She was ambitious, determined and inspirational
We don’t know enough about Jane Austen’s life to be able to paint a clear picture of what she was like as a person. But we do know that she was a determined and ambitious writer. She wrote persistently under difficult circumstances, in small households with little personal space, alongside her social and household duties, and in a society which did not think that a woman writing to make money was quite respectable.
Nevertheless, from childhood Jane Austen was determined to become a published writer. We can see this in her teenage writings, which she copied into three volumes, in imitation of the typical publishing format of the day, inscribing them with elaborate dedications to her family and friends.
Her earliest attempts at publication were rejected, but she kept on writing. It was not until 1811 that her first novel was published. By then, she had written at least three full length novels. One novel, Susan, had been accepted by a publisher in 1803 but then not published. She bought it back many years later. But those early years of writing without public recognition must have been frustrating. Nevertheless, she was persistent, refusing to give up.
One of the aspects of being a writer that was particularly difficult for a woman at the time was dealing with a publisher. In her youth Jane Austen’s father and then her brother Henry acted as her informal literary agent, sending her work to publishers on her behalf. However, as she grew older, she became more directly involved in dealings with her publishers, travelling up to London on several occasions to see her books through the press. She took some financial risks, too, which, considering her very limited finances, showed courage and belief in her work.
Jane Austen wrote for publication, but she was true to herself and did not pander to what she thought her readership might want to see. Indeed, she famously said of her novel Emma, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’ (Austen-Leigh, Ch.10), suggesting that she wrote to please herself. Today, this is the sort of advice that is always given to writers: write the book that you want to read, not what you think other people will want to buy.
Her determination to stick to her own way of working can been seen again in 1816, when she had some correspondence with the Royal Librarian, James Stanier Clarke. He gave her some unsolicited advice and suggestions for her next novel, which she politely rejected, saying:
‘I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.’
Finally, in early 1817, when she was gravely ill, she started writing a new novel, which she left unfinished (today it is known as Sanditon). Even in the face of illness, she kept writing for as long as she could.