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Jane Austen (December 16, 1775 – July 18, 1817), the renowned British author, led a writing life of the inimitable artist. Despite the popular portrayal of her as all charm and modesty, she was a writer and observer with full mastery of her gifts. She cared deeply about getting published and being read, despite myths to the contrary.
Born in Steventon, Hampshire (England), Austen was part of a convivial middle-class family consisting of five brothers and an elder sister, Cassandra, with whom she was very close. The Austen family valued education and sent the two girls briefly to boarding school in addition to receiving further education at home.
Austen’s talent was recognized early on and taken seriously by her entire family. The male members of her family, particularly her father (George Austen, a country rector), played key roles in getting her works published. Austen longed to see her work in print, regardless of whether or not it would gain her fame or fortune — but getting it published was important to her, contrary to the myth about her extreme modesty.
In pursuit of publication
Her father and brothers took it upon themselves to seek publication for Jane’s first works, and it wasn’t easy. It was clear that she didn’t write merely for her own amusement, but was deeply invested in having her work published and read. An avid reader herself, she was aware of contemporary authors, and took for role models Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Lenox, and Fanny Burney.
Rejection was a family affair for the Austens in their pursuit of publication for Jane. She and her family opted for some of the venues available for publishing available to them, none all that attractive or profitable. Unable to find a good home for Pride and Prejudice, they embarked on a similar mission for Sense and Sensibility.
Publication, at last
At last, the Austens found a reputable publisher to print Sense and Sensibility on a commission basis.
Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra, “I am never too busy to think of Sense and Sensibility. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her suckling child.” It was published in 1811 and took two years to sell out the edition of 1,000. When another printing was ordered, she wrote to her sister, “I cannot help hoping that many will feel themselves obliged to buy it.”
Pride and Prejudice was soon after taken by Egerton with little fanfare and even less favorable terms. The Austens decided to sell the copyright outright, as that was another route to getting published. She received 110 pounds, and wrote in a letter, “I would rather have had 150, but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.”
The publisher went through three printings in her lifetime, and having sold the copyright (which lasted 28 years), she received no further remuneration. Still, the book was published to critical acclaim in 1813, and was one of the most successful novels of the season. Its author identified on the title page only as “A Lady.”
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Miniseries and Film Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and was one of the most successful novels of the season. Jane was an astute critic of her own work. In a letter just following the work’s publication, she wrote:
“The work is rather too light and bright and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter — of senses if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense — about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonoparté, or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.”
Though sales were modest by today’s standards, both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were deemed successes and set the stage for slow and steady sales of her subsequent books.
Jane eagerly awaited payments, knew just when to expect them, not unlike contemporary authors who hang about the mailbox when royalty time comes along. In total, she earned about 680 pounds for her books in her lifetime, not a dazzling sum, but the receipt of which gave her great pleasure.
Six exquisite novels and a legacy
Six exquisite novels crafted with compassion, humor, and insight into the travails of the sexes and social classes assured her lofty position in literary history. These were Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. (there was also an unfinished novel, Sanditon)
It’s hard to fathom from the endless wringing of Jane Austen’s legacy that this beloved author’s reputation, modest enough during her lifetime, began to decline right after it. From the search for the modern Mr. Darcy (think Mark Darcy in Bridget Joneses’ Diary) to the appropriation of her iconic narratives (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters) to sequels (Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife), to using the books themselves as a device for telling a contemporary story (The Jane Austen Book Club), there seems to be no such thing as Too Much Jane in today’s publishing world. And that’s without considering all the film and TV adaptations of her novels, especially Pride and Prejudice.
James Edward Austen-Leigh (a nephew of hers) published A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. Its second edition was much expanded to include more letters and biographical material. At this point in time, her reputation had started to ebb, and this publication is credited for having helped to revive her reputation. Still, it planted some myths about her as well, negating her great ambition to be published and recognized.
The beloved author died in Winchester, England in 1817, a few months shy of her 42nd birthday, after a short illness.
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More about Jane Austen on this site
- Jane Austen’s Literary Ambitions
- Why Has Mr. Darcy Been Attractive to Generations of Women?
- The Writing Habits of Jane Austen by Tony Riches
- Jane’s Reaction to Pride and Prejudice, Her “Own Darling Child”
- 10 Memorable Quotes from Pride and Prejudice
- Memorable Jane Austen Quotes
- The Biggest Myth About Austen’s Writing Life
- Jane Austen Postage Stamps 2013 & 1975
- James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen
- Miniseries and Film Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice
- Sense and Sensibility
- Pride and Prejudice
- Mansfield Park
- Northanger Abbey
- Sanditon (An unfinished novel)
Biographies about Jane Austen
- Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence (2003)
- Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
- Jane Austen – Her Life and Letters – A Family Record by William Austen Leigh
- The World of Her Novels by Deirdre Le Faye
- The Letters of Jane Austen (full text on Project Gutenberg)
Read and Listen online
Selected film adaptations
- Emma (1996)
- Emma (1997)
- Emma (2009, BBC)
- Mansfield Park (1999)
- Mansfield Park (2007, Masterpiece Theatre)
- Northanger Abbey (1986, BBC)
- Northanger Abbey (2007, Masterpiece Theatre)
- Persuasion (1995)
- Pride and Prejudice (1940)
- Pride and Prejudice (1996, BBC miniseries)
- Pride and Prejudice (2006)
- Sense and Sensibility (1995)
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