I read this memoir with great interest because, well, I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen, and because this is my first biography of hers. Also, the author is related to Austen. James Edward Austen-Leigh is one of Jane’s nephews. He is the son of James Austen, Jane’s eldest brother.
Basically, this book is about his recollections of his aunt.
Here are some of the things I learned:
- Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775;
- Her father, George, was a clergyman. Her mother, Cassandra, came from a gentry family;
- She had six brothers (James, George [not mentioned in the book], Edward, Henry, Francis, and Charles) and a sister (Cassandra) who was her confidante throughout her life;
- They lived in Steventon;
- Her father, to supplement their family income, taught in a boarding school (for young boys);
- Cassandra and Jane attended the same school for a short time; they had to move out to make way for other pupils to enroll (in order to increase their family income);
- The Austen family were great readers. Jane’s father had a library and they were all welcome to read whatever they like;
- Jane was especially a voracious reader;
- She also loved to write, and at a very young age began writing short plays for her family’s amusement;
- She wrote her three manuscripts which later became Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, within four years, when she was not yet 21;
- They moved to Bath and then to Southhampton after the retirement of her father;
- James and his family moved into Steventon;
- During this long period, she hardly, if ever, wrote;
- Then, they moved to Chawton, and here Jane was happier; she was again productive, writing the manuscripts that later became Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. The last two were published posthumously;
- She died on July 18, 1817, after suffering for a couple of years from a mysterious illness (some speculated that it may have been Addison’s Disease or Hodgkin’s lymphoma);
- She was 41, and left an unfinished novel, Sanditon;
- Jane was a very “dear aunt”: kind, intelligent, loving, and lively. She loved her nieces and nephews and used to tell them fairy stories which she made up herself;
- She was simple and modest;
- She was very disciplined: In Chawton, she used to wake up very early in the morning when everyone was still asleep, so she could play in the pianoforte without disturbing her family;
- Initially, she kept her occupation as a writer a secret. Only her direct family knew she was the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice;
- Her novels created a bit of a stir in some circles and in general sold well, but her success was very limited. After her death, however, appreciation and admiration for her works steadily grew;
- James Edward Austen-Leigh was the youngest member of the family to attend Jane’s funeral.
After reading the book, I watched this wonderful documentary. The host, Anna Chancellor, is related to Jane Austen. She also played Miss Bingley in the hugely popular BBC TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995).
My Rating: 4/5
Date Read: October 6-27, 2012