5 Surprising Facts About Jane Austen


Despite having such a devoted fan base, Jane Austen’s life is shrouded in mystery. She was an unusual woman for her time, holding firm to her values. She believed in love matches; her stories are full of unlikely couples, yet she remained unmarried.

We don’t have much correspondence from which to learn her thoughts. Following the custom of the time, Jane’s sister Cassandra burned many letters after the author’s death.

Fortunately, not all was lost with those yellowing pages. Enough history remains to offer us a satisfying portrait.

Here are five surprising facts about Jane Austen.

1- She Enjoyed Gothic Novels

It’s not surprising that Jane Austen was well-read. She spent hours in the family library immersed in classics such as Shakespeare.

As always, literary tastes at the time were changing; she also enjoyed reading then-popular Gothic novels.

Her favorite authors included Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and Maria Edgeworth. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho was mentioned in Jane’s novel Northanger Abbey as one of Catherine Morland’s favorite books.

Want to learn more about which books Jane read? Here is a list!

Portrait of Author Frances Burney

2- Jane Austen Hated School

The Austens were unique in their belief that education was important for all children, not only boys.

Jane and her sister Cassandra attended boarding school as young girls. Jane was only seven when she first left home to study. There is speculation about why she left at such a tender age. Some think it was because she could not bear separation from her sister.

They attended Mrs. Cawley’s boarding school for girls, where they were taught sewing and French. Jane would later write about her time at school as a torment.

3- She Was Engaged—for a Night

On December 2, 1802, Jane accepted a marriage proposal from family friend Harris Bigg-Wither. The Bigg-Wither family owned a large estate; marriage to him would ensure Jane’s happy retirement.

The following morning, she’d changed her mind. She called off the engagement, a choice that perplexed everybody–she wasn’t getting any younger.

Why did Jane choose spinsterhood over a comfortable home? We know that she believed people ought to marry for love; perhaps that was her reason.

I found this article about Harris Bigg-Wither interesting.

Drawing of Harris Bigg-Wither

4- Charlotte Brontë Wasn’t a Fan

There has been a rumor circulating that Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre was inspired Austen’s character Jane Fairfax in Emma. This article criticizes the rumor, but it doesn’t deny that Brontë wasn’t a fan.

One can hardly blame her, seeing the big picture. Rare were female authors brave enough to publish with their names. They were generalized as lady authors, and Brontë was tired of being lumped in with Austen when their novels were so different.

I’m thankful that there is now room for different kinds of lady authors. It’s possible for us to write light-hearted romance or Gothic pieces–whatever we please!

5- Austen’s Last Piece was a Poem

Many famous authors have died and left novels unfinished. Jane Austen left two books unfinished—Sanditon and The Watsons—but her last complete work seems to have been a poem.

Titled Venta, it was dictated to Cassandra three days before Jane’s death. It’s a satirical piece about the people of Winchester, poking fun at their fervor for horse races. Jane wrote that they cared more for the races than they did for their patron saint, St. Swithin.

Various poems by Jane Austen can be found here.


It’s always fascinating to do research about the lives of famous authors. This little post does not begin to cover Jane Austen’s life, but I hope it taught you something new!

Evils We Seek: NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen


Though Jane Austen never married, she’s known for being vocal about her society’s obsession with marriage and romance. Her novels feature parodies of love-matches, foolish matches, and matches of convenience. We all know the first line of Pride and Prejudice.

Fewer people think of the messages woven into the lines of Northanger Abbey. Though it is one of Austen’s first novels, it was published posthumously in 1817 (Persuasion was also published posthumously.) Northanger Abbey is a coming-of-age story which follows Catherine Morland.

Catherine’s childhood is summed up in the opening sentence, which packs as humorous a punch as that of Pride and Prejudice:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.

Does anyone ever see themselves born to be an heroine?

Catherine was an unremarkable child. She has no talent with the skills young ladies were taught at the time; she is a poor artist, her looks are mediocre, and she prefers playing cricket to dolls. Austen mentions that Catherine is the fourth of ten children, which can account in some way for the way she behaved.

I could relate to Catherine in a specific way: she loves to read. She enjoys the Gothic novels that were popular in Austen’s day. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho appears to be Catherine’s favorite story. She will talk about it with anyone who will listen.

It’s difficult to find someone who’ll take it seriously because it’s a novel. Austen also pokes fun at society’s aversion to novels, making her opinion on this known in chapter five. She mentions that Catherine and her friend Isabella Thorpe read novels together–

(emphasis is mine)

Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.

Northanger Abbey is a parody, taking elements of Gothic literature and exaggerating them. However, I could not help thinking when reading the above that Jane let her own frustration slip. 

In a previous post about the book Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees, I mention a similar theme. Women wrote a great majority of novels in that time; many chose to publish with the alias By a Lady to avoid shame if discovered.

Jane Austen never saw Northanger Abbey in print, though she tried many times. This must have been a source of great frustration. Jane was constantly editing Northanger while alive, so it is possible that she added that rant after many failed attempts with the publisher.

I wonder if she chose to make Northanger and its heroine a reflection of herself. Catherine Morland isn’t very interesting and shows little promise (Jane was not very good at simple things such as chores–I heard in one biography that her family seemed to keep her away from the household tasks!) Morland wasn’t surrounded by suitors growing up. Friendship doesn’t come easily to her, either.

She sees the world through the eyes of a reader, as did Jane. Visiting the Abbey, Catherine’s imagination gets the better of her. She imagines a murder and a cruel husband and all sorts of dark common in Gothic books.

The real monsters in Northanger Abbey are greedy people with charming tongues who cheat and double-cross. This is not interesting enough for Catherine, nor is it for us.

In real life, the monsters we face are rude bosses, traffic jams, and math equations. Seldom do we write novels about these problems; like Catherine, we search for more dramatic beasts in the books we read.

Jonathan Gottschall’s excellent book The Storytelling Animal points out our human tendency to seek dramatic problems in story. We ignore the piling bills on the table, looking instead at the murder in a mystery novel. We like trouble–we like drama–just not the sort that we actually deal with.

It seemed to me that Catherine Morland’s greatest character flaw was her preference for Gothic monsters and skeletons in the closet. A mysterious chest and a locked cabinet are more exciting than her backstabbing friends.

Catherine appears to finally grow up when she realizes that fiction is exaggeration. The real monsters in life are people who make decisions to benefit themselves, who discriminate based on social status, who don’t think twice about breaking a heart.

Truthfully, heartbreak is the worst tragedy I can think of.

Life is not a novel. Jane Austen knew that people become addicted to the thrill of fiction. She was more clever than Pride and Prejudice; she understood humans and how they behave. Northanger Abbey was more relatable to me than Pride and Prejudice.

If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to do so. You might also decide that Catherine Morland represents bookworms and their habits over the centuries.

Wild Strawberries: Angela Thirkell’s Warped Downton Abbey


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Happy Halloween!

On the most magical day of the year, I’m sure many of you are bracing yourselves for the winter, preparing to write novels, or simply enjoying your pumpkin spice while wearing oversized hoodies (I am).

With a new novel to plan myself, I’m staying in today, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ignore the occasion; every Halloween I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a tradition I created five years ago. It helps get me into the mood.

I won’t dwell on the spooky in this blog post. I’ve just finished a delightful novel called Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of her before. I got it as an eBook this summer before my trip to Europe, but did not get to it until yesterday. I was not disappointed; short, sweet, and humorous, it had a springtime vibe that made me forget the chill outside.

I’ve never before read a book that made me laugh out loud. Certain scenes had me in tears. Poking fun at aristocrats with their dignified houses, Thirkell has a writing style that leaves you wanting more. She crafts characters you cannot hate, even if they behave in ridiculous ways. It made me think of Downton Abbey, especially scenes where the butler participates, except this butler is more keen to cause a fuss than Mr Carson would be.

I thought I was good at crafting characters; now I envy Thirkell, with her ease for giving each protagonist their color. There is the quirky Lady Emily Leslie, sixteen-year-old Martin who is spoiled and seems to know it, Lady Emily’s daughter, Agnes, who pulls off the “simple-minded” character–I felt like the characters had already existed, and Thirkell was commenting on the things they did, almost in a bored fashion.

After I finished Wild Strawberries, Goodreads told me it is the second book in a series; this means I will need to find the first one. I don’t know where Angela Thirkell has been all my life, but like Rosamunde Pilcher, she is a new voice that I’m glad to have found. They have different tones: Thirkell is humorous, Pilcher seemed rather melancholic, but both told tales that engrossed me.

If you like Downton Abbey, read Wild Strawberries. When I read the other books in the series, I’ll report on those as well.

Enjoy your Halloween, and I hope you get lots of candy!

A Dramatic Trip to London


This morning we were late to Charles de Gaulle airport. Not only that, but a couple of our carry-on bags were overweight, and we had to check them. Someone sent us to the wrong gate, on the other side of the terminal.

By the time we crossed the terminal, everyone else had boarded the plane to Heathrow airport. They were calling our names on the speaker, waiting for us to show up and board. We stumbled into the plane red-faced, trembling and thirsty.

a cup of coffee in the English sunlight

As we chugged cup after cup of cold water, the plane took off. What I had been told was an hour long flight from France to England felt like fifteen minutes. Perhaps it was exhaustion distorting my sense of time. It didn’t feel like very long at all.

I woke up when the plane began to descend. Once I realized where I was going, I teared up. As a child, I had dreamed of visiting England. My idea of it is probably different from the reality; this is fine, it means I will learn how it is.

I’ve been around the city today on buses, grocery shopping with a friend. I have enjoyed what I’ve seen. I recognized some street names from books I have read, which plunged me into disbelief.

Have the pages swallowed me up? Will I encounter characters I love up the street? Have I gone back in time?

Of course, I haven’t gone back in time. I see the traffic, hear the trains, see people on their cell phones and the flashing lights–no, I haven’t gone back in time. But I’m as close as I will be, and I will cherish the week spent here.

Perhaps I should have taken a nap instead of going to the supermarket; I’m nodding off. It’s just that I want to experience it all. I want to write a novel, and for that, I need to see.

But I’m nodding off, and I suppose a nap is in order. Later, we might visit a pub.

David Copperfield: Contrast of Summer and Winter


Paragraphs can be so telling. Here, I’m going to compare two passages from David Copperfield that made their way into my reading journal because of their devastating depth.

Here is the first:

When my mother is out of breath and rests herself in an elbow-chair, I watch her winding her bright curls round her fingers and straightening her waist, and nobody knows better than I do that she likes to look so well, and is proud of being so pretty.

David Copperfield’s mother, Clara, was widowed before the birth of her son. The above paragraph shows she has not lost her energy and attractiveness, even when raising a son alone. When David grows old enough to observe, he notices this, but never thinks it will lead to great change. They have a good life, himself, his mother, and the faithful housemaid. What else do they need?

The reader knows better, though, drinking in these sentences. Young David has noticed that his mother is pretty, and that she likes being pretty. He does not realize that she’s open to the idea of finding love again. He doesn’t realize that their peaceful life could change at any moment.

Since he loves his mother in that innocent way in which children love, David notices that she is pretty and happy. He does not think his mother will marry again. He can never predict she will choose a cruel man who will actively work to put out this spark. Mr Murdstone will dull the glow that David notices in his mother; where once she twirled her hair and daydreamed, now she will lack life.

Clara’s new husband will subject both of them to emotional abuse. When David does not behave to Mr Murdstone’s satisfaction, the child is sent to boarding school. He returns to find his mother’s spark is gone, and when she later dies, her pride and will have both been destroyed:

He [Mr Murdstone] drew her to him, whispered in her ear, and kissed her. I knew as well, when I saw my mother’s head lean down upon his shoulder, and her arm touch his neck–I knew as well that he could mould her pliant nature into any form he chose, as I know, now, that he did it.

The paragraphs, placed side by side, tell a devastating story: the destruction of a beautiful person in a cruel way.

Dickens’ words go so far as to change the light in readers’ minds. The first paragraph feels like a summer afternoon, complete with flowers and a warm breeze. Then we find the second, which evokes a feeling of confinement, and I found myself fearing such bleak loneliness.

As a deep thinker, I wonder: who or what inspired Clara’s character?

This is the beauty of old books: they’re relevant. Clara’s story reminded me that, even today, men and women are tricked into cages very much like this.

Though they look dusty on the outside, old books contain the bits of humanity that never vanished, both light and dark. Read them–not because you were told to in school, but because they contain realistic people.

There are books set today, yesterday, and tomorrow. This means that, at any point in time, there will be a story in which someone relates to your struggle. Even if there isn’t a happy ending, this ancient sense of community gives me hope: people fought these battles. There have been losses, such as poor Clara, but there have also been victories.

There is a book for everyone and everything. Find the story you need–it’s out there.