Jane Austen’s novels are some of the greatest works of English literature—and they were, at least in part, tied to her own life experiences. While her novels aren’t autobiographical by any means, they’re also not wholly removed, fluffy romances. Instead, they take the concerns of Austen’s time period and life situation and turn them into witty, insightful stories that have endured. Here are just a few of the elements Austen lifted from her own life into her fiction.
British Military Action of the 19th Century
The military plays a crucial but quiet role in most of Austen’s novels, where officers of the Army and the Navy appear time and again. For example, Persuasion‘s hero, Frederick Wentworth, makes his fortune in the Navy, and several of his former comrades-in-arms appear as characters alongside him. Also, much of the action in Pride and Prejudice hinges on the arrival of a regiment in Meryton. While war itself (conflicts between France and Britain as well as the War of 1812) is not exactly a plot point, readers of Austen’s era would have understood how it colors the setting and the experiences of the characters. Carol Howard’s introduction to a 2003 edition of Pride and Prejudice notes, “What must have played significantly in Austen’s imagination, as in the mind of every Briton, was the ongoing war with Napoleon’s forces.” The war wasn’t just political for Austen either, Howard says—it was personal:
“[Austen] certainly followed the career of her brother, Henry, who had joined the Oxford militia in 1793, when Britain’s latest war with France erupted… She must also have taken a personal interest in the campaigns of the British navy, which counted her brothers Francis and Charles among its officers… both rose to the rank of admiral.”
To what degree did Austen’s personal experiences of a country at war influence her novels? Although she’s known for observing her own small social circle with a detailed (and satirical) eye, understanding her family’s ties to the military absolutely adds nuance to her novels. This was, after all, a society where war could make fortunes, with the military among the few professions—along with the church, law, and possibly finance—that was acceptable for men of a certain social class to belong to.
However, having beloved brothers in the military didn’t motivate Austen to always write heroic characters affiliated with it. Most notable, of course, is her portrayal of the famously caddish George Wickham, a militia officer.
In many ways, the social upheaval in Austen’s novels is a reflection of the turmoil brought on by ongoing wars. And, as in war, the uproar eventually subsides and the apparent heroes prevail.
Jane Austen’s Disappointed Love
Austen wrote some of the greatest love stories in the English language, so it’s natural to wonder if she herself ever experienced a great love. She famously never married—although she was once, very briefly, engaged—but that doesn’t mean her life was wholly without love. Biographer Claire Tomalin suggests in Jane Austen: A Life that the closest Austen ever came to romance was with Tom Lefroy, a young lawyer with whom she was acquainted between 1795 and 1796. However, the Lefroys were significantly better off than the Austens, and since Tom was their eldest son, a romance between him and Jane was essentially doomed from the start, regardless of what their feelings for each other may or may not have been.
“There must have been something more than dancing and sitting out together: kisses, at least, a stirring of the blood, a quickening of the breath…[But] both were of the wrong class, and brought up by the wrong habits, to sacrifice family approval in the name of love… The expectations of the whole [Lefroy] familiy were clearly laid on him, and he could not be allowed to risk his future by entangling himself in a love affair with a penniless girl.”
There are certainly shades of some of Austen’s novels in this affair and its unhappy end. Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey both feature young women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who fall in love with wealthier men to the dismay of the men’s families (although it must be noted that both Edmund Bertram and Henry Tilney are second sons, not eldest sons as Lefroy was). Also, a lot of the conflict in Pride and Prejudice hinges on the Bennet sisters being perceived as not “high” enough for the wealthy landowners who fall in love with them. Furthermore, Persuasion reads almost as a gender-flipped version of Austen and Lefroy’s story: Higher-born Anne is persuaded to give up penniless sailor Wentworth, but he goes on to distinguish himself in her absence.
Austen and Lefroy’s romance was depicted—with quite a few historical liberties taken—in a 2007 film, Becoming Jane, which made the suggestion (largely unsupported by Austen scholarship) that Lefroy inspired the character of Mr. Darcy.
Jane and Sisterhood
Sisterhood plays a role in almost all of Austen’s novels, so it’s probably no surprise that she was especially close to her own sister, Cassandra. Much like Pride and Prejudice‘s Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, Cassandra and Jane Austen were close in age and affection, and both coincidentally suffered the loss of their potential “great loves” within a few years of each other. In 1794, Cassandra became engaged to a young (and poor) clergyman, Tom Fowle. Tomalin explains that “Fowle had hardly any resources beyond his nearly worthless parish in Wiltshire, and no immediate prospect of anything better.”
Unlike the Bennet sisters, neither Jane nor Cassandra got a happily ever after in the traditional sense. Cassandra and Fowle were forced to wait to marry until his fortunes improved. Towards that end, he went as a chaplain on a military expedition in 1797. But when the time came for his expected return, news instead arrived of his death from yellow fever. “For Cassandra, the loss was an absolute one,” writes Tomalin. Cassandra never married, and became one of the carriers of Jane’s legacy after her death.
The other “sister” in Jane’s life was her cousin, Eliza. Born Eliza Hancock, Eliza first married a member of the French aristocracy, making her the Comtesse de Feuillide. After the Comte was executed during the French Revolution, the young, widowed Comtesse returned to England. She eventually married Austen’s brother Henry, with whom Austen was especially close, and when Eliza died in 1813, Austen was at her side.
Scholars generally believe that Eliza’s personality and life story inspired parts of Lady Susan, Love and Friendship (which Austen dedicated to her), and Mansfield Park; she may even have loosely inspired the latter’s Mary Crawford. It’s one of many places, small and large, where the true events of Austen’s life were taken up, tweaked a little with her pen, and recreated as fiction—often with a much happier result than in real life.