Today is the birthday (1775) of Jane Austen, an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony and social commentary as well as her acclaimed plots have gained her historical importance among scholars and critics.
Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. The steadfast support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. From her teenage years into her thirties she experimented with various literary forms, including an epistolary novel which she then abandoned, wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. From 1811 until 1816, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon, but died before completing it.
Austen’s works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th century realism. Her plots, though lightly comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. Her works, relatively popular in her lifetime, were first published anonymously and brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews. But the publication in 1869 of her nephew’s A Memoir of Jane Austen introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer.
Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”, according to one biographer. Only some personal and family letters remain (by one estimate only 160 out of Austen’s 3,000 letters are extant), and her sister Cassandra (to whom most of the letters were originally addressed) burned “the greater part” of the ones she kept and censored those she did not destroy. Other letters were destroyed by the heirs of Admiral Francis Austen, Jane’s brother. Most of the biographical material produced for fifty years after Austen’s death was written by her relatives and reflects the family’s biases in favor of “good quiet Aunt Jane”. Scholars have unearthed little information since. One suspects a rather more torrid life than is known about in available material.
Austen’s parents, George Austen (1731–1805) and his wife Cassandra (1739–1827), were members of substantial gentry families. George was descended from a family of woollen manufacturers, which had risen through the professions to the lower ranks of the landed gentry. Cassandra was a member of the prominent Leigh family. They married on 26 April 1764 at Walcot Church in Bath. From 1765 until 1801, that is, for much of Jane’s life, George Austen served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon, Hampshire, and a nearby village. From 1773 until 1796, he supplemented this income by farming and by teaching three or four boys at a time who boarded at his home.
Austen’s immediate family was large: six brothers — James (1765–1819), George (1766–1838), Edward (1768–1852), Henry Thomas (1771–1850), Francis William (Frank) (1774–1865), Charles John (1779–1852) — and one sister, Cassandra Elizabeth (Steventon, Hampshire, 9 January 1773 – 1845), who, like Jane, died unmarried. Cassandra was Austen’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life. Of her brothers, Austen felt closest to Henry, who became a banker and, after his bank failed, an Anglican clergyman. Henry was also his sister’s literary agent. His large circle of friends and acquaintances in London included bankers, merchants, publishers, painters, and actors: he provided Austen with a view of social worlds not normally visible from a small parish in rural Hampshire.
George was sent to live with a local family at a young age because, as Austen biographer Le Faye describes it, he was “mentally abnormal and subject to fits”. He may also have been deaf and mute. Charles and Frank served in the navy, both rising to the rank of admiral. Edward was adopted by his fourth cousin, Thomas Knight, inheriting Knight’s estate and taking his name in 1812.
As Austen grew into adulthood, she continued to live at her parents’ home, carrying out those activities normal for women of her age and social standing: she practiced the fortepiano, assisted her sister and mother with supervising servants, and attended female relatives during childbirth and older relatives on their deathbeds. She sent short pieces of writing to her newborn nieces Fanny Catherine and Jane Anna Elizabeth. Austen was particularly proud of her accomplishments as a seamstress. She also attended church regularly, socialized frequently with friends and neighbors, and read novels—often of her own composition—aloud with her family in the evenings. Socializing with the neighbors often meant dancing, either impromptu in someone’s home after supper or at the balls held regularly at the assembly rooms in the town hall. Her brother Henry later said that “Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it”.
When Austen was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a nephew of neighbors, visited Steventon from December 1795 to January 1796. He had just finished a university degree and was moving to London to train as a barrister. Lefroy and Austen would have been introduced at a ball or other neighborhood social gathering, and it is clear from Austen’s letters to Cassandra that they spent considerable time together: “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” The Lefroy family intervened and sent him away at the end of January. Marriage was impractical, as both Lefroy and Austen must have known. Neither had any money, and he was dependent on a great-uncle in Ireland to finance his education and establish his legal career. If Tom Lefroy later visited Hampshire, he was carefully kept away from the Austens, and Jane Austen never saw him again.
In December 1800, Austen’s father unexpectedly announced his decision to retire from the ministry, leave Steventon, and move the family to Bath. While retirement and travel were good for the elder Austens, Jane was shocked to be told she was moving from the only home she had ever known (ultimately a main theme in Persuasion). An indication of Austen’s state of mind is her lack of productivity as a writer during the time she lived at Bath. She was able to make some revisions to Susan, and she began and then abandoned a new novel, The Watsons, but there was nothing like the productivity of the years 1795–1799.
In December 1802, Austen received her only known proposal of marriage. She and her sister visited Alethea and Catherine Bigg, old friends who lived near Basingstoke. Their younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, had recently finished his education at Oxford and was also at home. Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. As described by Caroline Austen, Jane’s niece, and Reginald Bigg-Wither, a descendant, Harris was not attractive—he was a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless. However, Austen had known him since both were young and the marriage offered many practical advantages to Austen and her family. He was the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters had grown up. With these resources, Austen could provide her parents a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a permanent home and, perhaps, assist her brothers in their careers. By the next morning, Austen realized she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. No contemporary letters or diaries describe how Austen felt about this proposal, but in 1814, Austen wrote a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, who had asked for advice about a serious relationship, telling her that “having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection”.
This terse biographical resume is my way of introducing the backdrop of Austen’s novels, which focus largely on the problems that women in Regency England on the lower rungs of the landed gentry faced in maintaining their status in society. Upward marriage was their primary recourse. So here comes my usual disclaimer. The travails of people who don’t work for a living do not interest me. This “poor me” attitude cuts no ice with me. If you feel hard done by because you rely on the work or wealth of others, go live in a Yorkshire coal mining slum picking coal from slag heaps for starvation wages and long hours and then tell me how put upon you are.
Austen’s novels do indeed document the lives of “poor” women in Regency England – “poor” meaning that they can’t host (but can attend) charming balls, and have very few servants. Marriage to well-to-do men is their ticket out. So we are all supposed to cheer for Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice because she finally sees how wrong she was about Mr Darcy, who is fabulously rich, and marries him, whilst her elder sister Jane, marries the equally rich Mr Bingley despite problems at the outset. Yawn. This is the stuff of expensive modern movies that devotees fawn over because of their rich sets, lavish costumes, and (generally poor) attempts at recreating elite society in England at the turn of the 19th century, with obligatory dance and dining scenes and other such nonsense as the context for dialogues concerning intrigue and ambition.
Persuasion was the first book I taught as a shiny new professor of 29 teaching a Freshman Studies course, newly designed as a cross between “great books” and college writing. Half the books were set by existing faculty, and half I could choose for myself. Other set books included Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, The Communist Manifesto, and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. The course was an unmitigated disaster, as is any course designed by committee. I had no idea what to do with Persuasion. It did not resonate with me nor with any of my students. I could talk quite knowledgeably about the lives of retired sea captains and admirals featured in the novel because, as a teen, I had avidly studied the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. But the daily lives of the English elite of the period was foreign to me (I grew up in Australia), and of zero interest, except inasmuch as they spoke of the ills and abuses of the class system that doggedly lingers to this day. You would have to pay me an awful lot of money to teach Austen again, and even then I would simply rail against the world that they portray.
We don’t have any recipes directly from Austen’s pen, but there are a number of them extant from close relatives that are typically brief, but easy enough to follow if you are a cook. Here’s her sister-in-law’s trifle recipe (Martha Lloyd’s Household Book):
Take three Naple biscuits. Cut them in slices. Dip them in sack. Lay them on the bottom of your dish. Then make a custard of a pint of cream and five eggs and put over them. Them make a whipt syllabub as light as possible to cover the whole. The higher it is piled, the handsomer it looks.
Here, too, is a contemporary recipe for syllabub, which is a froth of eggs and cream folded with citrus flavoring and sweetened wine. I’d add fruit such as raspberries or strawberries for a little more variety.
A Whipt Syllabub
Take a pt of cream with a spoonfull of orange flower water 2 or 3 ounces of fine sugar ye juice of a lemon ye white of 3 eggs wisk these up together & having in your glasses rhennish wine & sugar & clarret & sugar lay on ye broth with a spoon heapt up as leight as you can.