Jane Austen responds to a letter from the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) suggesting she write a historic romance, saying, “I could not sit down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life.”
Austen’s correspondence with the Prince Regent, as well as literary figures of the day, was prompted by the success of her novels Sense and Sensibility, (1811) Pride and Prejudice, (1813) Mansfield Park, (1814) and Emma (1815). Two additional novels were published after her death. Her identity as the author was known to only a small circle; the general reading public only knew that “a lady” had written the books. Although enjoying the appreciation of such leading contemporary authors as Sir Walter Scott, Austen led a quiet, retiring life in the English country until she died at age 42.
Austen was born in 1775, the seventh of eight children born to a clergyman in Steventon, a country village in Hampshire, England. She was very close to her older sister, Cassandra, who remained her faithful editor and critic throughout her life. The girls had five years of formal schooling, then studied with their father. Jane read voraciously and began writing her own sketches as young as age 12, completing an early novella at age 14.
Austen’s quiet, happy world was disrupted when her father retired to Bath in 1801. Jane hated the resort town but amused herself by making close observations of ridiculous society manners. After her father’s death in 1805, Jane, her mother, and sister lived with one of her brothers until 1808, when another brother provided them a permanent home at Chawton Cottage, in Hampshire.
Jane wrote on small pieces of paper that she could easily slip under a blotter when someone came into the room. Though she avoided society, she was charming, intelligent, and funny at home. She rejected at least one proposal of marriage. She died in 1817 of what today is thought to be Addison’s disease.