As I sit here thinking I want to imagine what Jane Austen’s everyday life was like. I imagine her writing in a letter, “I am so pleased the mead is brewed”. What was her day like as a teenager, as a young woman and as an author? How did her life change or did the nature of her daily life largely remain the same? It seems Jane Austen’s life followed a familiar pattern: we know she came from a large and busy family, her parents worked hard but she appeared to have a very happy childhood. As a young girl she enjoyed the pleasure of country walks to visit her friends. She says many, many times how much she loved to dance: a ball was a cause for celebration. She also loved to read, write and make up plays. She relished her youth and the socialising and flirting amongst the young; we can hear the excitement in her letters to Cassandra, “I danced twice with Warren last night, and once with Mr Charles Watkins, and, to my inexpressible astonishment, I entirely escaped John Lyford”
As Jane grew older she no doubt grew wiser. She had to contend with her first heartache when Tom Lefroy returned to Ireland. And her sister, Cassandra had lost her fiancé, Tom Fowle. They must have both had to rediscover the joy of their previous lives slowly and carefully. As we know losing someone you love makes you wiser. You put your life into perspective. You realise that all can be lost so quickly.
As young adult women, Jane and Cassandra led an independent life. They visited friends and family and obviously enjoyed the minutia of their lives. They loved to shop and discuss their purchases; Jane refers to stockings where she prefers to have “only two pairs of that quality, to three of an inferior sort.” There is also a lovely quip from Jane in a letter to Cassandra that comments on the new fashion of having fake fruit on the bonnet: Jane dryly suggests, “I cannot help thinking that it is more natural to have flowers grow out of the head than fruit.” They had some independence; they set up a small parlour, next to their bedroom, in the old sprawling rectory just for themselves. At this stage their brothers had all left home to pursue their professions. Jane was financially dependent on her parents, although Cassandra had money left to her by her fiancé. When you read Jane’s letters you get a sense of an independent woman. She is not deferring decisions to her parents or hesitant to make a suggestion. But such independence was just a state of mind, as the Austen sisters really were dependent on their parents; they had few options open to them. In Persuasion, you can almost feel Jane wanting to have adventures like her naval brothers. But she was a woman of the 18th Century and no matter how brilliant her mind, she was relegated to a narrow life.
One response to “What was Jane Austen’s everyday life like?”
I love that line about how it’s more natural for flowers to grow out of a bonnet. I think she’s absolutely right about that. If I owned a bonnet, I’d much rather have flowers on it — more graceful and elegant than apples and plums. But alas, I don’t have one. I guess I could stick some wildflowers in my ball cap.
I like what you say about how Jane seemed determined to have an independent mind, even though she was financially dependent on her family.