Jane Austen: shy, genteel country girl, happy to pen her romantic novels in the peace and quiet of the family home? Or independent go-getting business woman, determined to achieve literary fame? The answer to this question has provoked much debate over past decades.
Frustratingly little is known about Austen, who died tragically young, at the age of 41. Much of the evidence we have of her life is in the form of the many letters she wrote to family and friends, which offer a unique insight into the daily life of the novelist, but little about her thoughts and feelings.
Paula Byrne, who has written two books on the author, says: “I’ve never been a subscriber to the cosy cliché of Jane Austen scribbling her novels in the safety of her cottage in Chawton. Instead, I want people to see her as she really was: an independent woman in Georgian England who was well travelled, socially adept, and far more in touch with her world than has hitherto been assumed.”
Austen’s story starts in the sleepy village of Steventon in Hampshire, where she lived with her father George, mother Cassandra, and seven siblings, until a move to Bath in 1801.
Bath at this time was known as a ‘marriage market’ and was the city in which Jane’s parents had met. “It’s not unreasonable to suppose that, with two unmarried daughters, Jane’s parents retired to Bath to aid their chances of a good match,” says Byrne. “It’s been argued that Jane was against the move, but I think that needs to be reassessed. She was actually very excited about the prospect of being nearer to the seaside and the thought of being able to travel.”
Austen’s relationship with the sea was arguably one of the most important of her life, and its influence can be traced in many of her novels, including Persuasion and her final, unfinished work, Sanditon. The family spent a number of holidays on the Devon and Dorset coast where Austen was able to indulge her love of walking and collate material for her future writing. With its evocative descriptions of the landscape, Persuasion in particular reveals Austen’s deep attachment to the area:
“Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more, its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands, make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation…”
Byrne comments: “It is often said that Austen’s time in Bath heralded a decline in her literary productivity, caused, in part, by her misery at the move. I would argue against this. Jane did in fact sell her first novel, Susan (later renamed Northanger Abbey) in 1803, but her publisher, Crosby & Co, chose not to publish it straight away.
“It would be another 14 years before Jane was able to buy the manuscript back, for the original sum of £10, and she did not live to see it in print. If Crosby & Co had published it straight away, I fully believe Austen would have hit her literary stride far earlier. And what a different tale hers might have been!”
The death of George Austen in 1805 hit the family hard, and Jane lost one of the greatest supporters of her work. In 1807, she moved with her mother and sister (also named Cassandra) to Castle Square, Southampton, to live with her brother Frank and his wife. Here, Austen enjoyed a similar lifestyle to that of Bath, attending balls and social events and visiting the theatre.
In 1809, the three women moved to a cottage in nearby Chawton, a property gifted by Austen’s brother, Edward. It was here that Austen wrote, and rewrote, the majority of her novels.
“The move to Chawton was a turning point for the Austens, offering them stability and a home of their own,” says Byrne. “It is at this point, too, that Jane becomes wholly committed to becoming a published author.”
It was following the move to Chawton that Jane spent a great deal of time with her brother Henry in London, finding a publisher for Sense and Sensibility (published in 1811), making extensive revisions to First Impressions (published as Pride and Prejudice in 1813), working on Mansfield Park (1814), completing Emma (1815), and writing Persuasion (published posthumously in 1817).
A move in 1815 to one of the most well-known publishers of the day, John Murray, saw Austen achieve the recognition she craved and she was full of ideas for new novels. But although she was achieving new literary heights, her health was rapidly failing, often rendering her unable to write.
Austen’s illness has been attributed to many conditions over the years, including lymphoma, tuberculosis, and even poison. Today, it is widely believed that she suffered from Addison’s disease, a rare disorder of the adrenal glands that can be exacerbated by stress. Says Byrne: “Jane died on 18 July 1817 at the height of her career, leaving what may have been her finest novel, Sanditon, unfinished. Many people say Persuasion was Jane’s final novel, describing it as autumnal in tone and her farewell to the world. I disagree. No sooner had she finished Persuasion, she was starting what would have been the great Victorian novel, full of confidence and vigour. She had so much more to offer the literary world.”
Eight places associated with Jane Austen
Sydney Street, Bath
Where the Austen family enjoyed the delights of a spa town
In 1801, Jane’s father announced his retirement from his position as rector of Steventon, a post he had held for more than 35 years, and he, together with his wife and two daughters, moved to the spa town of Bath.
“Much has been made of Jane’s move to Bath”, says Byrne, “with many historians claiming that the move came as a painful shock to her, allegedly causing her to faint on the spot at the news.
“Not so. Jane loved the family’s Sydney Street house [then Sydney Place], particularly as it overlooked the bustling and colourful Sydney Gardens, then one of the city’s main attractions. Jane adored the park’s gala nights, which featured music and fireworks, and found Bath itself a very exciting place to live, providing as it did an excellent base for excursions to the seaside.”
The family rented the house for several years, only moving after the death of Jane’s father in 1805. During this period Jane made several trips to Devon and Dorset, and it was during the so-called Bath years that she received a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg Wither, the brother of two close friends. However, much like her heroine Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who would not marry unless for love, Jane’s initial acceptance turned to refusal the following morning, despite the security the match would have afforded her.
Number 4 Sydney Street, where the Austen family resided between 1801 and 1805, is still there. Bath Assembly Rooms, where Jane and many of her fictional characters attended balls and parties, can still be visited. So can Sydney Gardens, where she whiled away many hours.
c1780, the Assembly Rooms in Bath, Somerset. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Where Austen developed a great love of the sea
Known for its mild climate and refreshing sea air, Sidmouth in Jane Austen’s day was very much an up and coming Regency resort, but one that had not yet achieved the fashionable status of nearby Lyme Regis or Weymouth.
Evidence shows that Jane probably visited Sidmouth in 1801 and 1802, and it was here that she is thought to have met a young man who was very taken with her and who wished to further the relationship. However, as letters written by Cassandra after Jane’s death reveal, the family heard shortly after their trip that the young man had died and with him, as it transpired, Jane’s last chance of marital happiness.
“Jane’s visits to Devon and Dorset inspired a love of the sea in her,” says Byrne. “The seaside is an important theme in both Persuasion and her final, unfinished novel, Sanditon; the pink Jurassic rocks and stunning cliff top views at Sidmouth must have been a great source of inspiration.”
Sidmouth today is relatively unchanged, although you no longer need to travel by stagecoach to reach it! The Bedford Hotel, situated on the promenade, was the town’s library at the time of Jane’s visits, and a great many Regency buildings remain.
The Cobb, Lyme Regis
Where Jane Austen drew inspiration for one of her most dramatic literary scenes
Another popular seaside resort of Jane Austen’s day was Lyme Regis in Dorset, about 16 miles east of Sidmouth. Austen visited the town with her family in the summer of 1804, remaining there with her parents while sister Cassandra and brother Frank moved on to Weymouth. It is from letters written to Cassandra during this trip that we learn of Austen’s fondness for sea bathing.
Much like Austen’s comical character Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Austen agreed that “a little sea bathing would set her up for ever” and she tried it on a number of occasions. In a letter to Cassandra written in September 1804, she states: “The bathing was so delightful this morning & Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long…”
Sea bathing was a pastime made fashionable by George III, who began the trend during a trip to Weymouth in 1789. For women, sea bathing meant donning flannel dresses and being wheeled out to sea in small wooden ‘carriages’. ‘Dippers’ or guides would then escort their customers into the water and, quite literally, dip them into the sea.
The Cobb (harbour) in Lyme Regis was the scene for one of Austen’s most dramatic literary scenes when, in Persuasion, young Louisa Musgrove jumps off the Cobb’s steep rock steps and nearly dies. It is widely believed that these steps are those known as ‘Granny’s Teeth’, which can still be accessed by careful walkers!
Stoneleigh Abbey, near Kenilworth
Where Austen witnessed the luxury of upper-class life
Built in a similar Palladian style to Chatsworth House in the Peak District, Stoneleigh Abbey was the country seat of Jane Austen’s mother’s family for some 400 years and is believed to have featured in Mansfield Park.
Jane, with her mother and sister, visited Stoneleigh in 1806, shortly after the death of her father, helping to secure their cousin Thomas Leigh’s inheritance of the estate while they were there.
The Stoneleigh estate clearly had a great impact on all three women, as this letter, written by Jane’s mother to a daughter-in-law in August 1806, demonstrates: “I had expected to find everything about the place very fine and all that, but I had no idea of its being so beautiful… amidst green meadows, bounded by large and beautiful woods, full of delightful walks.”
Austen is believed to have repeatedly used Stoneleigh as a source of inspiration. The red velvet cushion noted by Fanny Price “on the ledge of the family gallery in the chapel” in Mansfield Park can still be seen in the chapel, and the view from the west front of Sotherton Court, which features in the same novel, is identical to that of Stoneleigh.
Stoneleigh Abbey is open to the public and Jane Austen’s links with the house are covered in some depth throughout. Chatsworth House, further north in Derbyshire, is believed to have been the inspiration for Mr Darcy’s great house, Pemberley, in Pride and Prejudice.
Netley Abbey, near Southampton
Where Austen’s writing was inspired by 13th-century gothic ruins
The death of George Austen in 1805 had a profound effect on Jane and her family, not least on their finances. Jane, her mother, and sister, left Bath for Southampton to set up home with Jane’s naval brother, Frank, in Southampton’s Castle Square, which boasted incredible sea views and proximity to some of the town’s attractions.
“Upon her move to Southampton, Jane was once again close to the sea, and she made the most of all that the town had to offer,” says Byrne. “She loved the theatre and long walks, and she would often take the ferry along the river Itchen to see warships being built at Northam, or the gothic ruins of Netley Abbey.”
Jane writes to Cassandra of a river trip taken in 1808: “We had a little water party yesterday; I and my two nephews went from the Itchen Ferry up to Northam, where we landed, looked into the [battleship] 74, and walked home, and it was so much enjoyed that I had intended to take them to Netley to-day…”
Netley Abbey, once home to monks of the Cistercian Order, has provided inspiration for many poets, painters and authors over the years. The abbey is also said to have influenced Austen’s spoof gothic novel Northanger Abbey. The ruins are now in the care of English Heritage.
Carlton House Terrace, London
Where Austen risked offending the Prince Regent
Jane Austen’s favourite brother, Henry, arguably had the most influence on her writing career, acting as her ‘literary agent’ and putting her up while she was visiting publishers in London. Henry co-owned a bank in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, and lived above the premises after his wife’s death.
“Jane loved Covent Garden,” says Byrne, “and she seems to have exhilarated in a newfound confidence, visiting the theatre, correcting proofs for Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and meeting with her publisher. She writes to Cassandra in 1813 of ‘parading about London in a Barouche’!
Henry later moved to 23 Hans Place, and it was here that Jane received an invitation from the Prince Regent to visit the library at his London residence, Carlton House. Austen obeyed the summons but, according to Byrne, was horrified when she was informed that the prince had given her ‘permission’ to dedicate her next novel, Emma, to him.
Austen, who disliked the Prince Regent, is said to have been furious to find out that she would have to pay for a bound presentation copy of the novel to be given to the prince. This copy is now in the Royal Collection. Austen’s dedication in Emma reads: “To His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, this work is, by His Royal Highness’s permission, most respectfully dedicated, by His Royal Highness’s dutiful and obedient humble servant, the Author.”
Hans Place has been redeveloped since Austen’s day and only numbers 15, 33 and 34 survive as they once were. Carlton House was demolished in 1825 and replaced by two white stuccoed terraces of houses known as Carlton House Terrace.
John Murray Publishers, 50 Albemarle Street, London
Where Jane Austen finally achieved literary recognition
Austen was only a published author for seven years of her life (1811–17), but was a prolific writer from an early age. Having published Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park with Thomas Egerton, Austen made the brave move to transfer to a new publisher, John Murray, in 1815.
Described by Jane Austen herself as “a rogue, but a civil one”, Murray boasted an impressive client base – including Lord Byron – and friends such as Walter Scott.
“This is where we see Austen as the shrewd businesswoman she really was,” says Byrne. “Not happy with how her career was progressing at Thomas Egerton, particularly the fact that he was not willing to publish a second edition of Mansfield Park, Jane took matters into her own hands and carved her own literary path.” As the best-known publisher of his day, John Murray was certainly taking a punt on Austen, and she was his first female novelist.
Austen spent much of her time in London between 1809 and 1817, despite a rapid decline in her health from 1816 onwards.
Founded in 1768, the offices of John Murray moved to Albemarle Street in 1812 where they have remained ever since. The John Murray Archive was transferred to the National Library of Scotland in 2006 and contains manuscripts, private letters and business papers from authors.
Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton. (Photo by Sarah Brubaker/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton, Alton
Where Austen penned five of her best-loved novels
Jane arrived at the six-bedroomed Chawton Cottage in 1809, with her mother, sister and a family friend, little knowing that it was to be her final home before she left for Winchester in 1817 to seek treatment for the illness from which she died in July that year.
“Chawton is important to Jane’s story in many respects,” says Byrne. “A gift from Jane’s brother, Edward, the cottage finally offered the family some security, and it was the place at which Jane completed, and wrote, the majority of her novels.”
Chawton was also where Austen first became aware of her illness and she was probably ill for about 18 months before her death – although she continued to write until the very end of her life. “Indeed,” says Byrne, “she was composing comic verses on the day she died.”
The cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, is open to the public and visitors can still see Austen’s writing desk, jewellery, manuscript letters, and the patchwork quilt she made with her mother and sister Cassandra.
Paula Byrne is a bestselling author who has written extensively on Jane Austen, including her 2013 book The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, published by HarperPress.
This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine