Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775, the sixth child of seven. Her father George was the rector at Steventon, near Basingstoke, and was a prosperous and cultured man. He encouraged Jane to write and read widely as a child; at fourteen, she had written Love and Friendship and at fifteen had finished the ambitiously titled A History of England.
Although Austen’s heroines underwent adventures, Jane herself led an uneventful life. She did once accept a proposal of marriage one evening, only to change her mind the following morning! For the most part it was a quiet family life interspersed with outings to Bath, London and Lyme. Her novels were written in the intervals between family excursions, although not in the order in which they were published. Sense and Sensibility (published in 1811) was originally written in 1795 as Elinor and Marianne. Pride and Prejudice (published in 1813) began life as 'First Impressions' in 1797. Of her other novels, Mansfield Park was published in 1814, Emma in 1816 and Persuasion posthumously in 1818.
Throughout her life Jane kept up regular correspondences with her sister Cassandra, her friends and her nieces and nephews. Although Cassandra removed anything deeply personal from these letters after Jane’s death, they tell of her attitude to her work, describing it as ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour’. This modest assessment was not shared by Sir Walter Scott or by the Prince Regent, who kept a set of her novels in each of his residences.
The Austens moved several times during the course of Jane’s life: in 1801 they left Steventon for Bath. After George Austen’s death in 1805 they moved to Southampton and then, in 1809, to Chawton. In the weeks prior to her death, Jane lodged in Winchester in order to be close to her doctor. Her illness has been attributed to several possible conditions, including Addison’s disease (a disorder of the adrenal glands whose symptoms include tiredness and weight loss), Hodgkin’s disease (a form of cancer) and arsenic poisoning. She died on 18 July 1817.
Jane Austen’s novels have acquired a following which is almost cult-like, and the many dramatisations of her work for screen, television and radio are testament to the books’ enduring popularity. One of her works was amongst the earliest transmissions to be heard on BBC radio: a reading of the proposal scene from Pride and Prejudice was broadcast on 15 January 1924.