Jane Austen is one of Britain’s most famous writers and is celebrated all over the world, even hundreds of years after her death.
Austen began writing as a teenager and wrote six complete fiction novels, two of which were published after she died. Translated into 35 languages, her novels have sold millions of copies and continue to be printed today.
Her most famous work is arguably Pride and Prejudice which has been brought to life in numerous film and TV adaptations. Emma was Austen’s fourth novel and an acclaimed comedy, recently brought to the big screen in 2020, starring Anna Taylor-Joy.
Like many female authors, Jane Austen did not originally publish her work under her own name. However, rather than opting for a male pseudonym as many others did, Austen’s novels were published anonymously “By A Lady”, making it clear that a woman was the author. After her death, Austen's main publisher John Murray revealed her true identity.
Many of Austen’s female characters are praised for similarly breaking the mould when it came to conventional expectations for women at the time. Set among the English middle and upper classes, her novels offer a great insight into women’s lives as well as provide social commentary with her trademark wit.
Here’s everything you need to know about the author's life and the best Jane Austen books to read now.
Where did Jane Austen live?
Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire in 1775 to a clergyman and his wife. Austen had seven siblings and was particularly close to her sister Cassandra. The young writer was educated in Oxford, Southampton, Reading and at home before the family moved to Bath when she was a teenager.
After her father’s death in 1805, Austen's family were forced to move multiple times due to lack of income but eventually ended up in Chawton, near to Austen’s birthplace of Steventon.
Who did Jane Austen marry?
Jane Austen never married, although she did have have an early love interest and was later shortly engaged.
When she was 20 years old, Jane Austen is thought to have been in love with an Irishman named Thomas Lefroy, who she discussed in multiple letters to her sister, Cassandra. During this time, Austen was penning Pride and Prejudice and there is speculation about how much of her own relationship with Lefroy influenced her writing.
However, the pair were not considered a good match for marriage and Thomas was sent away by his family. Austen never reconnected with Lefroy again, who went onto become an MP and the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. He later married and named his first daughter Jane, many believe after Jane Austen.
A few years later at 26, Austen accepted a marriage proposal from wealthy, well-educated childhood friend, Harris Bigg-Wither. Her short-lived fiancé appeared to be a good match but Austen changed her mind overnight and withdrew her decision the following day. Austen remained single for the rest of her life.
When did Jane Austen die?
Jane Austen was just 41 when she died of an illness which is now thought to have been Addison's disease, a problem with the adrenal glands which can eventually lead to death. After being ill for some time, Austen’s health deteriorated and her sister Cassandra attempted to drive her to a respected doctor at Winchester Hospital, but Austen sadly died the morning they arrived.
Austen had written but not yet published Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, which were released posthumously. A seventh novel, Sanditon, was left unfinished.
The author was buried at Winchester Cathedral in July of 1817 to a funeral of just four people. As she had published her works anonymously, there was no mention of her achievements on her original headstone although a later plaque was added. Today there are three memorials to the author at the cathedral.
The best Jane Austen books
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen’s most famous novel (and one of the most popular books in the English language) follows heroine Elizabeth Bennett, one of five sisters whose parents are intent on marrying them off to wealthy men. Elizabeth is strong-willed, smart and charming while Mr Darcy is a rich, proud man who Elizabeth finds arrogant and obnoxious. The plot follows the pair’s civilised sparring until their eventual romantic union.
Beautiful, spoilt Emma Woodhouse fancies herself a match-maker and decides to meddle in the love life of her friend Harriet Smith. Emma believes her friend would be perfectly suited to a gentleman named Mr Elton, despite already being proposed to by a man she has feelings for. Wires become increasingly crossed, leading to a complicated web of love ties and engagements.
Northanger Abbey depicts the life of 17 year old Catherine Allen as she is invited to join the societal dances and gossip of Bath, led by new friend Isabella. Catherine is unwillingly pursed by her friend’s brother John and is more interested in Henry Tilney, whose family live in a mysterious, grand old Abbey.
Sense and Sensibility
This novel follows two sisters and their very different approaches to love. Marianne falls rashly in love with an unsuitable man while Elinor struggles to find someone and is concerned with the proper social conventions around such matters. Both encounter romance, heartbreak and confusion as their endeavours unfold.
Persuasion follows Anne Elliot, a woman who, eight years earlier, broke off a happy engagement to naval officer Frederick Wentworth, having been being persuaded to by a friend. Anne regrets her decision, as Frederick leaves for the navy and returns years later a rich and successful captain while her own family are on the brink of ruin.
Protagonist Fanny Price grows up in the grand home of her uncle and cousins at Mansfield Park. Fanny always feels slightly on the outside and then Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive while Fanny’s uncle is away, bringing the glamour and sophistication of London with them.
The final, originally unfinished novel by Jane Austen follows Charlotte Heywood as she is ends up in the curious seaside resort of Sanditon. Originally from a rural town, she encounters a curious mix of individuals including the handsome Sidney Parker.
Another incomplete novel by Jane Austen. It is thought that Austen was in the process of writing the novel when her father became ill and then died, at which point the book was abandoned. The first five chapters survive and tell the story of a clergyman’s family and his youngest daughter Emma who is best educated after being brought up by her aunt. Then, she is told to return to her father’s home.
Austen’s short novel was completed but she never submitted it for publication in her lifetime. Written as an epistolary (told in a series of letters), it tells the story of Lady Susan, who has a relationship with a married man while trying to find the best husband for herself at the same time.
Jane Austen's juvenilia books
“Juvenilia” refers to work produced by an author or an artist in “juvenile” years. Three of Jane Austen’s early notebooks survive, published in three volumes. The books are collections of fiction, verses, sketches and historical spoofs, with illustrations from Austen’s sister Cassandra.
One of the stories, Love and Friendship is a novella also written in letter format. The volumes have been published separately as well as together as part of collections with other short works of Austen's.
Complete works of Jane Austen
Many box-sets of all six of Austen’s main novels have been published as well as sets which include additional books, such as Love and Friendship from the author's juvenilia works.
Jane Austen’s letters
Shedding light on Jane Austen in her own words, books detailing the author’s letters (particularly to her sister Cassandra) tell snippets of her personal life in Austen's own words.
Jane Austen's biography
Numerous biographies detailing the life of Jane Austen have been written, shedding further light on everything we know about the author’s 41 years.