12. During their first stint at boarding school in Reading, Jane and her sister nearly died of typhoid fever.²
13. Austen completed formal schooling at age 12. She then found comfort in the family library, where she began to read.²
14. Austen was a voracious reader. She was a fan of Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson's moral essays. She read French romances and Gothic novels.²
16. Her first four novels were published anonymously, but by Mansfield Park her name was known. Her brother Henry, in particular, was partial to spilling the beans.¹
17. Sense and Sensibility was originally titled Elinor and Marianne and was signed "By a Lady." Her follow-up, Pride and Prejudice, was originally titled First Impressions and was signed "By the author of Sense and Sensibility."
18. The title change to Pride and Prejudice was inspired by the novel Cecilia by Fanny Burney. The phrase is mentioned three times in the final paragraph of Burney's book in capital letters.
19. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published together in December 1817. They included a "Biographical Notice" written by Austen's brother Henry, identifying Austen for the first time as the author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma.¹
21. A name that frequently comes up when considering Austen's love life is Tom Lefroy. The Irishman had relatives from a village close to where Austen lived. She described him to Cassandra as "a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man." Scholars debate whether their relationship was a mild flirtation or a deep love.¹
22. Andrew Norman, biographer and author of Jane Austen: An Unrequited Love, theorizes that the Austen may have also found love with a clergyman named Samuel Blackall, whom she met on vacation in Devon. Norman says Austen mentions this man in various letters. The biographer also suggests that this relationship formed a temporary rift between Austen and her sister, as both were vying for his love.
23. In 1802, in her late 20s, Austen briefly accepted a proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, the younger brother of two of her close friends. She rescinded it the next morning. Neither Austen nor her sister would ever marry.
24. Austen believed that a woman shouldn't get married if she wasn't in love. She once advised her niece Fanny Knight that, "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection."¹
26. Britain was frequently at war during Austen's lifetime and some of her brothers served abroad. Austen rarely referenced war directly, but incorporated it in her writing by describing the vibrant redcoats of military men and the excitement generated when dashing officers arrived in town.
27. The Austen family was well-connected but not very wealthy. Austen's father was always in debt, worked as a farmer and ran a boys' school in addition to being a rector.
28. Austen's work is available in approximately 40 languages.
29. Among her famous critics was Charlotte Brontë, who said, "I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant and confined houses."
31. In November 1797, Austen's father sent a charming letter to Thomas Cadell of the London publisher Cadell & Davies, offering an early version of Pride and Prejudice. Cadell turned it down, sight unseen.
32. Sixteen years later, in 1813, publisher Thomas Egerton had a much different reaction. Having already published Sense and Sensibility, Egerton predicted that Pride and Prejudice would be a bestseller.
33. Austen sold her copyright for Pride and Prejudice to her publisher for £110. It was priced at 18 shillings and was an immediate hit.
34. Austen referred to Pride and Prejudice as her own "darling child," in a letter to her sister Cassandra after receiving the first print of the novel.
36. When Austen's father died in 1805, the family encountered some financial woes. The women spent the next few years moving around, staying at the homes of various family members and other rented homes. In 1809, they found permanent housing inside Austen's brother Edward's cottage in Chawton.
37. Chawton Cottage is where Austen wrote all of her six novels, though she may have written early drafts in other homes. In 1947, it was opened to the public as Jane Austen's House Museum.
38. As a child, Austen would pastiche 18th century romance novels. It's a genre she satirized in her own book Northanger Abbey, published in December 1817.
39. Austen wrote a short play called Sir Charles Grandison. She worked on it just before finishing Lady Susan, an epistolary novel she finished writing in about 1794. Sir Charles Grandison was not published until in 1875, well after death.
41. The novel was made available to the public several years after her death in 1925. Austen had written 11 chapters and started a 12th.
42. As Austen's health declined, she created a will and listed her sister Cassandra as her heir. She also mentioned her brother Henry and his late wife's secretary Madame Bigeon. Austen and Cassandra also moved to Winchester College to be closer to her doctor.
43. Austen died at the age of 41 from a disease that was never diagnosed. Theories about her cause of death have been swirling for years. While the most popular has been Addison's Disease, scholars have also suggested that it was tuberculosis or a form of cancer. Most recently, the British Library published a blog post indicating that Austen had died from cataracts caused by arsenic poisoning.
44. Austen's final composition was a poem, dictated to her sister Cassandra three days before her death. The poem was a humorous ditty on England's rainy weather.¹
46. Austen's total assets were reportedly valued under £800 when she died.
47. Austen's novels have been turned into several films, including Sense and Sensibility written by and starring Emma Thompson, the BBC's beloved Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and the Joe Wright-directed Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley.
48. Austen's works have also inspired modern storylines, like the novel and film series Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding, who took inspiration from Pride and Prejudice, and the Alicia Silverstone-led film Clueless, based on Emma. Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese's 1990 film, is said to be a dark adaptation of Mansfield Park.
49. American singer Kelly Clarkson caused an uproar in 2012 when, at an auction, she purchased a gold and turquoise ring owned by Austen for £152,450. Britain's culture minister put an immediate export ban on the ring, preventing Clarkson from taking it home to the U.S. Two years later, Clarkson withdrew her ownership.
51. Austen earned nothing until she turned 36. She mostly depended on pocket money provided by her parents. She began to earn when Sense and Sensibility was published.
52. Austen had to cover the publishing costs of Sense and Sensibility. Her brother Henry Austen and his wife Eliza de Feuillide helped foot the bill.
53. Sense and Sensibility received positive reviews from critics for its "naturally drawn characters" and its plot: "the incidents are probable, and highly pleasing and interesting."
54. Austen didn't become a household name in her lifetime. Just after her death, her publisher destroyed the copies of her two final books, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. It was in the Victorian era that she began to receive acclaim for her work and was recognized as a great novelist.
56. Although A Memoir of Jane Austen revived the buzz around Austen, it has been described as a sanitized retelling of her life. Austen-Leigh depicted her as a quiet, domestic and happy woman. He also cited the Austen family as coming from a higher social background. As a result, she became inaccurately associated with the upper middle class.
57. According to historian and Jane Austen expert Claire Tomalin, if you take her six major books, which would be equivalent to about 15 years of work, the money she earned before her death was between £600 and £700, averaging out to £40 a year. Austen never lived above the poverty line, which was set at £55 a year.
58. The British Library currently houses several of Austen's manuscripts, including copies of her writing as a teenager, drafts of experimental or discarded novels and the novel she was working on the year she died.
59. While Austen is known for her storytelling and polished writing, Kathryn Sutherland, a professor at Oxford University who has studied Austen's original handwritten works, suggests the pages of her original drafts were riddled with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and poor punctuation.
61. For 12 years following Austen's death, her work was out of circulation.
62. Austen fervently admired Thomas Clarkson, a prominent campaigner against slavery. The author's views on slavery are hinted at in Mansfield Park when Fanny Price inquires about the slave trade in Antigua and is met with silence.¹
63. Many of Jane Austen's original manuscripts of her published novels are lost. They are said to have been thrown away after being printed.
64. In 2011, the fragmented manuscript for her unfinished novel The Watsons was auctioned off for £1 million, purchased by Bodleian library at Oxford University.
66. A part of the original manuscript for Persuasion has survived. Austen was unhappy with the original ending of the novel and so she wrote two new chapters to replace what is now considered the "cancelled chapter." The original ending of Persuasion is said to have been retrieved by her and preserved in the way she kept other pieces of writing. Other remaining manuscripts were intentionally preserved by Austen and passed down the family, including writing from her youth, poems and unfinished manuscripts.
67. Since the 20th century, the term Janeite has been used to describe devotees of Austen. The name was coined by English writer and literary critic George Saintsbury.
68. Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story in 1926 entitled The Janeites, in which soldiers from the First World War come together and form a Masonic Lodge based on their shared love for Austen's novels.
69. Austen was critical of her own work. Upon finishing Pride and Prejudice she was worried that the novel was too frivolous. She described it as "rather too light and bright and sparkling."
¹Stafford, Fiona. Jane Austen: A Brief Life. 2008. Published by Yale University Press.
²Scheinman, Ted. Camp Austen. 2018. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.