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An Illustrated Celebration of Jane Austen’s Life

“She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.”

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


Jane Austen’s Advice on Love, Marriage, and How to Rebuff a Suitor with Clarity and Kindness

“Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.”

“We can never know what to want,” Milan Kundera wrote in contemplating the central ambivalences of life and love. Ambivalence about what we want may be among the defining features of being human and the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind among life’s most essential arts, but nowhere is our indecisive oscillation more potentially disastrous than in love.

How to navigate this all too common peril is what Jane Austen (December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) addressed in a cycle of correspondence with her beloved niece Fanny Catherine Knight, whom Austen considered “almost another sister.”

In a series of missives written shortly after the publication of Pride and Prejudice and found in Jane Austen’s Letters (public library) — the volume that gave us the celebrated author’s advice on writing to her other niece, Anna — she counsels 21-year-old Fanny through a courtship by a certain “Mr. A,” who had rendered the young woman first besotted, then disenchanted, and at last thoroughly confused about her feelings.

After hearing of Fanny’s fairly rapid loss of interest in the suitor with whom she had been so infatuated, Austen writes:

I was certainly a good deal surprised at first, as I had no suspicion of any change in your feelings, and I have no scruple in saying that you cannot be in love. My dear Fanny, I am ready to laugh at the idea, and yet it is no laughing matter to have had you so mistaken as to your own feelings. And with all my heart I wish I had cautioned you on that point when first you spoke to me; but though I did not think you then much in love, I did consider you as being attached in a degree quite sufficiently for happiness, as I had no doubt it would increase with opportunity, and from the time of our being in London together I thought you really very much in love. But you certainly are not at all — there is no concealing it.

With an eye to the most perplexing part of romance — our tendency to find frustration satisfying, resulting in the paradoxical push-and-pull of love — Austen marvels:

What strange creatures we are! It seems as if your being secure of him had made you indifferent… And yet, after all, I am surprised that the change in your feelings should be so great. He is just what he ever was, only more evidently and uniformly devoted to you. This is all the difference. How shall we account for it?

Drawing of Fanny Knight by Austen's watercolorist sister, Cassandra
Drawing of Fanny Knight by Austen’s watercolorist sister, Cassandra

Twelve years earlier, Austen had undergone a similar change of heart herself — initially accepting the only known marriage proposal she ever received, by an unattractive and tactless but educated and financially secure man named Harris Bigg-Wither, by the following morning she had decided that the sensible practicality of the arrangement wasn’t an adequate substitute for love and retracted her acceptance. Perhaps it’s through this lens of personal experience that she gives Fanny a disclaimer of sorts:

I am feeling differently every moment, and shall not be able to suggest a single thing that can assist your mind. I could lament in one sentence and laugh in the next, but as to opinion or counsel I am sure that none will be extracted worth having from this letter.

And yet, immediately, she changes her mind yet again and offers pointedly opinionated counsel:

Oh, dear Fanny! Your mistake has been one that thousands of women fall into. He was the first young man who attached himself to you. That was the charm, and most powerful it is. Among the multitudes, however, that make the same mistake with yourself, there can be few indeed who have so little reason to regret it; his character and his attachment leave you nothing to be ashamed of.

Having at first assured Fanny that she doesn’t seem to be in love, Austen pivots again and makes a case for Mr. A:

Upon the whole, what is to be done? You have no inclination for any other person. His situation in life, family, friends, and, above all, his character, his uncommonly amiable mind, strict principles, just notions, good habits, all that you know so well how to value, all that is really of the first importance, — everything of this nature pleads his cause most strongly. You have no doubt of his having superior abilities, he has proved it at the University…

Oh, my dear Fanny! the more I write about him the warmer my feelings become, — the more strongly I feel the sterling worth of such a young man, and the desirableness of your growing in love with him again. I recommend this most thoroughly.

In a sentiment that Joseph Campbell would come to echo a century and a half later in reflecting on how perfectionism kills love, Austen adds:

There are such beings in the world, perhaps one in a thousand, as the creature you and I should think perfection, where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own county.

Think of all this, Fanny. Mr. A. has advantages which we do not often meet in one person. His only fault, indeed, seems modesty. If he were less modest, he would be more agreeable, speak louder, and look impudenter; and is not it a fine character of which modesty is the only defect? I have no doubt he will get more lively and more like yourselves as he is more with you; he will catch your ways if he belongs to you.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Austen then advises Fanny to take the only honorable course of action in such situations — seek clarity in one’s own feelings and, if the seed of love is not found, be kind but clear in letting the other person know that the interest is not mutual, which may inflict pain in the immediacy of the disappointment but in the grand scheme of things is far more compassionate and noble than leading the person on without real reciprocity. Austen writes:

And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection; and if his deficiencies of manner, etc., etc., strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once. Things are now in such a state that you must resolve upon one or the other, — either to allow him to go on as he has done, or whenever you are together behave with a coldness which may convince him that he has been deceiving himself. I have no doubt of his suffering a good deal for a time, — a great deal when he feels that he must give you up; but it is no creed of mine, as you must be well aware, that such sort of disappointments kill anybody.

But by the end of the month, Fanny has only grown more conflicted. In her final letter on the matter, Austen once again pivots and urges the young woman not to relinquish her independence for someone with whom she isn’t in love and who isn’t a true peer:

You will think me perverse, perhaps; in my last letter I was urging everything in his favor, and now I am inclining the other way, but I cannot help it; I am at present more impressed with the possible evil that may arise to you from engaging yourself to him — in word or mind — than with anything else. When I consider how few young men you have yet seen much of, how capable you are (yes, I do still think you very capable) of being really in love, and how full of temptation the next six or seven years of your life will probably be (it is the very period of life for the strongest attachments to be formed), — I cannot wish you, with your present very cool feelings, to devote yourself in honor to him. It is very true that you never may attach another man his equal altogether; but if that other man has the power of attaching you more, he will be in your eyes the most perfect. I shall be glad if you can revive past feelings, and from your unbiassed self resolve to go on as you have done, but this I do not expect; and without it I cannot wish you to be fettered.

Fanny didn’t marry Mr. A, nor any other suitor during Austen’s lifetime. Perhaps Steinbeck put it best 130 years later, when he counseled his teenage son on love: “If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

Complement this particular portion of Jane Austen’s Letters with Kafka’s advice on love and patience, philosopher Alain Badiou on why we fall and stay in love, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to love, and philosopher Erich Fromm on what’s keeping us from mastering the art of loving.


Cassandra Austen’s Drawings of English Royalty for Teenage Jane Austen’s Parodic History of England

“By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian.”

“At fifteen, she had few illusions about other people and none about herself,” Virginia Woolf once wrote of Jane Austen. Indeed, the future author of Sense and Sensibility was an early master of dispelling cultural illusions through parody, satire, and general wryness. In 1791, decades before she offered writing advice to her own teenage niece, fifteen-year-old Austen penned The History of England — a short manuscript of 34 pages, subtitled “By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian,” featuring thirteen ink-and-watercolor drawings of English royalty by Austen’s sister, Cassandra. (Austen was not the only prominent writer with an artistically gifted, lesser-known sibling — Virginia Woolf’s sister was the prominent Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, who illustrated some of Woolf’s work, and Jorge Luis Borges’s sister, Norah Borges, was one of the female pioneers of modern art.)

A play on Oliver Goldsmith’s 1764 classic of the same title, Austen’s book was a parody of the general trend toward reducing history to mere trivia and educational factlets designed for quick, easy digestion — in other words, a proto-parody of the listicle, Austen’s contempt for which one can only imagine.

Young Jane had a similar distaste for the reduction of complex stories into simple facts, another favorite trope of contemporary media. Her outrage over history’s demolition of nuance and dimension began in her marginalia on the pages of Goldsmith’s history. Next to a passage about the Stuart family, she scoffed in pencil: “A family who were always ill used Betrayed or neglected — whose virtues are seldom allowed while their errors are never forgotten.”

After Austen’s death in 1817, Cassandra kept her manuscripts until her own death in 1845. For more than a century thereafter, the notebooks were nearly forgotten and quietly made their way down the family tree, until they ended up in the hands of Cassandra’s great-granddaughter’s niece, who sold them at Sotheby’s in July of 1977. The British Library purchased the notebooks and Austen’s parodic history was published in facsimile for the first time as Jane Austen’s The History of England (public library), including all of the original drawings.

Cassandra’s depictions of English royalty parallel her sister’s parodic tone — there is a lumberjackish Henry VIII, a hipsterly bedraggled Henry VII, and a witchlike Elizabeth I.

Henry IV
Henry V
Henry VI
Henry VII
Henry VIII
Richard III
Edward IV
Mary Queen of Scots
Edward VI
Mary Tudor
Queen Elizabeth I
James I
Charles I

Complement Jane Austen’s The History of England with the author’s advice on writing and some delectable recipes inspired by her novels, then revisit Queen Victoria’s own drawings and Virginia Woolf’s quirky family newspaper, illustrated by her teenage nephews.


Jane Austen’s Advice on Writing, in Letters to Her Teenage Niece

Epistles on the fine art of “speeding truth into the world.”

Despite being one of the most important writers our civilization ever produced, on whose labors humanity continues to feed, Jane Austen (December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) left hardly any record of her opinions and theories on the craft she so masterfully wielded in practice. But a close reading of Jane Austen’s Letters (public library) reveals, here and there, little glimpses of the beloved author’s stylistic convictions — a fine, if modest, addition to this ongoing archive of notable wisdom on writing.

In one 1808 letter to her sister Cassandra, 33-year-old Austen admires a short piece by the English cricketer William Deedes, a friend of Cassandra’s — a glimpse of what she believes makes a good writer:

He has certainly great merit as a writer; he does ample justice to his subject, and without being diffuse is clear and correct… He certainly has a very pleasing way of winding up a whole, and speeding truth into the world.

In another letter from February of 1813, Austen recounts an atypically disappointing work by the English novelist, diarist, and playwright Frances “Fanny” Burney — whose writing Austen generally enjoyed and admired, and whose 1782 novel Cecilia heavily influenced the final pages of Pride and Prejudice — and offers a critique of its shortcomings:

The work is rather too light and bright and sparkling: it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story… something that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.

But her most explicit counsel on writing comes from a series of letters to her teenage niece, Anna. In August of 1814, 17-year-old Anna asked Austen for feedback on the novel she was writing, under the working title Which Is the Heroine — a title Austen liked “very well” and anticipated to “grow to like it very much in time.” Upon receiving the initial manuscript, Austen writes:

My dear Anna,—I am very much obliged to you for sending your MS. It has entertained me extremely; indeed all of us. I read it aloud to your grandmamma and Aunt Cass, and we were all very much pleased. The spirit does not droop at all.

Austen proceeds to comment on each of Anna’s characters and offers the first of a series of concretely rooted, generally extensible criticisms:

I do not like a lover speaking in the 3rd person; it is too much like the part of Lord Overtley, and I think it not natural.

In the same letter, Austen offers a warm disclaimer to her criticism — “If you think differently, however, you need not mind me.” — but a month later, having immersed herself in the book more thoroughly, she takes off the auntly hat and dons the writerly one. She readies Anna for some tough love:

Anna,—We have been very much amused by your three books, but I have a good many criticisms to make, more than you will like.

After complimenting a number of the girl’s characters and offering her take on the ideal length of a novel — roughly six times Anna’s first section of the novel, or a total of 288 pages — Austen makes a case against the abuses of clichéd phrases:

I have only taken the liberty of expunging one phrase of his which would not be allowable,—”Bless my heart!” It is too familiar and inelegant.

Though herself a master of detail, Austen cautions against overly precious particularities:

You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand and left.

She encourages the girl to focus on the relationships between the characters against a well-crafted backdrop of place:

You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life. Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on, and I hope you will do a great deal more, and make full use of them while they are so very favorably arranged.

Toward the end of the letter, Austen makes a remark at first blush amusing in the context of today’s thriving young-adult genre, then rather sad coming from a woman revolutionizing literature from within the patriarchy, and finally reluctantly sage given the general fate of female characters in canon of literature:

You are but now coming to the heart and beauty of your story. Until the heroine grows up the fun must be imperfect… One does not care for girls until they are grown up.

Although one never sees Anna’s letters to Austen — Cassandra had many of her sister’s letters destroyed after her death — it seems like the shaky confidence of the aspiring writer was rattled rather vigorously, for her aunt sent the following assurance a few months later:

My dear Anna,—I have been very far from finding your book an evil, I assure you. I read it immediately and with great pleasure.

Anna never finished her novel. But when Austen died less than three years later, the young woman inherited her aunt’s unfinished manuscript of Sanditon and later became the first writer to attempt completing it. In 1869, she collaborated with her half-brother, James Edward Austen-Leigh, on A Memoir of Jane Austen — the first major biography of their famous aunt and the primary one for decades after its publication, eclipsed only by Jan Fergus’s 1991 biography Jane Austen: A Literary Life.

Couple Jane Austen’s Letters with this year’s finest biographies, memoirs, and history books.


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