A little birdie told us that a lot of you wanted an episode about the life and work of Jane Austen.

That would be several little birdies who tweet, post on facebook, write emails and vote on our Guaranteed Content Poll.  During this episode we do exactly what you have asked (over and over again) and chat about the life of author Jane Austen.

The ability to anonymously make wry commentary on social media may have appealed to Miss Austen, but one must wonder if she would have been able to limit herself to a mere 140 characters. (A very special gift from illustrator, Lisa Graves of History Witch)

Jane’s real life wasn’t exactly like the ones that she painted for the heroines in her novels. She was born into a family of modest means and  lived that way for her entire life. Like a few of her characters, her best friend and confidante was her sister – but unlike most of them, she never married. Four of Jane’s novels were published but only within her last few years (and she was never credited by name as the author); two more were published after her death. She did enjoy a social life, but lived a very ordinary, quiet and private existence.  There is only one confirmed picture of her, and even that was a sketch done by her sister. People who knew Jane claimed that it didn’t quite capture her appearance. Oh, Jane, this is but one mystery in your wake!

Sketch on left done by sister Cassandra (she looks irritated, right?) Portrait on right based on that sketch was created many years later

Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775 at Steventon Rectory, Hampshire England where her father, George, was the Oxford-educated parish Rector. Jane was the seventh of eight children, and only the second daughter. Sister Cassandra (who was three years older and named after Mum) would remain close to Jane for her whole life. Parents Austen believed strongly in education and reading and maintained a very loving  (and wildly rambunctious) household. Not only was the home filled with Austen children, but Rev. Austen took in several more boys and turned the home into a boarding school.

After a relatively brief and traumatic stint at a couple of girls boarding schools, Jane’s formal education was complete. Her father’s library and educational materials were available to her and, supplemented by the occasional tutor, she learned to play the piano, speak French, some Italian and do needlework. And she wrote. Quite a bit. Not merely letters, which were the primary communication device of the time, but she began to write poems, short stories, plays and short novels. This collection of work is now known as Jane’s Juvenilia which was eventually published in the 1930’s. The most humorous to us  is this 15 page History of England from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 7th: By a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian. Illustrated by sister Cassandra, it shows the early wit of a writer who would later mock many a social convention.

As the Austen sisters grew to a marrying age both had episodes of love and heartbreak. Cassandra was engaged for a period, although he died while attempting to earn enough money for them to marry. Jane had two recorded (and one suggested and mysterious) relationships. The first was a hot and heavy flirtation with a young man who, when his parents realized he was smitten with the unmonied Jane, was made an offer he couldn’t refuse and left Jane. The second was a very (oh so very) brief engagement that lasted a whole evening. It wasn’t that Jane didn’t like to socialize, she was very social and loved to dance- but this is one more mystery in her legacy.

Quadrille, a popular dance of Jane’s time.

Why so much mystery? Certainly there was correspondence, or some type of primary source documentation? There was. Accent on “was”. For some reason, Cassandra (as well as some of the Austen brothers) destroyed most (as in: several thousand down to a couple hundred) of the letters that Jane sent. Most of the story of her  adult years had to be cobbled together through other accounts, and some parts will never, truly be understood. For instance: As two unmarried women of the time Jane and Cassandra were utterly dependent upon their family for survival. When Papa retired, the foursome moved to Bath. Jane’s opinions about the move as well as how she felt during that time are mostly unknown as she stopped writing her as yet unpublished novels, and there are few letters that remain from her.

We do know that she carried around three manuscripts- precious cargo they were- as she traveled to visit family and friends while Bath was her home base. Later, she lugged them around again as she and her female relations set to find financial support after the death of her father. It wasn’t until Jane, Cassandra and their mother set up house in Chawton Cottage, part of a property owned by an elder brother, did Jane begin to write again.

Chawton Cottage- Jane’s last happy home and now a museum

And write she did!

In 1811 Jane’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility was published in three volumes. We will cover all of Jane’s books in a separate episode, but publication came pretty quickly from this point until her death. Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma followed in print over the next few years.

First edition Sense and Sensibility by Jane…er, no, sorry…by A Lady.

However, Jane became ill- weak and in chronic pain- her writing slowed down. On July 18th, 1817 at the age of 41, Jane Austen died in the arms of her beloved sister. Her final two novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published together after her death. We cover many more details of Jane’s life, as well as some interesting tidbits about the Georgian and Regency periods,  in the podcast.  We also discuss Jane’s long lasting appeal- why her chronicling and wry observations of the Regency period ignite a level of intrigue in millions wonder who still wonder what other works she may have had in her future if death hadn’t stilled her passion.


Make your plans now to attend one of any number of events worldwide commemorating the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice! Here is a calendar! The closest to us is in Louisville…hmmmm?

You want to meet the other Janeites, right? Get in-depth information and talk about every aspect of the life and work of this woman? Visit the website (facebook page, twitter) of your nearest Jane Austen Society and dive in. Jane Austen Society of North America.

Google it yourself, there are so many websites devoted to Jane that we couldn’t possibly compile a list, merely give you a few to start with. How about-  The Republic of Pemberley? This site is a feast of intel and hosts an active community.

Or maybe- Seeking Jane Austen.com which is a guide to the locations associated with Jane.

Jane Austen Fight Club video!

For the over 21 crowd: The Jane Austen Drinking Game. (Countenance: A calm and composed facial expression. Continence: The ability to retain bodily discharge. Yes, let’s all laugh again.)

While you are clicking around online, go take a tour of Jane Austen’s House Museum which is kind enough to provide a virtual tour (Oh, you know we love a good virtual tour).  This is is where she wrote the bulk of her published novels and was her last home. Or better: plan a trip around Austen! There are maaaany websites to assist you on this, and most of the links we provided will get you started, here is one to start with The World of Jane Austen. Remember to send us a postcard!

Books! Again, we had a stack of materials to choose from and narrowed it down to our favorites (although many others were quite good and it is fair to say that we have OD’d on Austen)

By Adams, Buchanan and Gesch

By Daniel Pool

Catherine Reef (YA book)

Claire Tomalin

Natalie Tyler

Jane Austen: A family Record (this is the book Beckett sniffs) by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh

We always recommend Supersizers, Go! and they don’t disappoint with the episode based on the Regency Period.

A very big thank you to Lisa Graves who crafted the irrelevant Jane illustration tweeting from the top of this post. We both adore her work and style (she also graciously did the illustration for our Julia Child episode) and are thrilled to share that she has author/illustrated a History Witch book coming in June! Visit her site History Witch for more of her charming women’s history illustrations and oddities about some of histories most colorful women.

As always, our music comes courtesy of Music Alley. Visit them at Music.mevio.com
(Closing song: Know Which Way the Wind Blows” by The Postmarks)