Although Jane Austen is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest writers, there’s woefully little known about her creative development as a young person. She left behind no journal or diary; although she wrote a great many letters, only around 160 remain today, and these were edited by her older sister, which only deepens the mystery.
We do know that Jane faced daunting challenges in her journey toward becoming a writer and a published author. During her lifetime, the late 1700s and early 1800s, it was considered shocking, even reprehensible, for a woman to publish her writing. Even the act of writing — other than routine correspondence and in the service of domestic tasks — could be suspect. Actually, reading, particularly if you were a female who enjoyed that exciting new genre, novels — well, it could be construed as a dangerous activity.
So how did Jane Austen overcome these formidable barriers?
An accident of birth, for one thing. She was born into a family which provided a remarkable amount of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital”: Mr. and Mrs. Austen raised their children in an environment in which books, education, intellectual achievement, lively conversation, and access to the wider world were valued and offered in abundance (although the boys received more than what we today would consider their fair share).
Although Jane’s parents struggled financially, there were some 500 books in the house; despite their expense they were clearly a priority. By all accounts, as a child Jane read voraciously and omnivorously — the good and the bad, the high and the low. And whether by nature or nurture (or both, more likely), Jane early developed a critical faculty about what she was reading: she began forming, and expressing, her judgments, often by writing decisive little notes in the margins of books, boldly disagreeing with the author.
At around age 11 or 12 Jane made another great leap. She began writing, really writing. It is, perhaps, not a total surprise, for hers was a writing family: her father wrote sermons, her mother poetry, and her older brothers essays, poetry, and theatrical pieces. But Jane roared out of the starting gate with a vigor and skill that is extraordinary. She wrote little stories and plays and dabbled in other genres as well, clearly utilizing as her foundation the material she’d been hearing and reading all her young life.
Instead of simply imitating this diverse material, though, Jane took it apart and put it back together in funny, clever, highly original ways. A group of her biographers has called her — in a phrase I love — a teenage “literary demolition expert.”
Ensconced in the supportive, close-knit community her family provided, Jane seems to have written for the pure joy of it. This early work, now known as her “Juvenilia,” is unabashedly parodic, exuberant, funny, daring, and wild. It shows us her first steps toward finding her own style, her unique voice, as a writer.
Jane was nearing her 20s when she began to act on a serious ambition to become a published writer — writing longer and more polished manuscripts — although it would take many years for her to achieve that goal. And despite setbacks and disappointments, she displayed tremendous grit: she worked hard and she persevered, maintaining, it seems, a deep faith in herself and her art.
There’s a gap of some 200 years since Jane Austen lived, laughed, loved, and wrote. What can we say about her creative development that’s relevant to young writers today?
Looking at her life and accomplishments, the essential takeaways remain strikingly the same.
Which means, you see, that you’re already well on your way.
This post appears with the kind permission of the Loft Literary Center, where it was originally published.