Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775, the seventh of the eight children born to George and Cassandra Austen, and the second of only two girls; her sister Cassandra, to whom she was very close, being two years older. Jane, like Elizabeth Bennet, was a gentleman’s daughter. Her father was the Rector of Steventon, a small village in Hampshire, and her mother a member of the Leigh family, which had both intellectual and aristocratic connections. Jane had little formal schooling but her family was a literate and a literary one, and Jane read widely within her father’s extensive library. It was at Steventon that she began her writing life, from an early age penning the many pieces now collected as her Juvenilia, then writing the early drafts of three of her novels: Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.
The family moved to Bath in 1801, following Rev Austen’s retirement and they lived there until he died in 1805. Austen then lived in Southampton with her mother and sister until her brother Edward, who had been adopted by wealthy relatives, offered them a cottage on one of his estates, at Chawton in Hampshire. This is the cottage that is now the Jane Austen’s House Museum. It was the author’s home until her final months in 1817, and where she wrote three of her novels and revised the three earlier ones. She never travelled abroad, and within England none of her journeys ever took her much further north than London.
In the last year of her life Jane became ill with what is now thought to be Addison’s Disease, or perhaps a type of cancer, and in May 1817, accompanied by Cassandra, she travelled to Winchester for medical treatment. She died in the early hours of Friday, 18 July 1817 and is buried in the cathedral at Winchester, where her gravestone carries no mention of her works.
Only four of Austen’s novels were published during her lifetime: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Two other novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published posthumously at the end of 1817, by her brother Henry Austen (who also chose the names by which we know them). For this publication Henry wrote a ‘Biographical Notice of the Author’, which was the first formal announcement of Austen’s authorship. Austen also left two earlier compositions: a novella called Lady Susan, and a novel that she did not complete, The Watsons. It was written in 1804 and is the only literary record of the years between Steventon and Chawton, a period in which Austen appears to have written little or nothing else. At the time of her death, she was working on a new novel, Sanditon, of which 12 chapters survive.