Jane Austen has often been considered a woman who led a narrow, inhibited life and who rarely traveled. These assertions are far from the truth. Jane Austen traveled more than most women of her time and was quite involved in the lives of her brothers, so much that it often interfered with her writing. Like most writers, Jane drew on her experiences and her dreams for the future and incorporated them into her writing. Her characters reflect the people around her; the main characters reflect parts of herself. In Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, and Fanny Price all reflect aspects of Jane Austen and dreams she had that were never fulfilled.
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, the sixth of seven children, to a rector and his wife. Jane was raised among books and began reading and writing at an early age. Her brother Henry said “her reading started very early,” and it was difficult to say “at what age she was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language” (Tomalin 67). Her earliest works date to age twelve, although she most likely wrote pieces before then. Her family often read Shakespeare together in the evenings. Her mother enjoyed writing verse and often wrote poetry to celebrate happy occasions. Jane grew up with an appreciation for writing and literature.
The biographies about Jane Austen describe the facts of her life in a step-by-step manner. They tend to be repetitive since she did not leave behind a rich fabric of day-to-day life. Yet Jane Austen is known not because of the factual details of her life; she is not remembered two hundred years after her death because she had six siblings and was a wonderful aunt to her nieces and nephews. Rather, Jane Austen is remembered because of what she wrote, her “oeuvre.” Only through reading her literature does one get a taste of the real Jane Austen, the Jane Austen who dreamed and made plans for the future that failed to materialize. Therefore, I have attempted to describe the life of Jane Austen by interpreting her novels and picking three main characters who I feel most closely serve as her alter ego. A writer writes from his or her own experiences; only by analyzing Jane Austen’s characters do we get an understanding of the true author.
Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor Dashwood mirrors Jane Austen’s strait-laced sense of propriety and her concern and care about family members. Jane was “practical and sensible, and she did what she thought best” (Tomalin 186). For example, after her father died, Jane managed to gather herself together and send her father’s pocket compass and pair of scissors to her brother Frank as a memento of their father. Elinor in Sense and Sensibility is the sister who holds down the family and discusses the practicality of situations. She too distributes cherished mementos of her father when he dies. Elinor is the sister who is concerned with the welfare of her relations and takes it upon herself to look after their well-being. Feeling afflicted when her sister Marianne is hurt by Willoughby, she tries her best to comfort her sister, resolve the situation, and find out the facts of what happened.
Jane can also be considered the backbone of her family. After she dies, the family is not as close as they were during her lifetime. Jane became very close with two of her nieces, Fanny Austen and Anna Austen. She counseled them on men and marriage when they reached the age of choosing a suitor. She often helped with delivering her sister-in-law’s babies. During her thirties, she lived with her brother Frank for several weeks. She cooked the meals for his family and cared for his children while his wife was confined to her bed. After several weeks of such a life, she felt she needed a break and solitude, but she continued to help her brother and his family until her services were no longer needed. Like the character she creates in Elinor, she sticks by her family and helps them when they need her.
Marianne Dashwood, Elinor’s younger sister, represents the type of girl Jane wanted to be. Marianne is light and airy with a flighty personality. Her emotions dictate her actions. Jane’s nieces remember her as being “youthful, playful, and inventive” (Nokes 368) before she prematurely turned into middle-age. Only once in her life did Jane behave similarly to Marianne, and it was an evening she relived until her death. When she was twenty, Jane attended a ball given by the Lefroys at Manydown House. There she met Tom Lefroy, a handsome young Irishman who had come to stay with his aunt and uncle (Tomalin 113). Jane danced and flirted with him the entire evening―more than was proper for a young lady. In writing to her sister the night after the ball, Jane writes unabashedly for her sister to imagine “everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together” (Tomalin 114). Throughout her years of spinsterhood she looked back on the evening when she acted like Marianne, controlled solely by her emotions. She did not let the dictates of society control her that evening.
Austen uses Marianne to relate her views of feminism. In reality, Austen never commented on Mary Wollstonecraft’s work to gain rights for women (Tomalin 158). Rather, she states her opinions through her characters. Marianne, when she hears the phrase about women “setting their cap” at men, responds, “‘setting their cap . . . is an expression . . . which I particularly dislike. [Its] tendency is gross and illiberal; and if [its] construction could ever be deemed clever, time has long ago destroyed all its ingenuity’” (Tomalin 156). Very subtlety, Austen inserts her own feminist views into the words of her character. Since she could not condone the feminist movement in public as a result of her societal position, she made her female characters pro-woman and pro-women’s rights (Tomalin 138).
Austen’s life closely parallels that of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Austen begins the novel with the line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (3). This statement reflects the opinion of the time that a woman had to be married or else she had no social standing. Just as Elizabeth and her sisters feel immense pressure to get married and procure a good match, so too did Jane. Until she was twenty-five she still retained a small spark of hope that she would one day marry and have children.
Jane Austen created Elizabeth as one girl among five. While Lizzy, as she was affectionately called, was surrounded by girls, Jane was surrounded with boys. She had five brothers, and her parents ran a school for boys in their house as part of their rectory. “Growing up in a school meant that Jane knew exactly what to expect of boys, and was always at ease with them; boys were her natural environment, and boys’ jokes and boys’ interests were the first she learnt about” (Tomalin 30). One can imagine that growing up amidst so many boys, Jane must have often wished for sisters to play with. She creates Elizabeth with a family that she must have wished for herself.
Jane loved to dance. She met her love, Tom Lefroy, at a dance. So too, the relationship between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy begins at a ball. At the beginning of the novel, Mr. Darcy hates dancing, but he slowly grows to enjoy it. We see that Jane incorporated her personal associations with dancing into the novel.
The most significant similarity between Jane and Lizzy is their close relationships with their sisters. Jane and her sister Cassandra were extremely close. They lived together their entire lives. When they moved into a house in Chawton, they shared a bedroom. They were dependent upon each other and supported each other in all aspects of their lives. They supported each other’s decisions and wrote to each other when apart. They even wore the same bonnet. Cassandra said of Jane after her death, “She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself” (Tomalin 269). Lizzy and her older sister Jane were extremely close. They too supported each other’s decisions and were always there for the other. They discussed suitors and marriage just as Jane and her sister must have done.
Elizabeth Bennet is not the only character in Pride and Prejudice who reflects Jane Austen’s life. Many characters reflect people Jane herself knew: “Jane Austen . . . was stirred to portray men and women only in relation to [her] family and friends and social acquaintances. . . . She never strays from the world she herself had lived in. . . . Her characters all come from her own class” (Cecil 144-45). Mr. Collins, the annoying rector who clumsily asks for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, closely resembles a man Jane knew, the Reverend Samuel Blackall (Austen-Leigh 204). He attempted to court Jane, failing miserably. Jane was annoyed and disgusted with his feeble attempts, and perhaps modeled Mr. Collins, who has similar characteristics, after this unpleasant man (Austen-Leigh 206-207).
Fanny Price, the heroine in Mansfield Park, is similar to Jane Austen in terms of her being banished to a new home and her modesty. Jane suffered two “exiles” in her childhood (Tomalin 173). The first was as an infant. Soon after her birth, she was sent away to be nursed by a village woman. This was Mrs. Austen’s “system of child-rearing” (Tomalin 7). There she learned to crawl and talk, and was only brought home when she “became socially acceptable” (Tomalin 8) and manageable. Some historians speculate that this separation had a profound effect upon Jane, for she was pulled from her mother at only a few weeks old. Jane’s second exile occurred when, at the age of seven, she was sent to a boarding school with her sister Cassandra. The school conditions were unbearable. Jane had “frightening and unpleasant experiences over which she had no control and which required periods of recovery” (Tomalin 173). She was stricken with “putrid fever” (Tucker 175-76) and nearly died from the illness. The boarding school experiences helped form Jane into a quiet girl, cautious and mistrustful of strangers. One historian asserts that “only in the virtual world of her fiction could Austen assert control” (Barry 46). She was so traumatized by her childhood experiences that she wanted to create an environment where she could determine the effect of situations on the characters.
Fanny Price is sent away at the crucial age of ten to live with her cousins she has never met. At first she is timid and scared and cries herself to sleep every night. These must have been the feelings Jane expressed when she was sent to boarding school. Like the Fanny she creates, Jane missed her family and brothers and longed for home.
Jane creates Fanny as an extremely modest character, which is a quality held by Jane. When referring to her book in a letter to her sister, Jane fails to capitalize the title of her book. She believes it will not be acclaimed or widely recognized. When her books are finally published, Jane publishes them anonymously. Only her immediate family knows that she is the author of the books that have received wide recognition and acclaim in England. The Columbia Encyclopedia writes that “she received little public recognition in her lifetime.” Only years later does Jane allow her name as author of the books to be made public. Some say that if Jane were alive today to witness the extent of her celebrity and how much she is revered, her “porcelain English cheeks might have colored like a tea rose” (Eady 87). Fanny Price is also a very modest character. She lets herself be treated poorly by her aunt and cousins, for she feels she is entitled to nothing better. She does not feel fit to converse in the evenings with her cousins and their friends. She declines to participate in their conversations. Both Jane and Fanny have low recognition of themselves and are modest women.
All of Jane’s female characters end up happily married, a state Jane herself never felt. A woman was defined in terms of her husband; if she did not marry, she had nothing. Jane’s aunt traveled to India in order to find a husband. Well into her twenties, Jane still had dreams of getting married. When she was twenty-five, Harris Bigg-Wither, a brother of her good friends, proposed marriage to Jane. At first she accepted: she would become mistress of a large estate, and “be able to ensure the comfort of her parents to the end of their days” (Tomalin 180). Most importantly, she would have children and raise a family of her own. The next day, however, Jane reneged the proposal. She did not love him and did not want a “marriage based on nothing but money” (Grunwald A16). After this proposal, Jane gave up all hopes of ever having a family of her own. Instead, she fulfilled her dreams through her characters and found “passion” (Romano 424) through them. All her characters marry for love (which happens to also be financially advantageous). They make Jane’s dreams become a reality within her imagination.
Jane died on July 18, 1817, at the age of forty-one, having four widely-acclaimed books to her name, and two published posthumously. Although she never married, she lived through her characters, and through their experiences she felt fulfilled. She often referred to her novels as her “own darling Child” (Tomalin 219). As children reflect upon the parents and often mirror aspects of their parents, so too did many of Jane’s characters mirror herself and the people around her.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1969.
Austen-Leigh, William, and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh. Jane Austen: A Family Record. Boston: Hall, 1989.
Barry, Kevin. “Still Clueless.” New York Times Book Review 7 Dec. 1997: 46.
Cecil, David. A Portrait of Jane Austen. New York: Hill, 1978.
Eady, Brenda. “With Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen fans Toast the Beloved Author on her Birthday.” People Weekly 7 Jan. 1985: 87.
Grunwald, Henry A. “Jane Austen’s Civil Society.” Wall Street Journal 2 Oct. 1996: A16.
“Jane Austen.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 5th ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.
Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, 1997.
Romano, Carlin. “Members of Jane Austen Society are divided on whether Hollywood is Good for their Author.” Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service 24 Apr. 1996: 424.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Tucker, George Holbert. Jane Austen the Woman. New York: St. Martin’s, 1994.