An Illustrated Celebration of Jane Austen’s Life
By Maria Popova
After visiting my alma mater to deliver a commencement address, the faculty kindly took me out for brunch. Dining with us was also one of the Annenberg School’s star students. Over organic pancakes, she professed an obsession — her word — with Jane Austen (December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) and proceeded to rhapsodize about how much of herself and her values she saw mirrored in Austen’s heroines. That a highly educated young African-American woman heading into the business world of the twenty-first century should find such besotting resonance with a mostly homeschooled English novelist who died nearly two centuries earlier bespeaks Austen’s incomparable stature as one of the most beloved, psychologically compelling, and timelessly enchanting authors our civilization has produced.
And yet biographical information about Austen’s life is notoriously scarce, most of it reconstructed by historians based on second-hand accounts by family and friends — accounts invariably warped by personal subjectivities and faded by the passage of time. Standing in stark contrast to today’s thriving genre of revelatory memoirs by writers who have made a public craft of their private lives, the paucity of insight into Austen’s inner world only amplifies the aura of almost mystical reverence that surrounds her.
In Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography (public library), writer Zena Alkayat and artist Nina Cosford draw on Austen’s surviving letters and various existing biographies to paint a compact and charming portrait of her life.
Part of the same Library of Luminaries series that gave us that lovely illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf, the book follows Austen from her childhood surrounded by books to the blossoming of her uncommon literary talent to her untimely death at the age of forty-one from a disease the retrospective diagnosis of which remains disputed. Central to her life is the loving relationship with her sister and dearest friend, Cassandra.
Jane’s father was a parson and a farmer, but to supplement his family’s income, he and Mrs. Austen turned the rectory into a small boys’ boarding school. So Jane was used to being around male company — and lots and lots of books.
As young children, Jane and Cassandra were inseparable. The sisters went to boarding school together, where they learned spelling, French, math, needlework, and dance.
Punctuating the narrative of a life almost entirely confined to her immediate family is Austen’s first and only big love — a romance with a young law student named Tom Lefroy, a neighbor’s nephew, which ended in heartbreak as Tom chose the social ladder over the financially precarious twenty-year-old Jane. (The intense experience no doubt influenced the advice on marriage Austen gave her niece many years later.)
Tom was under pressure to do well in his career and marry advantageously. And Jane was a girl with no fortune. As quickly as she had fallen for him, he disappeared from her life.
But Austen transmuted that heartbreak into fuel for creative work:
By October 1796 she had begun writing First Impressions, which would go on to become Pride and Prejudice. She finished the manuscript in less than a year and returned to Sense and Sensibility to restructure and revise it.
Although every life is largely a function of its time and place, and all art is informed by the artist’s milieu, Austen came of age in a particularly transformative cultural era:
All around Jane, small fissures were appearing in the established social structure. Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (published in 1792) was a controversial indictment of sexual inequality. And Jane was a keen fan of moralist Samuel Johnson, whose essays supported service to one’s fellow man and diligence (not inheritance) as a path to prosperity.
By the time Austen finished Sense and Sensibility, her brother Henry, who acted as her literary agent, found a publisher who agreed to print the book at the author’s expense. The first printing sold out and Austen earned £140 in royalties over the next two years, estimated to equal about £5,000 in today’s money.
Despite the financial and critical success, Austen continued leading an intensely domestic life, one of tea and piano practice amid her family, and went on writing novels that would bewitch critics, royalty, and common readers alike.
But then she fell ill. Despite her obstinate and heroic effort to continue working as usual, her health plummeted into a downward spiral from which she never emerged. In April of 1817, bedridden but still in denial about her illness, she privately made her will. In a letter panned the following month, she wrote:
If I live to be an old woman I must expect to wish I had died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a family, before I survived either them or their affection.
On July 18, 1817, Jane died peacefully with her head resting on her sister’s lap. She was forty-one.
Later that month, Cassandra wrote:
She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.
Complement Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography with Austen on creative integrity, her advice on writing, and the parodic history of England she wrote as a teenager, illustrated by Cassandra, then revisit other wonderful illustrated biographies celebrating Louise Bourgeois, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly.
Illustrations © Nina Cosford courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova
Published June 1, 2016