As part of our International Women’s Day celebrations, the trainees have decided to highlight female authors with a connection to Oxford. We’re starting things off with Jane Austen, but watch this space for more posts to come!
Jane Austen, the seventh child of the Reverend George and Cassandra Austen, (née Leigh) was born in Hampshire in 1775. Her family, a large and lively community, shared a love of learning that encouraged Jane’s creativity, and she began writing at an early age. Her life amongst the landed gentry and a wide network of friends and family no doubt provided ample inspiration for her writing. The family lived in Steventon, Hampshire until Jane’s father retired, after which they moved on to various locations including Bath, London and Southampton. Jane died at the age of 41 from Addison’s disease, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. 
Connection to Oxford
Jane had a variety of connections to Oxford. Her older brother James attended St John’s, as did their father, and their paternal grandfather was rector of All Souls College. When Jane was eight, she was sent to Oxford with her cousin (another Jane) and her sister Cassandra to be educated by Mrs Cawley, the widow of Ralph Cawley, a former Principal of Brasenose. 
In 2022, the Friends of the National Libraries led a campaign to save the Honresfield Library, a huge collection of manuscripts and books by a range of British authors, including Austen. The campaign to raise over £15 million was a success, which has ensured continued public access to the collection.  The Jane Austen collection from the Honresfield Library has been donated to the Bodleian Libraries and Jane Austen’s House. It features first editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Northanger Abbey, as well as two letters from Jane to her sister in 1796. Letters from Austen are incredibly rare, as Cassandra destroyed or censored many of them. 
Jane Austen wrote many short stories in her teenage years. Three surviving notebooks are held in the British Library and the Bodleian Libraries. These stories were often lively and action-packed, and not entirely dissimilar from what teenage girls might write about now – typically getting into trouble, romantic or otherwise. . In the somewhat tumultuous years after her father’s death, Jane did not have as much time for writing. It was only once settled in Chawton on her brother’s estate that she began to edit Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication. The former was published anonymously in 1811, and the later in 1813. Mansfield Park and Emma were published in 1814 and 1815 respectively. Following Jane’s death in 1817, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published later the same year, and were the first of her books to identify her as the author.
After publication, her books were generally received favourably (although it’s interesting to consider if this would have been the case if it was known from the beginning that they were penned by a woman), and commended for their portrayal of everyday life. Alfred Tennyson wrote that “Miss Austen understood the smallness of life to perfection,” highlighting her skill for social observation.  Now, 200 years after her death, Jane Austen is celebrated as one of the most beloved British writers, whose works have been translated into multiple languages and adapted for the stage and screen.
Most Iconic Character
Sometimes, the most obvious answer is, in fact, the right one. Elizabeth Bennet is a British icon in her own right, with her quick-witted nature and sharp tongue (perfectly encapsulated in one of the most savage insults in literary history: “I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world on whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”) Lizzie’s misjudgement of poor Mr Darcy is something I’m sure many of us relate to, and the changing nature of her opinion of him throughout the novel is what makes me return to it (and the iconic masterpiece that is the 2005 film version) time and time again.
My favourite Jane Austen novel is (unsurprisingly) Pride and Prejudice. The themes of the novel – love, social hierarchies and dealing with irritating family members offering “delicate little compliments” remain incredibly relatable to this day- the language may have changed, but our lives are not that dissimilar to the characters in Pride and Prejudice.
- Jane Austen | Biography, Books, Movies, & Facts | Britannica
- Mrs. Cawley and Jane Austen – Brasenose College, Oxford
- Contents of the library | Friends of the National Libraries (fnl.org.uk)
- Treasured Jane Austen letters donated to the Bodleian Libraries and Jane Austen’s House | University of Oxford
- Teenage Writings | Jane Austen’s House (janeaustens.house)
- Jane Austen | Jane Austen’s House (janeaustens.house)