It still seems paradoxical that the outstanding English novelist of the turbulent Romantic age should be the decorous, unmarried daughter of a Hampshire clergyman.
Jane Austen cheerfully announced that ‘three or four families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on, and modestly declared that her books were ladylike miniatures, ‘the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour. Yet her subtle, often scathing comedies of courtship and cross-purposes have a universal human resonance.
She was passionately dedicated to her art, wrote and rewrote relentlessly, and called her novels her ‘darlings’. Growing up at the bustling Steventon rectory (two of her brothers became admirals), she had produced a romantic novella Love and Friendship by the age of fourteen (her two heroines ‘fainted alternately on a sofa’); and an illustrated History of England at fifteen (‘by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian’).
Early drafts of her first three novels — which eventually became Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Northanger Abbey (1818) – were already completed before the age of twenty-five. She accepted a proposal of marriage one evening in December 1802, but after overnight consultation with her sister Cassandra, changed her mind the following morning.
Cassandra remained Jane’s closest confidante and produced the famous watercolour sketch (c. 1810), though her niece Anna said the round, pert, sarcastic face was ‘hideously unlike’ her aunt. Cassandra called Jane ‘the sun of my life, the soother of every sorrow’ (Letters, 1817), and subsequently destroyed much of their correspondence. After a long, distracting interlude at Bath, they returned with their elderly mother to Hampshire (Chawton Cottage), where Austen rapidly completed her six major novels – now including Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816) and Persuasion (1818) – in an extraordinary burst of creative energy before her death, aged forty-two, from Addison’s disease.
The great historical novelist Walter Scott wrote:
That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but [her] exquisite touch … is denied me.