Jane Austen
From Presenting Miss Jane Austen (Illustration by Edward Price)

Jane Austen

1775 - 1817

Born in the year 1775 in Hampshire, England, to George Austen, a curate, and his wife Cassandra, the seventh of their eight children, Jane was from her earliest years immersed in a family culture that prized the written word. With a minimum of formal schooling, the majority of her education took place through her encounter with literature. Books were read continuously, both alone and in company, and the Austen children from an early age pursued their own writing endeavors. In addition, they also produced numerous theatricals. Excellence in speech born from precision in thought was valued so highly that great care was taken by their parents to preserve their children’s capacity for both: slang speech was not permitted, even with one another at home, and Jane’s ongoing revisions of her writing throughout her life reflect this pursuit of beauty in thought and expression. Jane’s promise of future greatness can be found even in her earliest juvenilia, as her good humour and charm are present from the very first.

This care in her early formation equipped her for the technical aspect of her later craft as a wordsmith, but the brilliance that she herself added was her ability to bring to life characters that are at once both familiar and complex, perfectly ordinary, and for this very reason, as we are reminded by G. K. Chesterton, extraordinary. Her insights into the struggles and triumphs of the human heart, as we live vicariously in her books, leave us with an intimate understanding of what comes to pass, both for ourselves and for others, when we either strive to become our best and truest selves, cultivating virtue and weeding out vice, or when we surrender to our basest passions and the false promises of momentary pleasures. In her novels we discover a treasure-trove of types: what it is to be an Elizabeth, a Lydia, a Knightly, a Willoughby.

While Austen herself never married, she remained a keen observer of the dance at play in the bringing about of these unions, ever aware of the social, economic, familial, and personal weights that hang in the balance, and making a good match and a good marriage is a at the forefront of each of her novels. Because of this, her books provide a timeless window into the complexities of choosing a life’s companion, and the ways in which a person’s character, formed over a lifetime of habits and choices, both large and seemingly insignificant, plays just as important a role in their fate as does their status in society. Her characters are as engaging, contradictory, delightful, repulsive, and endearing as any we will encounter in our daily lives.

As George Eliot wrote of her in the July 1852 edition of the Westminster Review, “First and foremost let Jane Austen be named, the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end...Her circle may be restricted, but it is complete. Her world is a perfect orb, and vital. Life as it presents itself to an English gentlewoman peacefully yet actively engaged in her quiet village is mirrored in her works with a purity and fidelity that must endow them with interest for all time. To read one of her books is like actual experience of life; you know the people as if you had lived with them, and you feel something of personal affection towards them.”

— Written by Johanna Bittle