Engraving of Steventon rectory, home of the Austen family during much of Jane Austen’s lifetime, 1871. By Project Gutenberg – Austen-Leigh, J. E. A Memoir of Jane Austen via Wikimedia Commons
Jane Austen was not part of a writers’ group, nor did she have any form of communication with other writers. Her audience was her family and friends in her village, Steventon, where her father was the parson of the Anglican Church. She grew up in a large family, six sons and two daughters and they were part of the lower gentry. Her life at home was very creative and her parents encouraged all creative endeavours. From an early age, Jane Austen saw and took part in the family’s dramatic productions, staged by her oldest brother. The whole community took part in such entertainment and the plots and action helped educate the young writer-to-be.
Steventon Church, the Anglican church where Jane Austen’s father, George Austen, was parson. Via Wikimedia Commons
Her formal education ended when she was 11, after which her father and brothers took up the slack. Where they left off, Jane Austen continued on her own. She never wanted for ink and paper and her father’s library was available for the family. The girl, along with the rest of her family, were avid readers, and readers came to play an important role in her books. The family was also given to bantering and they appreciated irony and satire. The rectory was a safe, familiar place to begin experimenting with writing. Austen developed a habit of reading to and receiving feedback from her older brothers, parents, sister, friends and neighbours. A stable existence was very important to her, as she had been fostered as a baby and attended boarding school, both traumatic experiences.
Jane Austen grew up during a time when women had few choices. Women of her class could marry or become companions, governesses or school teachers. Because of her early experiences, she despised the latter, but because her family was poor and she had no inheritance, her marital prospects were slim. The remote location in Hampshire narrowed the scope. Young men and women like her were in a precarious position. They had no money, yet, as landed gentry, were not the lowest class. Very early, they learned that, without money, only education and connections would further them. Jane Austen’s own circumstances became fodder for writing and she became a keen observer of people, gender, communication, etiquette, and class distinctions.
Steventon Green, from geograph.org.uk. By Steve Daniels via Wikimedia Commons
Through dear friends and neighbours, she met a youth who briefly enjoyed her company, till his family removed him because neither had money. This occurrence greatly affected the young writer and her disillusionment further informed her writing. At one point, she had even accepted a marriage proposal, slept on it, then retracted it the following day. She had not married because, besides money and a manor house, the young man had nothing else to recommend him. She did not and could not love him. Because Jane Austen never married, people sometimes have said she could not have deep firsthand knowledge of romantic relationships. This assertion doesn’t wash, though, as her keen sense of observation allowed her to witness and interpret everything she needed and, then, translate it into her ‘voice.’
Aerial view over the northern side of Bath, England. Royal Crescent to the right of centre, Royal Victoria Park in the foreground. By by Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons
Having tried many genres and voices, by the age of 20, Jane Austen believed she’d finally attained a professional level of writing. However, that same year, her father retired and surprised the family by announcing they were moving to Bath. Thirty years earlier, Bath had been a popular place to find a husband and this may have been one reason her parents chose Bath, aside from the fact that many people retired there to make use of the health facilities. She didn’t want to move and she soon learned the specifics about why. Bath was relatively new and she didn’t like the glaring whiteness of the buildings or the endless rounds of social engagements. Moving to an urban environment meant that Jane Austen was taken away from everything she required for creativity: home, nature, quietude, privacy, her friends and neighbours. Displaced, her Muse left her for almost 10 years.
Footpath overlooking Bath. By Jonathan Billinger, geograph.org.uk, via Wikimedia Commons
In Bath, she had her needlework, but no pianoforte, so she spent much of her time on long walks. She was always chaperoned and never alone. Tragic occurrences made everything worse. Her sister’s fiancé died and only five years after retiring, her father died. One of her strongest supporters, it must have been an incredible blow. In addition, they had less and less money. It started becoming more and more clear that marriage for Jane Austen was less likely. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women
, published during Austen’s time, was a widely discussed book. We have no evidence of discussion, but it is probable the book may have touched on topics she herself felt strongly about.
Chawton cottage, where Jane Austen lived during her final years. By Rudi Riet via Wikimedia Commons
Over eight years after leaving Steventon, one of her brothers purchased a cottage for them, and Jane, her mother, sister and a cousin left Southhampton, where they were staying by then. The move was all it took for Jane Austen to resume writing. It was here that she produced her mature work and where she lived when her early books were published. The years spent in Bath had not been wasted, though, and she was able to incorporate the urban experience into her writing. It took some little time for her work to be published, though. Writing under a pseudonym at first, she finally allowed her name to appear on her work and the world met Jane Austen. Some books were better received than others; some published posthumously. For the first time in her life, though, she began to make money, a pivotal point in her life — one of the most important things that ever happened to her. Money and recognition.
Jane Austen lived a life that had a singular focus on her creativity. From an early age, she knew what she wanted to do and did it. The importance of atmosphere and setting in regard to the creative process is no better demonstrated than by the life of Jane Austen.
Sources: Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harmon, Henry Holt, 2009; Jane Austen, by Carol Shields, Penguin, 2001; Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin, Penguin, 1997
First edition of “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion,” 1818, Lilly Library, Indiana University. Via Wikimedia Commons
Title page from the first edition of “Sense and Sensibility,” 1811, Lilly Library, Indiana University, via Wikimedia Commons
Title page from the first edition of the first volume of “Pride and Prejudice,” 1813, Lilly Library, Indiana University via Wikimedia Commons
Title page from Jane Austen’s first edition of “Emma,” 1816,
Lilly Library, Indiana University. Via Wikimedia Commons
Title page from the first edition of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park,”
1814, Lilly Library, Indiana University. Via Wikimedia Commons