This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, the Hampshire writer, whose books seem to become continually more and more popular. As a consequence it was a pleasure to welcome as the speaker at the March meeting of the Society, Jane Maxwell, a staunch and knowledgeable admirer of Jane Austen and a member of the Jane Austen Society whose illustrated talk, gave full justice to the subject ‘Jane Austen, Hampshire’s most famous lady’.
Jane was born in 1775 to the Reverend George and Cassandra Austen, at Steventon rectory, the seventh of nine children. The Steventon living was not very lucrative, so the family was never wealthy. Nevertheless it appears to have been a happy family. Early education was provided at home, with the Reverend George taking responsibility for the serious formal tutoring and mother Cassandra contributing the humour and wit. So far as was possible the children were provided with a well rounded education and the facilities to study, using their own initiative.
Not surprisingly, the two sisters of the family, Cassandra (the eldest) and Jane were great friends throughout their life, but Jane was also very much attached to her brothers and particularly Henry, who in later life was mainly responsible for arranging the publication of her novels.
Jane’s talent for writing was apparent in her early life. In her teens she was writing poems and short stories for ‘home consumption.’ Jane was very aware of the changes taking place around her, not only in the family but in the community, much of it reflected in her notebooks and often used judiciously in her future writings.
In 1801, the Reverend George retired from his living and the family moved to Bath which in this new environment, provided Jane with fresh opportunities to further develop her writing skills and career. Unfortunately George died in 1805 and the financial situation of the Austen’s compelled them in 1806 to move to Southampton. But in 1809, her brother Henry was able to provide a home for the family in Chawton. During this time, Jane continued to write and her first novel, ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ was published in 1811, not under her own name, but ‘written by a lady.’ None of the three following novels published anonymously during Jane’s lifetime revealed the identity of the author. The reason was probably because at that time it was not ‘ladylike’ to write for money.
During 1817 Jane’s health began to deteriorate, and it was decided that she should take lodgings in Winchester so that she could be nearer to her doctors. So in May she and Cassandra moved to College Street, very close to the Cathedral, where Cassandra lovingly cared for Jane. Her condition did not improve and on 18th July 1817 she died. Jane was buried in the north nave of Winchester Cathedral at 9 a.m. on 26th July 2017, attended by a small male funeral party.
Jane Austen in the 21st century has an increasing and loyal following of adherents not only in this country but world wide – remarkable for someone who was responsible for producing only six published novels.
This wide ranging talk, which gave a comprehensive insight into the life of both Jane Austen and her family, was very much appreciated by the attentive audience.