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A Brief biography of "Calamity" Jane Austin

Jane Candace Eleanor Austin, b. July 4, 1801 [1], d. Oct 12, 1858 was the author of a number of notable novels of the early years of the American West. Many of her novels are set in Texas which was her home for much of her adult life. According to the Historical Society of Texas she was the National Novelist of the Republic of Texas.

Jane was the sixteenth of the nineteen children of Abraham and Rebecca Austin, only three of whom survived to adulthood [2]. As a child she was precocious with a particular talent for writing imaginative fiction. Her parents recognized her abilities and encouraged her to get an education. She completed high school and was sent for one year to Miss Finch's Finishing School in New York from which she was expelled as being an incorrigible tomboy [3].

The Battle of New Orleans was a family catastrophe. The death of her closest sister, Cassandra at the age of 17 in the Battle of New Orleans is considered to have led to the moving death of the protagonist's sister in The Persuader. After the destruction of New Orleans young Jane left home and lived with her aunt and uncle in St. Paul. (This is considered to be the original of the events of Winchester Park, though we must hope Jane's aunt was rather less eccentric than "Aunt Sarah" in the novel.)

In 1822 Abraham Austin joined his brother Moses Austin's Texas settlement and in 1823 Jane rejoined her parents. Although the charge has never substantiated it was widely rumored that she had a wild and desperate affair with her cousin Stephen Austin who was one of the founders of the Texas Republic. Her only child, Katherine Austin, was born in 1825 with no acknowledged father.

During the period 1823-1836 she resided with her parents. From time to time she was employed as a teacher. Her principal occupation, however, was that of author. Most of her most famous works were written during this period.

During the war of independence she became a guerilla leader. It was at this time she acquired the alarming expertise with firearms that earned her sobriquet, Calamity Jane [4]. Her campaigns were a disaster for the Mexicans who set a bounty on her head of $1000.

After independence was achieved she was a member of the commission that drafted the Texas Constitution. During the years 1839-1843 she was the Assistant Secretary of State for the Republic of Texas. Although most Texans favored union with the United States she was a firm Texan patriot and held out for continued independence. In 1843 the government of Texas, although grateful to her for her many efforts, discharged her from office because her views were inconsistent with government policy. She was awarded a small pension, a plaque, and a gold spittoon.

The Mexican-American War offered a renewed outlet for her martial talents. For several months she led a force of irregulars which won a notable victory at the Battle of the Rio Grande. She received a minor wound in that battle (a stray bullet removed the little toe on her left foot) and wisely decided that war, if not solely a male domain, should none-the-less be left to younger persons.

After the war she became a journalist. It was during this period that she roamed the West and gathered material for the novels of her later period. It was a time when it was dangerous for women to travel; however she regularly established herself as being more dangerous than the ruffians that might accost her. She was once asked how many men she had killed. According to legend she replied, "One man and thirty two boys who thought they were men."

In the last three years of her life she was a close friend of Samuel Clemens who always insisted that she taught him everything about writing that he needed to know.

Jane Austin was a confirmed abolitionist. In the mid 1850's she became an agent in the underground railroad. In 1858 she was killed in a gun battle with bounty hunters who were attempting to retrieve runaway slaves.

Jane Austin's literary output was enormous and varied. Her early works (her first novel, The Countess of Monte Cristo, was published when she was only 17) were romantic adventures that were strongly influenced by the English novelists, Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. Winchester Park is perhaps the most notable of her early novels. It was in Texas that she found her true voice, writing realistic novels about the travails of young women in the pioneering West. Two of her novels, Edda, and A Field of Broken Dreams [5], have long been considered to be the definitive novels about the heartbreaks of pioneering. Her work received much acclaim in her lifetime, and while the lighter novels were most successful, it is the more serious Edda that is particularly esteemed today.


Notes

[1] Her actual date of birth is uncertain; in her autobiography, The Yellow Rose of Texas [6], she claimed her birth date as July 4, 1801. The records of the Texas State Historical society list it as September 14, 1797. According to Mark Twain she was in the habit of celebrating both July 4th and September 14th as her birthday. (back)

[2] There is some doubt as to the accuracy of these numbers which are taken from her autobiography. Likewise her place of birth is uncertain. Her father was a riverboat gambler whose place of residence varied frequently. Memphis and New Orleans both claim the honor of being her birthplace. Most of her biographers believe that New Orleans is more likely, that being the city where her mother, to use the euphemism of the times, principally kept house. (back)

[3] Miss Finch's Finishing School (later Finch College) was a select school for the proper education of young ladies of breeding. Her brief attendance there may be one of the numerous fictions that appear in her autobiography. (back)

[4] The alleged incident in which she shot out a rattlesnake's eye is no longer taken seriously by biographers. (back)

[5] The movie, A field of dreams, is loosely based on this novel. (back)

[6] Her Autobiography, The Yellow Rose of Texas, is dedicated to Charles Rose, the only man ever cashiered from the Texas Rangers for cowardice. It was widely assumed that she had had an affair with Rose but no evidence for an affair was ever forthcoming. None-the-less a popular romantic ballad has immortalized their supposed love. (back)


Web sites referencing Jane Austin
  • At one point there was a Jane Austin Home Page maintained by Jo Walton that contained a brief biography of Jane Austin, synopses of some her most famous works, and some (projected) scholarly articles. It seems to have disappeared.
  • The Jane Austin bibliography page lists most of her published works.
  • There was also a (real) American author named Jane Goodwin Austin. Cornell Library maintains a listing of Jane Goodwin Austin's works.


This page was last updated August 6, 2007.
Copyright © 2001,2007 by Richard Harter

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