Jane Austen was born in the United Kingdom in the late 18th century. She lived in 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 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 was a very bookish child. Her family disapproved of her excessive erudition. It was off putting to suitors.
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.
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 is 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.
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? 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 in her late 30s. She lived there a few weeks before dying.