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Jane Austen | Biography

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Jane Austen was born in the small Hampshire village of Steventon, home to fewer than 30 families, on December 16, 1775, to George and Cassandra Leigh Austen. Her ties to her family were strong and enduring; Mansfield Park, like her other novels, deals with the conflicts and loyalties among family members and between generations. Austen did not spend all her childhood with her family, however. Fostered as a baby, she returned to her parents as a toddler. She and her sister Cassandra, Austen's confidante, spent some years away at boarding schools, of which the author had less than happy memories. Austen found much greater contentment in the lively company of her clergyman father, George Austen, who operated a school for boys and gave his daughter, an avid reader, access to his large library.

Because Austen never married, she depended on her father's limited income, which dwindled as her parents aged and experienced problems with their health. With the Austen sons pursuing their own careers, Jane, her sister, and her parents moved to the town of Bath in southwestern England, seeking less expensive living conditions. After George Austen's death in 1805, Cassandra, Jane, and their mother were temporarily in financial limbo. Finally, in 1808 Austen's wealthy brother Edward arranged for them to live at Chawton Cottage, located in the village of Chawton near the town of Alton, county Hampshire, in central southern England.

Austen's early writing efforts began at Steventon where, with her parents' encouragement, she produced drafts of Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). The years between Steventon and Chawton Cottage were nearly silent, as far as Austen's biographers can say, but her secure home at Chawton Cottage seems to have spurred her to revise and publish these novels and to write three others: Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Persuasion (1818). Mansfield Park captures something of the financial tension Austen faced; because her parents lived financially precarious lives and in old age had little income, their adult daughters suffered along with them, their opportunities limited by costs, bills, and other domestic worries. Other autobiographical elements are in the novel. Fanny Price is rescued from the disorder, poverty, and dullness of the Price family, surviving to become a young woman of compassion and integrity. Similarly, Austen weathered the difficult years with her parents to emerge as a brilliant, successful author. It is possible Jane Austen used Mansfield Park, of all her novels, to assess her progress as an author. For this novel only, Austen copied out and responded to opinions of the novel from friends and family; her notes still exist to provide timely insights for students of the novel, for few critical reviews accompanied its first publication. Austen had to cover the costs of the second edition from profits from the much more popular Emma.

With the success of Austen's novels, her finances became more flexible. She enjoyed traveling to London to check the proofs of her books and shop for linens, books, and other items not available in her small village. Austen lived at Chawton Cottage for the rest of her life. She worked on her last, unfinished novel, Sanditon, until her weakening condition kept her from writing. She died in July 18, 1817, possibly of cancer, at age 41. Sanditon, 11 chapters long when Austen left off writing it, was completed in 1975 by "Another Lady," an author who wished to remain anonymous.

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