9 Surprising Jane Austen Facts
Consider yourself a "Janeite?" It's time to put your knowledge to the test! Here are nine facts even the biggest Austen super fan may have missed.
Jane Austen served in war.
There is no mention of war in any of her novels. However, you might be surprised to hear that Jane Austen actually served in the military as a senior officer in the 4th Women's Battalion, King Royal's Hussars. She even saw active service at Ulm in 1805.
Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain were definitely not fans.
Brontë thought the characters in Austen's novels were extraordinarily dispassionate, and she was frustrated that Austen confined herself to social expectations. She said in a letter to George Henry Lewes that her novels portray "a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers." In a letter to W.S. Williams, she wrote, "Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman." Her final thoughts on the author were that she is "real (more real than true), but she cannot be great."
Twain's thoughts were much the same. In his book Following the Equator, he called her stories "absent" and said that to remove her novels from his library "would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it." He attacked her writing further in an essay titled Jane Austen: "Whenever I take up Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven...curl[ing] his lip as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along."
There are interesting speculations about her true identity.
A biography by Hermione Hackenbacker suggests that instead of death by poison, Austen actually committed suicide. Another biography by Alkin V. Halkin proposes that Jane Austen was actually Jim Austen, a cunning businessman who took up a female pseudonym.
There were only three people in her will.
At the time of her death, Austen had an estate valued at just £800—an amount that seems decidedly small, considering her vast literary influence. She left most of it to her sister, Cassandra Austen, and some to her brother Henry Austen, who worked alongside her as she wrote her novels and who fell penniless shortly before her death. In an odd twist of events, she left a third part of her will to Madame Bigeon—secretary and cook for Henry's late wife.
Austen lived with a so-called "vampire."
Jane's father, Reverend George Austen, taught young students and welcomed them into his home. One such student was named John Wallop, 3rd Earl of Portsmouth—an eccentric, odd Lord who allegedly drank the blood of the Austens' servants. He acquired the nickname Vampyre Earl. But despite his strange behavior, the Austen family found him charming. They even attended his annual ball at Hurstbourne Park.
Her best friend was her only sister, Cassandra Austen.
Being a secret female novelist with few marriage prospects, Austen was a black sheep in the 19th century. But she was quite close with her older sister, to whom she frequently wrote about her troubles or neighborhood gossip.
Their mother said of the two sisters, "If Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing the same fate."
Austen's love life was as tragic as any Shakespeare play.
Austen never married, but she had two sweeping (tragically-ending) love affairs, and one unrequited marriage proposal. How aptly poetic! Her first affair was with a young Irishman named in winter of 1795. He was a student nearby who had enough money to support her, but refused to marry the daughter of a clergyman.
Her second affair as a "seaside romance." The man, whose name we believe is Blackhall, attracted Jane and even won the surprising approval of Cassandra. The two proposed to meet again the next year, but Blackhall died of an unknown sickness before they could rekindle their love.
Sometime later, Austen received a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, a family friend of the Austens. At 27 years old, she was in no position to deny his offer, but the following morning she promptly changed her mind. Her niece, Caroline Austen, believed that she realized her decision made her "miserable" and though Harris Bigg-Wither had fortune and owned many properties, this "could not alter the man."
With no luck, she died unmarried.
In fact, neither Austen sister ever married.
Were they disagreeable? Ugly? It is believed that both Austen sisters were actually quite attractive. Jane was once described as being "pretty...like a doll." And Cassandra, like Jane, also received a marriage proposal. However, she was engaged to a military man who died overseas of yellow fever. Her grief was insufferable and she devoted her companionship to her little sister. Perhaps this is why Jane's death hit her the hardest: "I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed [...] it is as if I had lost a part of myself."
Some of her most famous novels were almost named something else.
Sense and Sensibility was originally titled "Elinor and Marianne," signed "By a Lady." And Pride and Prejudice was originally titled "First Impressions," signed simply, "By the author of Sense and Sensibility." Additionally, the book she wrote when she was 14 was actually misspelled: "Love and Freindship."
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.