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Jane Austen | Biography

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Jane Austen's life was closely tied to her large English family and was generally happy despite a series of dislocations. A few months after her birth on December 16, 1775, in rural Steventon in the United Kingdom, she was fostered with a nearby wet nurse through her toddler years, returning to her family at age two. She and Cassandra, her sister and close companion throughout her life, were dispatched to boarding schools (respectively in 1783 and 1785). Austen's formal education ended at age 11 when she and Cassandra left boarding school (in 1786), but because their clergyman father, George Austen, ran a small boarding school for boys and had a large library, Austen received a vibrant and wide-ranging informal education.

Money was tight for the Austens, and further dislocation was an ever-present threat. Although several men expressed interest in her, Austen never married. As her father aged and retired, diminishing funds and health issues led her parents to relocate to Bath in 1801; the family moved from one set of rented rooms to the next, each a bit smaller and shabbier, and her father's death in 1805 left Cassandra, Jane, and their mother in precarious financial straits. They had no fixed home until Austen's wealthy brother Edward Knight finally settled them in Chawton Cottage in 1809. Sense and Sensibility is not autobiographical; however, Austen's experience of dislocation, her financial dependence on her father and other male relatives, and her delight in finding a home at last likely inform events in the lives of Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters.

Austen first tried her hand at writing in Steventon; during the years in Bath and other temporary homes she continued working on several projects but published nothing. Life in Chawton, however, inspired her to finish revising Sense and Sensibility, which debuted in 1811 under the pseudonym "By a Lady." An 1812 review called the plot "highly pleasing, and interesting" and noted that the novel is "just long enough to interest without fatiguing." The first edition sold out quickly, netting Austen a profit (£140) of more than twice her yearly income. The novel's success encouraged Austen's publisher to release Pride and Prejudice, which debuted to even greater success. With the success of her novels Austen's financial challenges eased. She also planned and wrote three more novels: Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. Austen lived in Chawton until her death at 41 on July 18, 1817. Northanger Abbey —which Austen had sold in 1803 to a publisher who didn't issue it and then was bought back by her brother and sold again—and Persuasion did not appear in print until 1818. Her novella Lady Susan, probably written in 1795–96, was not published until 1871.

Sense and Sensibility was published anonymously. Not even Austen's family knew she was the author. Not until after Austen died was she revealed as the author of her novels. In fact, in the mid-19th century she became even less known, and several of her works went out of print before 1833. However, renewed interest in her novels late in the 19th century returned them to the public eye. Since then they have enjoyed global success, inspiring movie and television adaptations and driving tourists and "Janeites" to visit Austen's cottage in Chawton. Elinor and Marianne's story has been rewritten in a contemporary context and in other genres. The sisters' struggle to balance the dictates of the head with the desires of the heart seems timeless.

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