A day in the life of Jane Austen
She is one of the world's most beloved novelists, famous for her romantic works set among the Georgian gentry. A guide to writing like Jane Austen reveals the novelist's methods, tips and tricks – from techniques of plotting and characterisation through to dialogue and suspense. Penned by author and Austen's five-times-great niece, Rebecca Smith, The Jane Austen Writers' Club features exercises, illustrations and quotations from Jane's novels and letters, shedding new light on how she wrote her most famous masterpieces. Writing for History Extra, Smith explores Jane's time at the cottage in Chawton (now Jane Austen's House Museum), where she did the most important work of her life…
At Chawton, Jane Austen revised her first three novels and wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. She rose early, getting up to practice the piano without disturbing her mother, her sister and her best friend, Martha Lloyd, who lived with them. We can suppose that Jane also wanted time to herself before the day’s round of visits from friends, relatives and neighbours began.
Her piano would have had the soft tones of the 1810 Clementi one now housed in the museum. Jane, like her creations Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Jane Fairfax in Emma, was a very good pianist. An extensive collection of the Austen’s music albums containing almost 600 pieces – some printed and some manuscript (many in Jane’s hand) – has survived.
Mrs Austen had the largest, sunniest bedroom. Jane didn’t have a room of her own; she chose to share with her sister, Cassandra. Theirs has a view of the garden and of outbuildings where swallows still nest. The sisters would have had a fire in their room, unlike poor Fanny Price at Mansfield Park.
It’s hard to imagine the Chawton cottage without a cat – a necessity to keep mice and rats at bay and away from the stores of food. Marmite, a cat who lives nearby, today visits the museum each day to patrol the gardens, recline in the shop and lounge around the interactive displays. Yet cats are conspicuous by their absence in Jane Austen’s work, with barely a mention apart from Mrs Jennings in Sense and Sensibility saying that without the Dashwood sisters’ company she and Colonel Brandon will be forlorn “…Lord! we shall sit and gape at one another as dull as two cats”.
Apart from piano practice, Jane’s other early morning duty was to make tea and coffee. The family bought tea from Twinings in London. It was so expensive that it was kept locked away; Jane had the key. Tea, coffee and chocolate are all mentioned in her novels. Miss Bates in Emma never drinks coffee, while greedy Arthur Parker in Sanditon loves hot chocolate and is proud of his toast-making skills.
Meals of the day
Breakfast was eaten a few hours after a family had got up, so after quite a portion of the day’s work had been done. It wasn’t the full English – heartier breakfasts were a Victorian innovation – but people sat down together, and at Chawton Cottage they could be spied through the window if you happened to be on a passing coach. “I heard of the Chawton Party looking very comfortable at Breakfast, from a gentleman who was travelling by their door in a Post-chaise about ten days ago,” Mrs Knight (a distant relative who, with her husband, was to leave a fortune to Jane’s brother, Edward) reported in a letter.
Lunch was also a simple affair. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language defined it (around 20 years before Jane’s birth) as “as much food as one’s hand can hold”. Dinner was the main meal of the day and served any time in the afternoon or early evening. In Pride and Prejudice the Bennets have their dinner at half past four, while the Bingleys at Netherfield eat it at half past six. In The Watsons, Tom Musgrave boasts of not eating dinner until 8pm. The times given in Jane’s novels reflect the way particular families were influenced by society fashions. In 1798 Jane wrote to Cassandra, who was staying at Edward’s grand house, Godmersham Park in Kent: “We dine now at half-past three, and have done dinner, I suppose, before you begin. We drink tea at half-past six. I am afraid you will despise us.”
Georgian dinners would consist of two courses or more, each of sweet and savoury dishes served at the same time. Supper was a light affair, often served to visitors such as those who come to play cards with Mr Woodhouse in Emma. Most people didn’t want it to be quite as light as he did: “Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart – a very little bit. Ours are all apple tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard. Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half glass – put into a tumbler of water?" (Emma, Chapter 3)
Candles and the fire would have been the only sources of light. Candles were taxed and the beeswax variety, which burned brighter and smelled better, were taxed more heavily than everyday tallow (animal fat) ones. Gas lighting was introduced in London during the same few years that Jane’s novels were first published. She would have seen it when she visited London to stay with her brother, Henry, and be close to her publisher while she was working on her proofs. Henry was a banker at this time. He lived in Sloane Street with an office in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, before moving to 23 Hans Place in Knightsbridge in the summer of 1814.
Sewing and socialising
Sewing occupied much of the Austen women’s time. A quilt Jane made with Cassandra and their mother consists of more than 3,000 diamonds of 64 different dressmaking and furnishing fabrics. It is today on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum.
Jane’s most comfortable outfit of the day was worn first thing – a loose cambric morning gown that would only have been seen by family and close friends. Ladies changed to go out walking, shopping and visiting, and again for dinner.
More like this
An endless stream of visitors took a toll on Jane’s ability to work. Before the coming of the railways, travelling took such a long time that guests would often stay for several weeks. This is from a letter to Cassandra dated 8 September 1816 after some guests had just departed: “... I was not sorry when Friday came. It had been a busy week, and I wanted a few days quiet and exemption from the thought and contrivancy which any sort of company gives … Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb.”
Jane liked to work by a window in the dining room. Her view was of the road through the village and she enjoyed a little distraction. On 23 June 1814 she wrote to Cassandra about some neighbours nearly missing the coach (Collier’s) that left from the centre of the village: “Mrs. Driver, &c., are off by Collier, but so near being too late that she had not time to call and leave the keys herself. I have them, however. I suppose one is the key of the linen-press, but I do not know what to guess the other. The coach was stopped at the blacksmith's, and they came running down with Triggs and Browning, and trunks, and birdcages. Quite amusing.”
From this it is only a short step to the scene Jane paints of Highbury where Emma looks out from Ford’s, the shop at the centre of the village: “… Emma went to the door for amusement. Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; - Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.
“She looked down the Randalls road. The scene enlarged; two persons appeared; Mrs. Weston and her son-in-law [Frank Churchill]; they were walking into Highbury; - to Hartfield of course. They were stopping, however, in the first place at Mrs. Bates's; whose house was a little nearer Randalls than Ford's; and had all but knocked, when Emma caught their eye…” (Emma, Chapter 27)
This scene was pioneering for its realism and use of point of view. We see the world through Emma’s eyes and are led to believe (the first time we read the novel, anyway) that Frank Churchill, whom Emma spies coming down the road, is on the way to see her, not Jane Fairfax.
A helping hand
The Austens always had servants. Yet we know that Jane sometimes joined in with tasks, and that her aristocratic mother dug potatoes in the garden well into her old age. However Jane didn’t have to get her hands very dirty unless she wanted to. She took on managing the household when Cassandra was away. After their mother was widowed (in 1805) it seems the sisters decided that one of them would always be with her. Mrs Austen was clever and witty, definitely no Mrs Bennet, but a picture emerges from Jane’s letters that she wasn’t always easy to live with: “My mother continues hearty; her appetite and nights are very good, but she sometimes complains of an asthma, a dropsy, water in her chest, and a liver disorder.” (18 December 1798).
Work and pastimes
Jane Austen loved being outdoors. Their garden was even bigger than what remains at the museum today. She kept Cassandra updated: “Some of the flower seeds are coming up very well, but your mignonette makes a wretched appearance… Our young piony at the foot of the fir-tree has just blown and looks very handsome, and the whole of the shrubbery border will soon be very gay with pinks and sweet-williams, in addition to the columbines already in bloom.” (29 May 1811.)
Jane Austen liked to keep quiet about her work. Until her career was well established only her siblings, her parents, her best friend Martha Lloyd, and perhaps a few other people knew about her literary ambitions and plans. As an unmarried clergyman’s daughter Jane may have wanted to avoid gossip or standing out. Many writers dislike discussing work-in-progress for fear of jinxing things; she was probably also one of these. Even her beloved nephews and nieces were ignorant of her literary pursuits until after Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice had been published in 1811 and 1813 respectively. Her 15-year-old nephew, James Edward (later one of her first biographers) wrote her a poem after he learnt the truth:
“No words can express, my dear Aunt, my surprise
Or make you conceive how I opened my eyes,
Like a pig Butcher Pile has just struck with his knife,
When I heard for the very first time in my life
That I had the honour to have a relation
Whose works were dispersed throughout the whole of the nation…”
Jane’s writing kit
Jane wrote in small homemade booklets (quires) which could easily be tidied away or hidden under blotting paper if somebody disturbed her. She liked to give people the impression that she was writing letters.
Paper was expensive during the Napoleonic Wars, as the same raw materials were required for bandages. It was sold by the sheet and then cut to the required size. Watermarks of year of manufacture and the maker’s name help to date manuscripts; some of Jane’s paper was used a few years after it was made or bought. She produced her manuscripts economically, adding patches with pins where necessary. The watermarks of these patches show how time elapsed between composition and editing.
For hundreds of years, ink was made using oak apples. Jane Austen used this oak apple (or iron gall) ink. It could be bought in powder form or made from scratch at home. It appears greyish when it is first used but dries much darker. It fades with time to the brown we associate with old letters, a return to the colour of oak apples in autumn.
Depending on its original formulation, this sort of ink can become more acid over time and eat away at paper; it’s fortunate that this hasn’t been the case with Jane’s letters or manuscripts. There’s a recipe for the ink in her friend Martha Lloyd’s Household Book, along with those for a huge variety of other things: “curry after the Indian manner”; pickled samphire; cowslip wine; and for something to whiten silk stockings. Martha built her album of tips and recipes over many years and they give us useful insights into everyday life at Chawton. Her book is today on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum.
Jane Austen’s writing desk. (Corbis via Getty Images)
Jane fitted writing around other activities, sometimes absenting herself from card games or suddenly getting up and hurrying to her desk, laughing out loud at what she had thought of. But we have very little primary material to help us understand her working methods. Family recollections and Jane’s letters shed some light onto her habits – that she rose early but worked at other times of day too, and also that she spent periods in London working on her proofs. Her writing box (the Georgian equivalent of a laptop) was bought by her father in Basingstoke in December 1794, so was probably a present for her 19th birthday. It seems to have gone with her everywhere and was once put on the wrong chaise and nearly sent to the West Indies, possibly carrying early drafts of her first novels with it. A man on horseback had to gallop after the coach to retrieve it.
Jane described herself and Martha Lloyd as “desperate walkers”, and only the very worst weather could keep them indoors. Walks were likely a key part of Jane’s plotting and planning process. The little notebooks that she made could be carried in her pocket with a pencil. After Jane’s death (on 18 July 1817), Cassandra was able to say exactly when particular works were started and finished. This suggests that Jane had left a diary where she had recorded her progress, but if there was a diary it has been lost or most likely destroyed by Cassandra to protect her sister’s privacy.
The most useful primary evidence of Jane’s method of composition and editing is the ‘cancelled chapter’ of Persuasion. When a manuscript had been finished with by a publisher it would have been thrown away – Jane’s publishers’ wouldn’t have known that they were disposing of artefacts that future generations would treasure. The vast majority of Jane’s work is known only from the published books themselves. When Jane Austen changed the ending of Persuasion, the original one she was dissatisfied with was swapped and has survived. Jane must have retrieved it and kept it in the same way that she kept other pieces of writing. This is the only known example of what she would have sent to her publishers. Other surviving manuscripts are either the deliberately preserved juvenilia or poems, kept and passed down the family, or the works that were abandoned – The Watsons and Sanditon.
The Watsons also shows Jane composing and editing, though obviously not to a standard she was happy with as it remained unfinished. She wrote closely and to the edges of the paper, which suggests she was not anticipating that she would be making many changes. But things were “scratched out”, as she would have termed it, and the few more substantial additions are made on the patches which she cut to exactly the right size and fixed in place with pins. (see here).
Sanditon is a similar manuscript. The changes made are minor and heighten the effect Jane was aiming for with each phrase, line or passage. The booklets that both Sanditon and The Watsons manuscripts consist of are around 19cm by 12cm, implying that Jane was still buying paper and making little books in the same way. (The Persuasion manuscript has been bound into a handsome volume by The British Library, but the original pages of it were a similar size). Many writers tend to be very particular about their notebooks and will stick with their favourite sort over many years – Jane was no exception.
By working with little booklets, Jane Austen would have had a strong sense of how a novel would appear when (or if) it was published. Professor Kathryn Sutherland of St Anne’s College, Oxford, the leading authority on Jane’s manuscripts and the author of Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood (OUP, 2005) believes “that Austen was instinctively an immanent writer” meaning that her works came from within her and appeared in first draft on the page almost fully formed and in a state very close to the final published version. Jane’s brother, Henry, in the Biographical Notice which accompanied the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion at the end of 1817, wrote: “The style of her familiar correspondence was in all respects the same as that of her novels. Every thing came finished from her pen; for on all subjects she had ideas as clear as her expressions were well chosen”.
The Austens were avid readers and users of libraries. Indeed, reading was the foundation of Jane’s literary work – her earliest efforts were responses, often satirical, to what she had read. Jane was a member of the Chawton Book Society and looked down her nose at the rival Steventon and Manydown one. When her first copy of Pride and Prejudice arrived from London, the family sat and read it aloud. One of their neighbours, Miss Benn, was there too, enjoying the book but not knowing that its author was right beside her.
These were Jane’s Chawton days. When she was in London her time was spent very differently: at the theatre, exhibitions and parties and working with her publishers. She wrote to Cassandra on 24 May 1813: “I had great amusement among the pictures; and the driving about, the carriage being open, was very pleasant. I liked my solitary elegance very much, and was ready to laugh all the time at my being where I was.”
Rebecca Smith is author of The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-Loved Novelist (Bloomsbury, 2016) as well as three novels: The Bluebird Café; Happy Birthday and All That, and A Bit of Earth (all Bloomsbury) and Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas, which has been published around the world.
From 2009–10 Rebecca was the writer in residence at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton. She lives in Hampshire and teaches creative writing at the University of Southampton.
Save 42% AND receive a copy of The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan when you subscribe BBC History Magazine! PLUS Get FREE access to HistoryExtra worth £34.99.