She is one of Britain’s best-loved novelists, famed for her works of romantic fiction set among the English middle and upper classes. This week, in the first episode of a new BBC Four series on the history of romance, historian Lucy Worsley will consider the impact of Jane Austen’s work on the romantic notions of people in the Georgian age
In the first episode of A Very British Romance With Lucy Worsley, which airs on Thursday, the historian will explore the glamorisation of romantic love that followed the emergence of the romantic novel in the 18th century.
Here, ahead of the new series, we look back at the life of famous romantic novelist Jane Austen…
Born: 16 December 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire
Died: 18 July 1817 in Winchester
Remembered for: Her works of romantic fiction including Sense and Sensibility (1811); Pride and Prejudice (1813); Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). However, Jane was not revered as an author during her lifetime, and all of her novels were published anonymously.
Family: The seventh child and second daughter of clergyman George Austen and the well-connected Cassandra Leigh Austen. Jane was born into a respectable, middle-class family.
Having grown up in the village of Steventon in Hampshire, Jane moved with her parents and sister, Cassandra, to Bath in 1801, at the age of 25. Following the death of her father in 1805, Jane, her mother and sister moved several times before settling in Chawton, near Steventon.
Despite writing a multitude of romantic novels, Jane never married.
Her life: Born to an Oxford-educated father, Jane was primarily schooled at home and was encouraged, along with her siblings, to explore their father’s extensive library.
Jane began to write as a teenager. In bound notebooks she penned novels including Love and Friendship and Lady Susan, and a series of comic stories now known as her Juvenilia. In her early twenties Jane wrote the first drafts of what would eventually become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.
In 1801 Jane moved to Bath with her mother, sister Cassandra, and recently retired father, residing at 4 Sydney Place. The following year Jane is thought to have agreed to marry 21-year-old Harris Bigg-Wither, an heir of a wealthy Hampshire family, but she later rejected his offer. She reportedly wrote to another family member, saying: “Anything is to be preferred and endured rather than marrying without affection”.
The death of Jane’s father in 1805 after a short illness placed financial strain on the three Austen women, and forced them to live with various family members and in rented flats. In 1809 they eventually settled in Chawton, living comfortably in a cottage owned by Jane and Cassandra’s brother Edward. Edward, meanwhile, lived in a nearby manor house.
It was in this cottage that Jane started to focus more than ever on her novels. Her brother Henry helped her negotiate with a publisher, and Jane’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published anonymously in 1811 when Jane was 35. This was followed by Pride and Prejudice in 1813; Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1816 – the latter was “respectfully dedicated” to the Prince Regent (later George IV), who was a fan of Jane’s work. Although her novels were published anonymously, the title page of each book referred to one or two of Jane’s earlier works.
Jane had many fans during the 19th century, and her novels were considered fashionable by members of high society, but her works were scarcely reviewed.
In 1816, aged 41, Jane started to become ill with what is today thought to have been Addison’s disease – a rare disorder of the adrenal glands that causes fatigue, muscle weakness and dizziness. Despite her poor health, Jane started work on a new novel, The Brothers, which would be published after her death as Sanditon. In April 1817 Jane wrote her will, and named Cassandra as her heir.
Jane died in Winchester on 18 July 1817, having moved there with her sister to receive treatment.
Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published together in December 1817 with a ‘biographical notice’ written by Jane’s brother, Henry. In it, Henry identified Jane as the author of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma.
Jane’s status and popularity increased with the publication in 1870 of a biography written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, and a carefully edited collection of her work, released in the early 20th century. However, it wasn’t until the 1940s that scholars began to recognise Jane’s novels as outstanding.
Jane Austen is today considered one of the greatest writers in English history.
The first episode of A Very British Romance With Lucy Worsley airs on BBC Four on Thursday 8 October. To find out more, click here.