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Jane Austen was born in the Hampshire village of Steventon on 16 December 1775, the seventh of Reverend George Austen and his wife Cassandra’s eight children. One of her six brothers had an infirmity and was cared for outside the family unit. Within it, her closest bond was with her elder sister Cassandra who, like Jane, never married. While her brothers left to make their way in the world, Jane and her sister joined their parents in relocating to Bath in 1801, when her father retired. Following his death four years later, they and their mother moved again, settling in the Hampshire village of Chawton in 1809. There, in a property on her brother Edward’s estate, she spent the last eight years of her life, apart from a short, final stay in Winchester, where she went in search of treatment for the illness that claimed her life. She died, probably from Addison’s disease, on 18 July 1817, aged 41.
Austen took up her pen initially as a form of family entertainment, dabbling in burlesques, parodies and comic sketches before turning her thoughts to serious novel-writing. The early drafts of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey were written when she was domiciled at Steventon Rectory in the 1790s. These were completed at Chawton, where she also wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. Four of her completed novels were published during her lifetime, all anonymously; Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were posthumous publications, when her authorship was finally acknowledged. A seventh novel, Sanditon, was still in its infancy at the time of her death.
Austen grew up in a class-conscious world and wrote about the manners and mores of country life – unsurprisingly, given the cloistered life she led. She did have suitors, however, and once accepted a marriage proposal, only to have second thoughts the following day. It would have been a match founded on material advantage rather than love, the very kind of dilemma she addressed in her fiction.
She recognised the narrowness of her canvas, describing it as ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush’. But it was a world she knew intimately and explored in enormous depth. She once wrote: ‘Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on’. Sir Walter Scott said that while he was adept at what he called ‘the Big Bow-wow strain’ of novel-writing, Austen’s fine brushwork displayed an ‘exquisite touch’ of realism that he could not match. She had, said Scott, ‘a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with’.
Pride and Prejudice was the best received of Austen’s books, but sales overall were patchy. Her total earnings from writing amounted to around £700, and all her books were all out of print in the decade following her death as the popular taste turned to Gothic tales and grand-scale drama with an epic sweep rather than finely drawn, nuanced, witty insights into a genteel stratum of society. There were those who never wavered in their estimation of Austen’s genius, and by the 1870s her place as one of the towering figures in English literature was secure.