Jane Austen has provoked cult-like adoration for her perfection of the novel form. Fan sites sporting fan fiction have popped up on the internet, and a healthy industry surrounds fan sequels and film adaptations of her six novels.
Jane was born at the Steventon rectory in Hampshire on 16th December 1775. Her father, George, was the rector. From a modest background, George Austen owed what success he had to his own intelligence (he was awarded a scholarship at Oxford) and the help of his wealthy relatives who were able to purchase or contrive 'livings' (appointments for clergy) for him. His wife Cassandra, Jane's mother, whom he married in 1764, was the daughter of a rector herself (at All Soul's College in Oxford).
Jane grew up in a lively, intelligent family who liked to perform theatricals at home. One of the youngest of a large brood, Jane was encouraged by her father to learn and excel mentally as well as in the standard womanly accomplishments. After being schooled at Mrs. Cawley's establishment in Southampton and then at another establishment in Reading until she was eleven, Jane Austen came under the tutelage of her father.
In the midst of relationship disappointments involving her sister Cassandra (and possibly herself, though little can be ascertained about Jane's relationship with Tom Lefroy, despite a film version of the romance), Jane began to write, and continued with the support and admiration of her father and siblings. Early versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice between 1794 and 1796 were much admired by her family and friends, but publishers' responses were slow.
By 1800 the family had moved to Bath for their father's health. He died there in 1805, leaving his wife and two unmarried daughters little on which to live. After living for awhile with various members of her family, and thanks to the kindness of her brothers, in 1809 Jane Austen was able to settle in Chawton Cottage in Hampshire with her mother and sister Cassandra. At Chawton, Jane Austen returned to her writing in earnest. Her novel Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813. Pride and Prejudice was particularly well-received. Emma and Mansfield Park followed, and as illness beset her, she worked on Persuasion. Northanger Abbey (an earlier written, but unpublished novel) and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818.
Jane Austen died on 18th July 1817, and is buried at Winchester Cathedral.
Her own opinion of her writing is revealed in this somewhat tongue-in-cheek excerpt from a letter to her sister about Pride and Prejudice:
The work is rather too light and bright and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter – of sense if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense – about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte [sic], or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style. I doubt your quite agreeing with me here – I know your starched notions . . .
Cassandra's 'starched notions' are, evidently, still shared by the vast majority of readers. Jane Austen's popularity has only increased with time, and is very unlikely to diminish.
She is a mistress storyteller, she has been alive for hundreds of years, through the pages of her stories. Tales of never ending love, that Hollywood could hardly dare imagaine, staunch friendships, and unforgettable characters. Miss Austen's masterpieces can be summed up perfectly, in one simple sentence. Quoting William F. Buckley Jr 'one doesn't read Jane Austen; one re-reads Jane Austen.'
The Jane Austen Centre in Bath.
A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, J.E. Austen Leigh published in 1871.
Life of Jane Austen by Goldwin Smith published in 1890
Jane Austen's house at Chawton (where she wrote Persuasion):