She was born on the 16th of December in 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire. Her parents welcomed her as a companion to her sister, although she was born a month later than expected. She was baptized several months after her birth due to the unusually harsh winter.
Jane Austen’s Parents and Siblings
Her father, George Austen, worked as the rector, or member of the clergy who is in charge of the parish, of the Anglican parishes in both Steventon and Dean. Steventon was made up of, scholars estimate, around thirty families at the time. He was descended from wool manufacturers who were part of the lower gentry and had once been wealthy. Cassandra, Austen’s mother, was of a higher social class. She was part of the aristocratic Leigh family. The two married in April of 1764 in Bath. Unfortunately, even with his work in Steventon and Deane, Austen’s father had to take on farming and teaching jobs from 1773 to 1796 to supplement his income. He taught boys who boarded at the Austen home.
Scholars believe that George met his future wife, Cassandra, while at St John’s College, Oxford. Her father was the rector at All Souls College, Oxford where she grew up. It’s likely they got engaged around 1763 after receiving one another’s miniatures. Cassandra gave birth to three of Jane’s brothers while living at Deane. They were James, George, and Edward.
Jane had seven siblings, six brothers, and one sister. Her brothers were James, George, Edward, Henry Thomas, Francis William (known as Frank), and Charles John. They were all older than Jane, except for Charles John who was born in 1779. The eldest was James, born in 1765. Her one sister, Cassandra Elizabeth, was only two years Jane’s elder.
Cassandra is remembered today as a watercolorist and the source of most knowledge about Jane Austen’s life (through letters the two wrote one another). She was born in 1773 in Steventon and educated briefly at Oxford, and then Reading Abbey Girls’ School, along with her sister. She is credited with two popular paintings of Jane from 1804 and 1810. Both were described as being far from accurate in regard to Jane’s true image.
Tragedy struck Cassandra’s life when her fiancé, Thomas Fowle, died of yellow fever in 1797. He had traveled to the Caribbean on a military expedition in an effort to fund their marriage. Cassandra never married. She died in March of 1845 at the age of seventy-two.
The historical record suggested that of her brothers Jane was closest to Henry, the fourth oldest of her siblings. He worked as a solider, banker, and Anglican clergyman as well as Jane’s literary agent. Some have suggested that his perspective on the world, which was far more city-oriented than his sisters’s, might’ve benefited her writing.
George, the second oldest sibling, seemed to have suffered from some sort of mental illness. He was “subject to fits” and might’ve been deaf and mute, according to Deirdre Le Faye, a famed Jane Austen biographer. She also describes how Jane’s other siblings made a living. Charles and Frank joined the navy and both eventually became admirals, while Edward, the third oldest son, was adopted by Thomas Knight and inheritated his estate and name.
Jane Austen’s Relationships
Although Jane Austen never married, she had several opportunities to. The first came in 1795 with Thomas Lefroy. He was born in Limerick, Ireland, and attended Trinity College, Dublin where he had a great deal of success. He was nineteen at the time that he met Austen. The two attended several balls and parties at friend’s homes. She wrote about him to her sister Cassandra, describing how they’d danced together. According to the Jane Austen Society of North America, in one letter a year later, Austen alluded to a possible proposal from Lefroy that she intended to turn down.
He soon moved back to Ireland where he became the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, serving from 1852 to 1866. Some believe that Lefroy was the initial inspiration for Mr. Darcy from Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. This is due in part to the relative length of their relationship and the fact that it took place around the time that Austen was writing the novel. When he learned of Austen’s death, Lefroy traveled back to England to pay his respects.
In 1802, Jane received a proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, one of her friend’s brothers. Jane was twenty-seven at the time and due to her family’s financial situation, she did not have a dowry. This was an integral part of the marriage market during Austen’s lifetime. A woman’s future, and wealth, was entirely tied up in who they married. Often, men seeking out wives would propose based only on the size of a woman’s dowry and how it would improve their own finances. It is possible that this is one reason why a marriage with Lefroy did not work out.
After Bigg-Wither proposed to her, Jane accepted. But, in a move that likely shocked her family, she broke the engagement the next day. Scholars have suggested a number of reasons for this sudden change. But the simplest, and most likely, is that she realized he, or perhaps the whole institution of marriage, wouldn’t make her happy. Another possible reason might have to do with her writing career. As a single woman, she wrote when and how she chose. This meant she was able to devote as much time as she wanted to her novels, something that might’ve changed had she gotten married.
It’s unknown whether or not Jane ever had another relationship. This is due mostly to the fact that Cassandra burnt almost all of her letters from Jane after her death. This was not an uncommon move, but it is one that’s affected history’s understanding of one of the best-loved English language writers.