It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the most influential writers to this day.
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 in Steventon, a village in the English county of Hampshire. The daughter of a rector, Austen was an avid reader with access to her father’s library and would often read novels aloud to her family in the evenings. As early as 11 years old, Austen would also compose her own poetry to share with her family.
As she grew older, Austen began to write longer works. Her first novel was titled Elinor and Marrianne, which she read aloud to her family in 1796. This was the first draft for what would later be retitled as Sense and Sensibility. Austen wanted to publish a novel, but as a woman, she wasn’t legally able to sign her own contracts. Fortunately, her older brother Henry was more than willing to help her become published and sign on her behalf.
Austen eventually found a publisher, Thomas Egerton, who agreed to publish the polished draft of Sense and Sensibility “on commission,” this meant that the book was published at the author’s financial risk. If the books didn’t sell, the author would be responsible for paying the publisher for all costs associated with publishing. At this point in her life, Austen was living with her widowed mother and unmarried older sister, Cassandra; finances were strained, and they were reliant on her brothers for income. This was a huge risk, but one she was willing to take. Jane, through Henry, signed the dotted line. In October of 1811, Sense and Sensibility was published, the author listed anonymously. To the world and for the rest of her lifetime, Jane was simply “A Lady”.
Sense and Sensibility was a hit, and the first-edition sold out by mid-1813. Her most widely-known work, Pride and Prejudice, was published in January of 1813, and a second-edition of that title was released in October of the same year. When Mansfield Park was published in 1814, all of the first-edition copies sold within six months. Even the Prince Regent admired Austen’s novels, though she disliked him. Nevertheless, she dedicated the 1815 novel, Emma, to the Prince Regent by request of the Prince Regent’s librarian.
In early 1816, Austen began to feel unwell, but pushed through the warning signs of illness. Sadly, she didn’t have much choice. Henry, a banker by trade, fell into debt in March when his bank failed; worse, this also cost his brothers large sums from their investments. This meant that there was little income for Jane, her widowed mother, and Cassandra. Though the income from her books was minuscule compared to what her brothers contributed, the family needed the money. Austen completed the first draft of Persuasion by July, and rewrote the final two chapters in August. She began to work on a new novel, which would be posthumously published in its incomplete form and titled Sanditon. She completed twelve chapters by March of 1817, before she had a relapse. The last time Jane Austen held a pen to write is clearly marked in her own hand … March 18, 1817.
Austen died at the age of 41 on July 18, 1817, with her beloved sister Cassandra at her side. Following her death, Henry, Cassandra and Jane’s publisher John Murray worked together to publish Austen’s last finished novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. For both titles, Henry wrote a biographical note revealing Jane’s identity as the author of her well-loved books.
Austen’s influence — like her drive to be published — has persisted through to modern times. We see it everywhere, in books, in movies and in classrooms. Her works have been adapted for stage and screen multiple times, to include a forthcoming film of Emma in 2020, and her works have been retold into many different settings: New York neighborhoods, college campuses, Pakistan and India, fantasy worlds, high schools, outer space and more.
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