Jane Austen – The Early Years

jane austenJane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature with her most famous books Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. But as you would imagine Austen was writing much earlier – Deskarati

Between 1793 and 1795, Austen wrote Lady Susan, a short epistolary novel, usually described as her most ambitious and sophisticated early work. It is unlike any of Austen’s other works. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin describes the heroine of the novella as a sexual predator who uses her intelligence and charm to manipulate, betray, and abuse her victims, whether lovers, friends or family. Tomalin writes:

“Told in letters, it is as neatly plotted as a play, and as cynical in tone as any of the most outrageous of the Restoration dramatists who may have provided some of her inspiration … It stands alone in Austen’s work as a study of an adult woman whose intelligence and force of character are greater than those of anyone she encounters.”

After finishing Lady Susan, Austen attempted her first full-length novel — Elinor and Marianne. Her sister Cassandra later remembered that it was read to the family “before 1796” and was told through a series of letters. Without surviving original manuscripts, there is no way to know how much of the original draft survived in the novel published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility.

tom lefroy

Thomas Langlois Lefroy, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, by W. H. Mote (1855); in old age, Lefroy admitted to a nephew that he had been in love with Jane Austen: “It was boyish love.”

When Austen was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a nephew of neighbours, visited Steventon from December 1795 to January 1796. He had just finished a university degree and was moving to London to train as a barrister. Lefroy and Austen would have been introduced at a ball or other neighbourhood social gathering, and it is clear from Austen’s letters to Cassandra that they spent considerable time together: “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” The Lefroy family intervened and sent him away at the end of January. Marriage was impractical, as both Lefroy and Austen must have known. Neither had any money, and he was dependent on a great-uncle in Ireland to finance his education and establish his legal career. If Tom Lefroy later visited Hampshire, he was carefully kept away from the Austens, and Jane Austen never saw him again. The sentimental relationship between Jane and Tom is at the centre of the 2007 biographical film Becoming Jane.

Austen began work on a second novel, First Impressions, in 1796. She completed the initial draft in August 1797 when she was only 21 (it later became Pride and Prejudice); as with all of her novels, Austen read the work aloud to her family as she was working on it and it became an “established favourite”. At this time, her father made the first attempt to publish one of her novels. In November 1797, George Austen wrote to Thomas Cadell, an established publisher in London, to ask if he would consider publishing “a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols. about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina” (First Impressions) at the author’s financial risk. Cadell quickly returned Mr. Austen’s letter, marked “Declined by Return of Post”. Austen may not have known of her father’s efforts. Following the completion of First Impressions, Austen returned to Elinor and Marianne and from November 1797 until mid-1798, revised it heavily; she eliminated the epistolary format in favour of third-person narration and produced something close to Sense and Sensibility.

During the middle of 1798, after finishing revisions of Elinor and Marianne, Austen began writing a third novel with the working title Susan — later Northanger Abbey — a satire on the popular Gothic novel. Austen completed her work about a year later. In early 1803, Henry Austen offered Susan to Benjamin Crosby, a London publisher, who paid £10 for the copyright. Crosby promised early publication and went so far as to advertise the book publicly as being “in the press”, but did nothing more. The manuscript remained in Crosby’s hands, unpublished, until Austen repurchased the copyright from him in 1816 Edited from Jane Austen

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