What if Jane Austen couldn't read or write?

Jane Austen

There is no doubt that the world would have been deprived of one of the most talented and best loved authors. Jane's novels have remained in print for 200 years and Pride & Prejudice is considered by many as the greatest romantic story of all time.

Jane was born in 1775, when less than half the women in England could read and write. Jane Austen was lucky to be born into a family that believed in education for girls and boys alike. Jane was well educated and, crucially, had access to her father’s extensive library of books in her childhood home of Steventon (owned by the Knight family). The library of books provided knowledge and inspiration to the young Jane, a prolific writer in her youth.  When Jane was 26, her father retired and moved his wife and daughters to Bath, selling most of his extensive library as a consequence. The years that followed were not Jane’s happiest, and without easy access to a library of books, Jane must have been frustrated. Jane didn’t start writing again until, seven years later, she moved to Chawton, the Hampshire seat of her brother Edward, who had been adopted by the Knight family and inherited a number of country estates. Chawton gave Jane the security and privacy she needed to write and free access to the Knight family library housed at Chawton House.

Within a month of arriving in Chawton (an unpublished author), Jane had started writing in earnest again and within 18 months had published Sense & Sensibility. In her eight short years in Chawton, before her premature death, aged 41, Jane also published Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published shortly after Jane died.

Without access to libraries, Jane Austen may never have mastered literacy and Mr. Darcy would never have been shared with the world.

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I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading
— Jane Austen


Jane's access to books opened up a world of thought and knowledge

Her father's library, in Jane's childhood home of Steventon, contained over 500 volumes and an emphasis was placed on the importance of education for all the Austen children, both at home and away from school. When the family moved to Bath in 1801, most of George Austen's library was sold. Legend has it Jane fainted upon the news of the move, knowing she would have to give up her home, the library and her precious piano. In 1809 Jane moved to Chawton, where she had access to the Knight family library at Chawton House, an eclectic collection of over 3000 books - the same library our founder and chair, Caroline Jane Knight, used as a child.

Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody
— Jane Austen


From reading literary masterpieces to writing her own 

Jane loved to share her work, regaling her family with stories and poems, their enjoyment and feedback spurring her on. Her first attempts to publish failed, but Jane was determined to share her masterpieces with a wider audience and did not give up. Jane wanted her work to be read and enjoyed and the success of Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice encouraged her to write her other most famous works. She would have no doubt continued if not for her untimely death, aged just 41 years. How different things would have been if Jane had not been able to share her work! Jane in turn mentored her nieces, Fanny and Anne, both budding writers who sent their work to Jane for critique and advice.