A very short biography of Jane Austen told in five pieces of great trivia
1. Many writers have hated her. D. H. Lawrence called Jane Austen a ‘narrow gutted spinster’, while Mark Twain didn’t pull any punches: ‘Everytime I read “Pride and Prejudice” I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone,’ he wrote in a letter to Joseph Twichell in 1898. (Twain’s attitude to Austen is a little more complicated than this line suggests, however.) Virginia Woolf later wrote that ‘I’d give all she ever wrote for half what the Brontës wrote—if my reason did not compel me to see that she is a magnificent artist.’ She had a difficult time getting her novels into print: Pride and Prejudice was eventually published in 1813, but its earlier incarnation (as First Impressions) had been turned down by a leading London publisher when Austen’s father offered it to them.
2. Some of her early stories are surprising. In one of Austen’s first stories, ‘The Beautifull [sic] Cassandra’, the heroine (based on Jane’s sister) shoplifts a hat and punches a cook. We don’t know as much about Austen’s early life – or, indeed, her later life (we don’t even know for sure what she died of) – thanks to her sister (that ‘Beautiful Cassandra’) burning Jane’s private papers after her death, aged 41, in 1817. We do know that she was largely educated at home, with the exception of a year at a Reading boarding school, in 1785-6.
3. She accepted a marriage proposal from a man named Harris Bigg-Wither. However, the next day, she regretted it and withdrew her acceptance. As John Sutherland puts it in his Lives of the Novelists, ‘All six novels [that Austen wrote] are about the rocky road to a young woman’s happy marriage.’ She would have been a very different novelist if she had married: her novels view marriage from the position of a detached observer.
4. Austen wrote a History of England while she was still a teenager. In 1791, in her sixteenth year, Austen penned a jocular ‘History of England’ as a parody of the schoolbooks on history she had encountered in her (largely home-schooled) education. The tone is wry and ironic throughout – an early sign of the trademark irony that is found in her mature work. She describes Queen Elizabeth I as ‘that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society’. Here Austen is clearly mocking Elizabeth’s detractors. She herself seems quite taken with the Virgin Queen: Gloriana gets more space in the History than any other monarch.
5. Indeed, although she only completed six full-length novels, she actually wrote a fair bit more than this. She also completed a short novel, Lady Susan, which didn’t see publication until 1871, and left two unfinished works, The Watsons and Sanditon. And she even adapted Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison for the stage. This is in addition to the numerous items of juvenilia, including those mentioned in fact nos. 2 and 4 above.
If you enjoyed these Jane Austen facts, we’ve discussed her masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice, in an earlier post. For more fascinating literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: Jane Austen (author unknown, 1873).