7 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen

Jane Austen
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July 18, 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, one of the best-known writers in English literature. Born on December 16, 1775, Jane completed six full-length novels before her death at age 41. Her legacy of social commentary and scathing wit has cemented her place in literary history, and even today, two centuries after she penned her first work, modern readers just can’t get enough of Jane. Let’s take a look at some of the things you may not know about Jane Austen.

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Jane Was a Regency-Era Overachiever

A Readathon Celebrates The 200th Anniversary Of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice
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By the time she was just 23, Jane had written the preliminary drafts of three of the six novels she would eventually complete. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey were written in rough forms prior to 1800. Sense and Sensibility was the first one to make it into print, in 1811, and was published anonymously, with the author simply listed as A. Lady. Jane paid a publisher £460 to print it – but she made her money back, and then some, after it sold all 750 copies of its first run, in a matter of just a few months, leading to a second printing.

Her second published work, Pride and Prejudice, came out 1813, and was originally called First Impressions, and was billed as being penned By the Author of Sense and Sensibility. The novel was a hit, and even Lord Byron’s wife referred to it as “the fashionable novel” to read in society. Pride and Prejudice sold out of several editions.

In 1814, Mansfield Park went to print – and once more, Jane’s name wasn’t anywhere on it. However, it was still a great commercial success, and after a second print run, Jane made more money from her work than she had for either of her two previous novels. Emma came out later that same year, and featured a heroine that Jane herself said “whom no one but myself will much like.” Despite its main character being a bit shallow, Emma too was successful with the reading public.

Persuasion, which many fans feel is Jane’s strongest novel, and Northanger Abbey were both published posthumously in 1818. In addition to these six novels, Jane also completed an epistolary novel entitled Lady Susan, and left behind two unfinished manuscripts. One, entitled The Watsons, was one she began around 1805 and later abandoned. The second, called The Brothers, was a story she started around six months before her death, but stopped writing, possibly because her illness and vision problems got in the way. It was published as Sanditon in 1925. Jane also wrote poetry, and kept up a regular correspondence with her sister Cassandra. Unfortunately, Cassandra destroyed many of Jane’s letters after her death.

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Jane’s Work Was (Sort Of) Autobiographical

London 2012 - UK Attractions - Jane Austen's Bath
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Many of the places and people in Jane’s work are similar to those in her real life. Jane moved as part of society, and her writing reflected some scathing wit, cleverly poking fun at the upper class by which Jane was surrounded. Following her father’s death, Jane and her mother, along with Cassandra, faced a financial situation much like that of the Dashwood women in Sense and Sensibility. Jane spent a good deal of time in the town of Bath, which is a focal point of both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion ­– although Persuasion portrays the town’s society in a more negative light.

She even used the names of family and friends in her writing – her mother, Cassandra Leigh, was related to the Willoughbys and the Wentworths, both prominent families in Yorkshire. Cassandra Leigh was thought to have “married down” when she attached herself to Jane’s father, clergyman George Austen.

Brothers Francis and Charles were both officers in the Royal Navy, and frequently wrote letters home. Jane used some of their stories to frame themes in Persuasion and Mansfield Park.

Although Jane’s characters almost all have happy-ever-after love matches in the end, Jane herself never married. In December 1802, at the age of 27, she was briefly – and by briefly, we’re talking about for a single day — engaged. Jane and sister Cassandra were visiting long-time friends at Manydown Park, and the friends’ brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, asked for Jane’s hand in marriage. Some five years younger than Jane, and by all accounts “very plain in person —awkward, & even uncouth in manner,” Harris was only her betrothed for about 24 hours. The very next day, for reasons unknown to anyone else, Jane changed her mind, and she and Cassandra left Manydown, rather than stay in a house with a spurned suitor. 

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Jane Had a Super Active Social Life

Pride and Prejudice Ball To Celebrate The 200th Anniversary Of The Book
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While we may think of Jane scribbling her manuscripts as a lonely spinster in a turret somewhere, that simply wasn’t the case. In fact, Jane spent a lot of time hanging out with the ton of her era. Born and raised in a quiet country village, by her mid-twenties Jane had begun frequenting London events. Her brother Henry had a home in the city, and Jane often attended gallery events, plays, and card parties where she rubbed elbows with the fashionable set. Brother Edward had been adopted by wealthy cousins, and later inherited their estates, so Jane traveled frequently to visit his stately homes at Chawton and Godmersham Park. Sometimes staying for months at a time, Jane was quite a social butterfly, and was able to use this exposure to the gentry to frame the backdrops of her novels. 

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Jane Is More Than Chick Lit

The Jane Austen Festival Opens With A Regency Costumed Promenade
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Ever see someone roll their eyes and mutter chick lit when Jane’s name is mentioned? Don’t worry, you can counter that statement by pointing out that guys dig Jane’s work too! G.K. Chesterton said, “I fancy that Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Bronte; I am quite sure that she was stronger, sharper and shrewder than George Eliot. She could do one thing neither of them could do: she could coolly and sensibly describe a man..."

Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote, "I am reported to have said that Jane Austen was equal to Shakespeare. What I really said was that, in the narrow sphere of life which she delineated, she pictured her characters as truthfully as Shakespeare. But Austen is to Shakespeare as asteroid to sun. Miss Austen's novels are perfect works on small scale—beautiful bits of stippling."

Author Rudyard Kipling was a fan too - he wrote an entire short story about a group of soldiers entitled The Janeites, and it's the story of a group of soldiers who bond over a shared love of Jane's works.

Sure, there’s romance and marriage and all of that other stuff taking place in Jane’s work, but there’s also a sharp, cynical, and often humorous look at British society of her time. Jane takes the rules of the ton, and cleverly points out just how ridiculous they really are.

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Was Jane Poisoned?

Jane Austen's Home
Chawton House. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Jane was only 41 when she passed away, and there has been a lot of speculation as to the cause. Theories have ranged from stomach cancer to Addison’s disease, but in March 2017, a new possibility was raised. An article from the British Library questions whether or not Jane actually died from arsenic poisoning, citing her developing cataracts as a possible symptom.

First suggested by crime writer Lindsey Ashford in 2011, it’s certainly possible – although that doesn’t mean anything sinister was happening around Jane. Water supplies of the time were often tainted, and arsenic was even found in medicines and cosmetics. Regardless, an examination of three pairs of Jane’s spectacles indicated that her vision got progressively worse as she grew older, and that could have been the result of a wide variety of medical causes, including diabetes.

Other historians and scholars have pointed to a sudden onset of Addison’s disease, or possibly a longer-standing case of Hodgkins’ lymphoma as being the cause of Jane’s death.

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Jane Is All Over the Screen

'Sense and Sensibility'
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Jane’s books are ripe for screen adaptation, and several of them have been made into films multiple times.

Pride and Prejudice may be the story that today’s viewers are the most familiar with. The 1995 mini-series adaptation starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is a fan favorite the world over, and a 2005 retelling with Kiera Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen grossed over $121M worldwide at the box office. P&P has inspired a number of variations, including a Bollywood film, Bride and Prejudice, starring Aishwarya Rai and Naveen Andrews, and Bridget Jones’ Diary, featuring Renee Zellweger, and in which Firth appears as – wait for it – Mark Darcy.

Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, starring Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson, and Alan Rickman, was released in 1995, but the novel has also been serialized for television viewers. In addition, there are modern adaptations, such as Scents and Sensibility, Material Girls, and From Prada to Nada.

Mansfield Park has been made into at least two television versions, as well as a full-length feature film, starring Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller. There’s even a 2003 radio adaptation, commissioned by the BBC, and starring Felicity Jones, David Tennant, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Emma has appeared on television in eight different incarnations, in addition to a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. The story also inspired the movies Clueless, with Alicia Silverstone, and Aisha, starring Sonam Kapoor. Both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey have been adapted for the screen multiple times, and Lady Susan appeared as a 2016 film starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Savigny.

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Jane Has Serious Fandom

The Jane Austen Festival Opens With A Regency Costumed Promenade
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Jane’s fans are pretty hardcore and are a bit obsessive – and that’s okay, because they have a lot of fun. In the UK and US, Jane societies exist all over the place. The Jane Austen Society of North America is one of the largest, and they host events and festivals regularly. Lectures, costumed balls and parties, and even fan fiction and art are all part of the world of the Janeites, or Austenites.

If you prefer to keep your fandom limited to online, the Republic of Pemberley website is chock-full of info about Jane, her work, and the society in which she lived. For fans who like to travel, Jane tours abound, in which readers can visit Jane’s childhood home and other locations in which she spent time. 

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Wigington, Patti. "7 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/jane-austen-facts-4134613. Wigington, Patti. (2020, August 27). 7 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jane-austen-facts-4134613 Wigington, Patti. "7 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jane-austen-facts-4134613 (accessed January 23, 2021).