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Sense and Sensibility: Biography: Jane Austen

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Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 in the village of Steventon, Hampshire, England. She was one of eight children of a clergyman, George Austen, and his wife Cassandra. Cassandra Austen was from a higher social rank than her husband, being one of the minor gentry and distantly related to the titled nobility. Local friends of the family included the Reverend George Lefroy and his wife, Anne. Anne mentored the young Jane Austen and encouraged her intellectual development. Austen and her older sister, Cassandra, the only girls among the children, were extremely close. The children wrote and performed plays and charades to amuse themselves, and Austen was encouraged to write from an early age. She read widely from her father’s large library and wrote short satirical sketches. In 1783 Austen was taken with her sister Cassandra to study with Ann Cooper Cawley, the widow of a head of an Oxford college. She took them to Southampton, where the girls caught typhus and were sent home. In 1784 the sisters were sent to the Abbey School in Reading, which was not known for its intellectual rigor. In December 1786 the girls returned home, where they largely educated themselves.
Austen wrote her first novel, Love and Freindship (sic), at the age of fourteen, though this piece of juvenilia was not published until 1922. In 1795 she wrote the epistolary (in the form of letters) novel, Elinor and Marianne, which she was later to rework and publish as Sense and Sensibility.
In 1795-6, Austen had a mutual flirtation with Thomas Lefroy, an Irish relative of her friend Anne Lefroy. Some biographers believe that the romance was broken up by Lefroy’s family, who wanted a wealthier match for him. In his old age, when he was chief justice of Ireland, he confessed that he had a “boyish love” for Austen.
Austen enjoyed dancing and attended balls in great houses of the neighborhood. She loved living in the country and had many friends in Hampshire. Thus she fainted with shock when her parents announced in 1801 that the family would be moving to Bath. George Austen gave the Steventon living to his son James and retired to the fashionable spa town of Bath with his wife and two daughters. Austen disliked Bath and missed her life in Steventon.
Later in the same year the Austens took a vacation at Sidmouth in Devon, where Austen seems to have fallen in love with a clergyman. The Austens apparently expected that he would propose marriage and be accepted, but he died suddenly. Over a year later, Austen was visiting her friends, the Bigg sisters, when she was proposed to by their brother Harris Bigg-Wither, a wealthy landowner. She accepted, prompted by fear of a poverty-stricken old age, but the next morning thought better of it, broke off the engagement, and returned immediately to Bath. Neither she nor Cassandra ever married.
After Austen’s father's death in 1805, his widow and daughters suffered financial difficulties and became dependent on the charity of the Austen sons. They moved to Southampton to share the home of Austen’s naval officer brother Frank and his wife Mary. Austen wrote little in Bath and nothing at all in Southampton. Austen’s brother Edward had been adopted by a wealthy relative, Thomas Knight of Godmersham Park in Kent, as his son and heir. In 1809 Edward offered his mother and sisters a permanent home on his estate in Chawton, Hampshire. The Austen women moved back to their beloved Hampshire. It was a small but comfortable house that provided the settled home that Austen needed in order to write. In 1809 and 1810 she reworked her novel Elinor and Marianne, finally publishing it in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility. It was her first published book. The two sisters in the novel, Marianne and Elinor, are generally thought to be modelled on Austen and her sister Cassandra respectively. Marianne, like Austen, has literary and musical interests, and Elinor, like Cassandra, is an artist. Austen’s letters to her sister confirm that Cassandra gave Austen cautionary advice about proper behavior, and Austen always deferred to her sister as her superior.
Austen offered to pay the cost of printing Sense and Sensibility herself and did not expect to recoup her costs, but the first edition sold out in under two years, making her £140, enough to live on comfortably for a year. Austen published all her novels anonymously, as it was not considered proper for women to publish novels. The title page of Sense and Sensibility states that it was “By A Lady,” and those close relatives who knew of her authorship kept the secret. The title page of her next novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813), attributed the work to “The Author of Sense and Sensibility,” and Austen continued this practice with each successive novel.
Other major novels by Austen were Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in a four-volume collection in 1818. She also began a novel called The Watsons which she never completed, but which was published in 1923. In 1816 Austen began showing signs of the disease that was to kill her - probably Addison’s disease, a tubercular disease of the kidneys. She was no longer able to walk far, but would drive out in a donkey carriage which can still be seen at the Jane Austen Museum at her house in Chawton. By May 1817 she was so ill that she and Cassandra rented rooms in Winchester in order to be near Austen’s doctor. Austen died in her sister's arms on July 18, 1817, at the age of 41. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral. Austen’s work remains extremely popular. Film adaptations of her novels include the 1995 film Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee, and starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet; the 1996 film of Emma, directed by Douglas McGrath, and starring Gwyneth Paltrow; and the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. Perhaps the best-known version of Pride and Prejudice is the 1995 BBC TV version, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. All these adaptations are available on DVD.


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