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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > July 2017 > The History Makers: Jane Austen

The History Makers: Jane Austen

Her novels have come to define Regency England, and she is now remembered as one of history’s wittiest writers. But Jane Austen hasn’t always known success. On the bicentenary of her death, Sandra Lawrence tells her story.
PORTRAIT COURTESY OF THE 19TH CENTURY RARE BOOK AND PHOTOGRAPH SHOP, STEVENSON, MARYLAND X1, ©JANE AUSTEN’S HOUSE MUSEUM X1, ALAMY X1, GETTY X1

Published anonymously and poorly known during her lifetime, by the early Victorian period Jane Austen was hopelessly outdated. Charlotte Brontë, admittedly Austen’s literary polar opposite, spent several letters describing her dislike of a world she saw as prim, proper and up-tight, “shrewd and observant” but whose “carefully fenced and highly cultivated gardens” saw “no glimpse of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air”.

Austen’s detractors remain, yet this summer, exactly 200 years since her death, hers will be the publicly endorsed face of the new ten-pound note. Subject of movies, books, TV, radio, graphic novels, apps, tourist trails, games, Bollywood-style reboots – even soft porn and zombies – she is more popular than ever and, unusually, as much for herself as her work.

Born in Steventon, Hampshire, on 16 December 1775, Jane was the seventh of eight children. Her father, George Austen, was rector of Steventon church. He had married Cassandra Leigh, from a considerably better-o background, and was bestowed the Steventon living by a cousin, omas Knight, just as things became financially precarious.

“I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am” Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister Cassandra

Tom Lefroy, an Irish barrister with whom Jane exchanged many letters, but was prevented from marrying by their parents

Jane was inseparable from her older sister Cassandra (named for her mother). When Cassandra was sent to a schoolmistress in Oxford, Jane insisted on going too. They moved with their teacher to Southampton, but the school closed after an outbreak of infectious disease (possibly typhus). It was a close thing; Jane nearly died. On their recovery, the girls went to boarding school, but the fees proved too much for the Reverend Austen, and the rest of Jane’s education came mainly from free access to her father’s considerable library. She read pretty much anything she could lay her hands on, from scholarly works to popular novels. Her father indulged her obvious passion for writing, supplying Jane with paper and ink. The whole family listened to her many short stories, satires and poems, including the novella Lady Susan, a caustic portrait of a scheming society woman.

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About History Revealed

Follow the rise and fall of France's most infamous dictator, Napoleon, all the way from emperor to exile. Also inside, celebrate 200 years of Jane Austen and discover what life was really like for Ancient Greeks living in Sparta, the civilisation's most brutal city-state. We've also lined up ten of the greatest partnerships in history, from Marks and Spencer to Rolls and Royce, plus meet the man who inspired 007 – Elizabeth I's forgotten spy, John Dee.
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