Jane Austen was born in the United Kingdom in 1775. In the late 18th century women had limited educational opportunities. She lived in Hampshire which is in the south-east England her whole life. She hardly ever ventured beyond that corner of the country.
The Austen family was upper middle class. It was on the fringes of the gentry. British society was very stratified at the time. The king was at the top. Just below the royal family was the nobility. Noblemen had titles like ‘duke’ and ‘lord.’ Below the nobility were the gentry. The gentry were people who owned a lot of land. The Austen family aspired to be members of the gentry but did not have enough money. The nobility and gentry between them made up a tiny proportion of the population: perhaps 3%. The middle class made up perhaps 20% of the population. The Austens were at the top end of middle class. They desperately wanted social promotion. Over 75% of people were working class. Most of them were poor. Many working class people were illiterate.
Jane’s family were possessed off the fear of being declasse. They did not want to sink down the social order. Advantageous marriages could achieve social arrival. By contrast injudicious marriages could lead to them falling into the working class.
The Austens were Christians. They belonged to the Church of England. They were more averagely religious. Her father was an Anglican clergyman. This gave the family a very respectable social status but only a middle class income.
Jane was a very bookish child. Her family disapproved of her excessive erudition. It was off-putting to suitors. A woman who was too clever would likely neglect her housewifery.
In those days almost everyone married. The legal age of marriage was 12. But very few people wed that young. Girls married from their mid teens to their early 20s. Males tended to marry anywhere from their late teens to late 20s. If a woman was unmarried at 25 people would say she was ‘an old maid’. In this case ‘maid’ meant ‘virgin’. She was seen to have failed. Very few men would be willing to marry a woman of that age.
Very few infants were born outside of matrimony. Parturition when unwed was regarded as repugnant and iniquitous.
Divorce was extremely rare back then. It was a very protracted and costly legal process. It was considered to be an utter disgrace. It did not matter if a woman’s husband committed adultery. If she divorced him she would be shamed too. Therefore a woman’s choice of husband was critical. She would probably marry only once. If she made an ill-judged decision in choosing her husband she was ruined. Leaving him was very difficult.
Girls received less schooling than boys at the time. All higher education was closed to females. The jobs that women did were almost always worse paid than those men did. A woman was thus financially dependent on a man.
When Jane Austen reached the normal age for marriage about 16 she started going to balls. Dancing is a mating ritual. Dancing made it acceptable to touch the opposite sex. People could indicate how much they desired the other person.
In the 18th century a person would wink with the right eye to indicate ‘I am attracted to you.’ A person would wink with the left eye to say, ‘I am not attracted to you.’ Some people have driver’s dyslexia and cannot tell left from right. They would get themselves in a sticky situation or indeed miss out on a golden opportunity.
Jane Austen lived with her parents after she reached adulthood. Her siblings wed. One of her brothers became an officer in the Royal Navy. She wrote frenetically. Her novels are The Watsons, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.
Austen wrote whereof she knew. The locale of her oeuvre is always southern England. She focuses on the border between the middle class and the upper class. The themes are social climbing, money, snobbery, marriage, manners and familial reputation. These were all issues she had to tussle with.
On the marriage market people looked for money. Should a woman marry a wealthy man even if she dislikes him? Should a man wed an ugly woman who was given a handsome dowry? Did feelings matter? Do looks count? Is personality everything?Austen believed that a woman needed to find a trade off between emotion and money when choosing a husband. It was foolish to say that money did not matter. Some people lived in abject penury at the time. There were beggars almost starving in the street. If she married a pauper she could end up like them.
A man proposed marriage to Jane. She accepted. She went to bed. The next morning she came down and told him that she had changed her mind. She never wed. Some believe that she was a lesbian.
In time she wrote was an epoch of rapid and sweeping change. She lived through the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and radical ferment in the UK. The Romantic Movement flourished. The classics were the mainstay of education at the time. Yet her prose is sparse and bereft of Latin tags. She felt them pretentious. Her work is free of any ideological slant. She appeared to hold the Romantic Movement in contempt.
Austen moved to Winchester when she fell ill. She lived there a few weeks before dying at the age of 41. She died in the same county in which she had been born.
- In which year was Austen born?
- Which country was she born in?
- Which city did she die in?
- Did she marry?
- Why did a woman’s choice of husband matter so much?
- Name a novel by her?
- Did she publish poetry?
- What did winking with the right eye mean at the time?
- What did winking with the left eye mean?
- What is your opinion of her?