The Life of Lady A (1775-1817)
"It is very much what someone settling down to write does, getting up, pacing, thinking, returning to the page she is working on"
Jane Austen wrote six novels in her lifetime. She passed away in the year 1817; leaving no diaries that we know of. The Austen Family destroyed her letters. Jane's brother Henry asserts, "my dear sister's life was not a life of events"... (We shall see Henry, we shall see)...
On 16 December 1775 in the Hampshire village of Selborne, Jane Austen was born in the evening at home without the presence of a doctor. A doctor was seldom called for "something as routine as childbirth". Her christening would be held at home and viewed as something of a matter of routine. Just one week later, The Austen Family celebrated Christmas with the gift of baby "Jenny" as she was called by her sisters. On Christmas Eve the Austen children laid out the traditional holly branches on the window ledges. On Christmas morning, their father, Rev. George Austen, walked to his local parish church, St Nicholas to read the lessons and administer the sacrament to the local families and neighbors. Mrs. Cassandra Austen was a dutiful wife and mother of seven children as was expected of an eighteenth century woman. Perhaps, Jane Austen received the gift of writing from her mother. It seems that Mrs. Austen wrote poetry and read it to the children she helped teach in the schoolhouse where Mr. Austen taught as well.
One of the earliest exmaples of Jane Austen's writing to survive is a poem from 1809 entitled, 'Bet, my be not come to bide'. It was written on the occasion of the birth of her nephew when Jane was thirty-four years old:
My dreams Frank, I wish you joy
Of Mary's safety with a Boy...
In him, in all his ways, may we
Another Francis William see!
Thy infant days may he inherit,
They warmth, nay insolence of spirit...
May he revive thy Nursery sin,
Peeping as daringly within,
His curley locks but just described,
With "Bet, my be not come to bide."
Even before Jane Austen turned twenty-four she wrote three major novels in only four years:
In October 1796 she wrote 'First Impressions' (Pride and Prejudice) completed in nine months. In November 1797 she wrote 'Elinor and Marianne' that she renamed 'Sense and Sensibility' in the Spring of 1798. Between 1798 and 99 she wrote the first draft of a book that would become Northanger Abbey (my favorite); originally entitled, 'Susan'!
So what was Jane Austen's writing process like? After completing the first draft while sitting in her upstairs bedroom she would read it aloud to herself testing the dialogue before cutting and amending whatever embarrassed her or struck a false note in the dialogue. She would mark her text in the neat hand she developed because paper was expensive. Afterwards, she would then read her work aloud to family members.
Jane Austen wrote the first draft of Pride and Prejudice at the age of twenty, the same age as Elizabeth Bennet. By the time of publication in 1813, she was thirty-seven. Seventeen years must be the longest delay ever between composition and publication.
Northanger Abbey took twenty years to find a publisher and did not appear in print until the author was dead. It frightens me to think how easily any of Jane Austen's novel's might have been lost! Unfortunately, there are not manuscripts of either drafts or final versions of any of her published works. Although she made copies; neither the copies nor any of her good care help us to know how the earlier versions differed from the later.
By 7 July 1809 Jane Austen and family settled into the cottage at Chawton. The effect on Jane of this move to a permanent home in which she was able to re-establish her own rhythm of work was dramatic. It was as though she was restored to herself, to her imagination, to all her powers: a black cloud had finally lifted! Almost at once she began to work again. Sense and Sensibility was taken out and revisions began! Encouragement and practical helpo came from her brother Henry. In the last months of 1810 the publisher Thomas Egerton of the Military Library, Whitehall, agreed to publish Sense and Sensibility. It was agreed that Sense and Sensibility would be published on commission, which meant the author paid for the printing, plus advertising and distribution but kept the copyright. First edition of Sense and Sensibility states, "Printed for the Author". In a letter to her sister Cassandra Jane gushes, "No indeed, I am never too busy to think of Sense and Sensibility, I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child." Sense and Sensibility was advertised on 31 October 1811 in the Morning Chronicle as "A new Novel by a Lady". A week later another advertisement called it an 'Extraordinary Novel!" and at the end of November it had become, "Interesting Novel by Lady A". Who could the mysterious Lady A be? She was good for publicity purposes at any rate. The number of copies printed is not known but it is not likely to be more than 1,000; the three volume edition sold for fifteen shillings. It sold out by the Summer of 1813 and Jane made a profit of 140 British pounds. This meant freedom for Jane as she was now able to give presents and plan journeys without having to rely on her parents and siblings. Jane Austen preserved her anonymity at Chawton and with her mother alone when Pride and Prejudice appeared. She had sets sent to her brothers and celebrated publication by taking turns with her mother to read the first chapters aloud as they sat beside the fire on a damp January evening.
In 1813 Jane was working on Mansfield Park. The secret of Jane's authorship was beginning to be more generally known. Jane complained "of becoming an exhibit in the parade of London society if she were to be found out". Mansfield Park was finished by summer.
For Mansfield Park she did something she had not done before. She collected and wrote down the opinions of her readers delivered in private letters or conversations which she set down in her own hand. These "opinions" only exist for Mansfield Park and Emma. They prove how much it meant to Jane Austen to have reactions to her work. Although she feared it, the breaking down of anonymity was a good thing. Furthermore, they demonstrate that she was detached enough to write down rude remarks as well as praise and without adding commentary of her own.
By July 1813 Sense and Sensibility had sold out, bringing a profit; Pride and Prejudice was a hit, Mansfield Park was completed and ideas for her next book which was to be Emma, were taking shape. She was only thirty seven.
At Chawton, Jane Austen began to write Emma on my birthday 21 January 1814 and finished on March 29th 1815. She writes to Mr. Clarke, "my greatest anxiety at present is that this 4th work should not disgrace what was good in others...I am very strongly haunted by the idea that to those readers who have preferred Pride and Prejudice it will appear inferior in Wit & to those who have preferred Pride and Prejudice very inferior in Good Sense".
In January 1816 Jane began feeling unwell but no one really payed her any mind, blaming it on turning forty! She kept busy working on 'The Elliots' - her working title for 'Persuasion'. She also recovered the manuscript of Susan (Northanger Abbey) going through it, changing the heroine's name to Catherine and writing a note explaining that it dated back many years, having been finished in 1803.
Jane suffered from back pains but despite family visits and the cold, rainy summer it seems 1816 she suffered the worst in decades. Still, in true form, she finished writing Persuasion on 18 July. She wrote "Finis" then becoming dissatisfied with its two concluding chapters. These are the only pieces of manuscript from her finished novels to survive (now in the British Library). Deciding to rewrite the two final chapters entirely in three weeks, she then put the manuscript aside and did nothing for six months. Found written in the margins of Cassandra's copy of Persuasion is written, "Dear, dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold".
In between bouts of ill health, between January and March 1817, Jane Austen wrote twelve chapters of a most surprising book entitled, 'Sandition' that Cassandra knew by the name 'The Brothers' while the rest of the family called it 'The Last Work'. On 18 March she abandoned the manuscript attacked by a fever and bilious attack that made her too unwell to write anything that was not strictly necessary. In mid April she took to her bed, too weak to struggle on with night fevers and an unspecified discharge alarming enough for her to visit a surgeon. She wrote her will unwitnessed, on 27 April 1817 addressed to "Miss Austen". She wrote out an account of the profits of her novels equaling 84 British Pounds.
At Chawton with Cassandra and Mary, Jane dictated twenty-four lines of comic verse to Cassandra. She wrote "gone" at the end of the second line, where the rhyme clearly calls for "dead", but either Jane couldn't say the word or her sister couldn't bring herself to write it down. Jane was in and out of sleep most of the evening into the early morning of 17 July 1817 with Cassandra at her bedside. Cassandra settled herself with a pillow on her lap supporting Jane's head, the last half of her body off the bed. Cassandra was unwilling to move her at all sitting with her like this for six hours. At 4 a.m. on 18 July 1817 Jane Austen was dead.
Cassandra said of her sister Jane Austen, "She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her and it is as if I had lost a part of myself".
By Kimberly Eve
Jane Austen A Life by Claire Tomalin, Vintage Books, New York, 1997
Please feel free to leave any comments or questions,