There are two types of people in this world: those who are Janeites, and those who are not.
Janeites—as hard-core Jane Austen fans choose to call themselves—cite their idol's gift for plot, snappy dialogue, well-rounded characters, and love stories that are believable and heart-melting at the same time. In the six novels Austen completed during her 41 years, they see the work of a woman who perceived the realities of eighteenth-century English gender politics and wasn't afraid to tell it like it was, a writer who single-handedly raised the profile of the novel from trashy entertainment to literary art form.
Non-Janeites cringe at the thought of yet another movie version of one of Austen's novels. Aren't all of these books, they ask, basically about the same thing? Did she have nothing else to write about? And why is everyone in her books so obsessed with marriage? "I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate," groused non-Janeite Ralph Waldo Emerson. "…All that interests in any character [is this]: has he (or she) the money to marry with?"
Jane Austen was born 16 December 1775 in Steventon, a small village in rural southern England. She was the seventh of eight children (six boys, two girls) born to William and Cassandra Austen. Her father was a clergyman who also tutored young male students to supplement his income. The family was not impoverished, but it would be fair to say they were of very modest means. As a result, the Austen parents employed some parenting techniques that might be considered unusual today, but were common for families of their social class. To save room in the crowded household, each of the children was sent to live with a neighbor woman from the time they were three months old until they were two. (Their parents visited them daily.) Austen's brother Edward was adopted by a wealthy, childless cousins. Jane's visits to her brother's estate exposed her to the world of the English upper classes.
Jane Austen was extremely close to her sister Cassandra, her elder by two years. The Austen sisters were inseparable and lived together all of their lives. When Jane was eight and Cassandra was ten, both girls were sent for schooling with a tutor in Oxford, England. When typhoid fever broke out a few months later and both girls fell ill, their mother rushed them back to Steventon. A second attempt at boarding school came two years later. Within a year it became clear that the family did not have enough money to send both of the girls to school, and they returned home. From the age of eleven onwards, Austen simply educated herself with books from her father's library, which he encouraged.
By the time she was twelve, Austen had started her literary career. The short stories, poems, satires and plays that she wrote during this time are known collectively by Janeites as the Juvenilia. Her biting sense of humor was apparent even in her earliest writings. She wrote a satiric version of English history with lines like, "His Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son Henry, whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth."blank">Pride and Prejudice), but then set it aside without publishing it. She read her works-in-progress to her family, who were great boosters and editors of her work. In 1803 she sold her first manuscript, a novel entitled Susan (no relation to the story Lady Susan) to a London publisher for £10. To Austen's chagrin, the publisher did nothing with her manuscript, and it languished unpublished in his office. Austen bought it back ten years later, after sending him an angry letter.
In 1801, Austen's father retired and decided that the family should move to Bath, England. Though she was reluctant to leave Steventon, the only home she had known, Austen agreed to move with her parents to the English resort town (she really didn't have much choice; it was unthinkable that an unmarried woman should live with anyone but family). Austen was by then in her mid-twenties: prime marrying years. So far, however, she had come up unlucky in love. In December 1795 she had met an Irish law student named Tom LeFroy while he was visiting her neighbor in Steventon. The two engaged in some gentle flirtation—Austen wrote jokingly to Cassandra that the two had been "profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together" she wrote her sister.
In late eighteenth-century England, the novel was considered a lowbrow form of entertainment with not much more literary value than the bodice-ripping harlequin romances now sold in our supermarket checkout lines. "Where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind,"blank">Emma). Austen didn't condemn characters who chose to marry for material reasons—she was far too practical for that—but she did make fun of shallow women who thought of nothing else. Women triumphed in Austen's books when they realized that character mattered more than materialism, and when they admitted—as with the proud Elizabeth Bennet or the practical Elinor Dashwood—that it was okay to fall in love.
In 1816, Austen started to feel ill with what was probably Addison's disease, a hormonal disorder that doctors at the time hadn't yet learned to treat effectively. She was working on two novels, Northanger Abbey (the novel previously titled Susan that she had bought back from the lazy publisher) and Persuasion, but the disease zapped her energy and slowed her progress. In May 1817, she and Cassandra moved to Winchester in order to be closer to Austen's doctors. Just two months later, on 18 July 1817, Jane Austen died. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
A few months after her death, Austen's brother Henry published her two final novels together in a single volume. He included an autobiographical note that identified Austen for the first time as the author of her work. The novels fell out of popularity after a few years, until Austen's nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published a biography of his aunt entitled A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. The memoir sparked a renewed interest in the writer. In 1883 the first popular editions of her novels were issued, igniting a widespread fandom that continues to this day. Fans' passion for her work was such that the literary critic Leslie Stephens (who was also Virginia Woolf's dad) dubbed it "Austenolatry," whose practitioners eventually began to call themselves Janeites.
As a woman who wrote in anonymity and never ventured out of southern England, Jane Austen would probably be shocked by the worldwide following she still claims nearly 200 years after her death. Her books speak to people across the boundaries of culture, class and gender. By reflecting real life—the "correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place," as Sir Walter Scott said—her books continue to speak to people about the one thing that's a constant topic of interest to everyone—love. "We are teachers and librarians and book editors, as expected, but also judges, truck drivers, puppeteers, oceanographers, and zoo keepers," wrote Jeanne Kiefer, who in 2008 conducted a survey of Austen fans. "We listen to Elvis as well as Mozart while living in Akron, New Delhi, Tokyo, and Vancouver. There is only one thing that connects everyone in this group: we all have a special place in our heart for Jane. And in my view, that is the most important part of the anatomy of a Janeite."
Father: William George Austen (1731—1805)
Mother: Cassandra Austen (1739—1827)
Brother: James Austen (1765-1819)
Brother: George Austen (1766-1838)
Brother: Edward Austen (1767—1852)
Brother: Henry Thomas Austen (1771—1850)
Sister: Elizabeth Cassandra Austen (1773—1845)
Brother: Francis William Austen (1774-1865)
Brother: Charles John Austen (1779-1852)
Private education in Oxford with Ann Cawley (1783)
Abbey School at Reading (1785-1786)
Private education at home (1786-c. 1793)