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Jane Austen

Jane Austen

The English writer Jane Austen (1775-1817) was one of the most important novelists of the 19th century.

In her intense concentration on the thoughts and feelings of a limited number of characters, Jane Austen creates as profound an understanding and as precise a vision of the potentialities of the human spirit as the art of fiction has ever achieved. Although her novels received favorable reviews, she was not celebrated as an author during her lifetime.

Jane Austen was born in 1775 at Steventon, in the south of England, where her father was rector of the parish. She was the seventh of eight children in an affectionate and high-spirited family. In 1801 she moved to Bath with her father, her mother, and her only sister, Cassandra. After the Reverend Austen's death in 1805, the three women moved to Southampton and in 1809 to the village of Chawton, where Jane Austen lived for the rest of her life. She never married, but received at least one proposal and led an active and happy life, unmarked by dramatic incident and surrounded by her sister and brothers and their families.

Austen began writing as a young girl and by the age of 14 had completed Love and Friendship (sic). This early work, an amusing parody of the melodramatic novels popular at that time, shows clear signs of her talent for humorous and satirical writing. Three volumes of her collected juvenilia were published more than a hundred years after her death.

Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen's first major novel was Sense and Sensibility, whose main characters are Elinor Dashwood and her sister Marianne. The first draft was written in 1795 and titled Elinor and Marianne. In 1797 Austen rewrote the novel and titled it Sense and Sensibility. After years of polishing, it was finally published in 1811.

As the original and final titles indicate, the novel contrasts the temperaments of the two sisters. Elinor governs her life by sense or reasonableness, while Marianne is ruled by sensibility or feeling. Elinor keeps her wits about her under the strain of an affair during which her beloved becomes entangled with another girl. After his mother disinherits him, his beloved, an avaricious schemer, jilts him and he returns to Elinor—who has the sense to take him back. A more disagreeable moral revelation is evident in Marianne Dashwood's actions. She is in love with a scoundrel, who tires of her and goes off to London. She follows him there and is bitterly disillusioned by his callous treatment. She then gives up her romantic dreams of passionate fulfillment and marries a stodgy, middle-aged suitor. Although the plot favors the value of sense over that of sensibility, the greatest emphasis is placed on the moral complexity of human affairs and on the need for enlarged and subtle thought and feeling in response to it.

Pride and Prejudice

In 1796, when Austen was 21 years old, she wrote the novel First Impressions. The work was rewritten and published under the title Pride and Prejudice in 1813. It is her most popular and perhaps her greatest novel. It achieves this distinction by virtue of its perfection of form, which exactly balances and expresses its human content. As in Sense and Sensibility, the twin abstractions of the title are closely associated with the protagonists, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Elizabeth is guilty of prejudice against the aristocratic Darcy, and he manifests excessive pride in his cold and unbending attitude toward Elizabeth, her sister Jane, and other members of the Bennet family.

The form of the novel is dialectical—the opposition of ethical principles is expressed in the relations of believable characters. The resolution of the main plot with the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy represents a reconciliation of conflicting moral extremes. The value of pride is affirmed when humanized by Elizabeth's warm personality, and the value of prejudice is affirmed when associated with Darcy's standards of traditional honor.

During 1797-1798 Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, which was published posthumously. It is a fine satirical novel, making sport of the popular Gothic novel of terror, but it does not rank among her major works. In the following years she wrote The Watsons (1803 or later), which is a fragment of a novel similar in mood to her later Mansfield Park, and Lady Susan (1804 or later), a novelette in letters.

Mansfield Park

In 1811 Jane Austen began Mansfield Park, which was published in 1814. It is her most severe exercise in moral analysis and presents a conservative view of ethics, politics, and religion.

The novel traces the career of Fanny Price, a Cinderella-like heroine, who is brought from a poor home to Mansfield Park, the country estate of her relative, Sir Thomas Bertram. She is raised with some of the comforts of her cousins, the children of Sir Thomas, but her social rank is maintained at a lower level. Despite their strict upbringing, the Bertram children become involved in marital and extramarital tangles, which bring disasters and near-disasters on the family. But Fanny's upright character guides her through her own relationships with dignity—although sometimes with a chilling disdainfulness—and leads to her triumph at the close of the novel. While one may not like the rather priggish heroine, one does develop a sympathetic understanding of Fanny's thoughts and emotions and learn to value her at least as highly as the more attractive but less honest members of the Bertram family and its circle.

Emma

Shortly before Mansfield Park was published, Jane Austen began a new novel, Emma, and published it in 1816. Again the heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is difficult to love but, like Fanny Price, does engage the reader's sympathy and understanding. Emma is a girl of high intelligence and vivid imagination who is also marked by egotism and a desire to dominate the lives of others. She exercises her powers of manipulation on a number of neighbors who are not able to resist her prying into their lives. Most of Emma's attempts to control her friends, however, do not have happy effects for her or for them. But influenced by John Knightley, an old friend who is her superior in intelligence and maturity, she realizes how misguided many of her actions are. The novel ends with the decision of a warmer and less headstrong Emma to marry Mr. Knightley. The triviality of some of the characters—particularly Emma's hypochondriac father—distresses many readers, but there is much evidence to support the contention of some critics that Emma is Austen's most brilliant novel. The saturation of a narrow human situation with the author's satirical wit and psychological penetration is here carried to its highest point.

Persuasion

Persuasion, begun in 1815 and published posthumously (together with Northanger Abbey) in 1818, is Jane Austen's last complete novel and is perhaps most directly expressive of her feelings about her own life. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is a woman growing older with a sense that life has passed her by. Several years earlier she had fallen in love with Captain Wentworth but was parted from him because her class-conscious family insisted she make a more suitable match. But she still loves Wentworth, and when he again enters her life, their love deepens and ends in marriage.

Austen's satirical treatment of social pretensions and worldly motives is perhaps at its keenest in this novel, especially in her presentation of Anne's family. The predominant tone of Persuasion, however, is not satirical but romantic. It is, in the end, the most uncomplicated love story that Jane Austen ever wrote and to some tastes the most beautiful.

The novel Sanditon was unfinished at her death in 1817. She died at Winchester, where she had gone to seek medical attention, and was buried there.

Further Reading

Jane Austen's career is described in R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems (1949). Chapman also edited the definitive editions of her novels and letters. The best critical study of the novels is Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and Her Art (1939). Marvin Mudrick presents a vigorous view of her fiction in Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (1952). The context of her novels is treated in Avrom Fleishman, A Reading of Mansfield Park: An Essay in Critical Synthesis (1967). □

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Austen, Jane

Jane Austen

Born: December 16, 1775
Steventon, England
Died: July 18, 1817
Winchester, England

English author, novelist, and writer

The English writer Jane Austen was one of the most important novelists of the nineteenth century. In her intense concentration on the thoughts and feelings of a limited number of characters, Jane Austen created as profound an understanding and as precise a vision of the potential of the human spirit as the art of fiction has ever achieved. Although her novels received favorable reviews, she was not celebrated as an author during her lifetime.

Family, education, and a love for writing

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, at Steventon, in the south of England, where her father served as a rector (preacher) for the rural community. She was the seventh of eight children in an affectionate and high-spirited family. As one of only two girls, Jane was very attached to her sister throughout her life. Because of the ignorance of the day, Jane's education was inadequate by today's standards. This coupled with Mr. Austen's meager salary kept Jane's formal training to a minimum. To supplement his income as a rector, Mr. Austen tutored young men. It is believed that Jane may have picked up Latin from staying close to home and listening in on these lessons. At the age of six she was writing verses. A two-year stay at a small boarding school trained Jane in needlework, dancing, French, drawing, and spelling, all training geared to produce marriageable young women. It was this social atmosphere and feminine identity that Jane so skillfully satirized (mocked) in her many works of fiction. She never married herself, but did receive at least one proposal and led an active and happy life, unmarked by dramatic incident and surrounded by her family.

Austen began writing as a young girl and by the age of fourteen had completed Love and Friendship. This early work, an amusing parody (imitation) of the overdramatic novels popular at that time, shows clear signs of her talent for humorous and satirical writing. Three volumes of her collected young writings were published more than a hundred years after her death.

Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen's first major novel was Sense and Sensibility, whose main characters are two sisters. The first draft was written in 1795 and was titled Elinor and Marianne. In 1797 Austen rewrote the novel and titled it Sense and Sensibility. After years of polishing, it was finally published in 1811.

As the original and final titles indicate, the novel contrasts the temperaments of the two sisters. Elinor governs her life by sense or reasonableness, while Marianne is ruled by sensibility or feeling. Although the plot favors the value of reason over that of emotion, the greatest emphasis is placed on the moral principles of human affairs and on the need for enlarged thought and feeling in response to it.

Pride and Prejudice

In 1796, when Austen was twenty-one years old, she wrote the novel First Impressions. The work was rewritten and published under the title Pride and Prejudice in 1813. It is her most popular and perhaps her greatest novel. It achieves this distinction by virtue of its perfection of form, which exactly balances and expresses its human content. As in Sense and Sensibility, the descriptive terms in the title are closely associated with the two main characters.

The form of the novel is dialecticalthe opposition of ethical (conforming or not conforming to standards of conduct and moral reason) principles is expressed in the relations of believable characters. The resolution of the main plot with the marriage of the two opposites represents a reconciliation of conflicting moral extremes. The value of pride is affirmed when humanized by the wife's warm personality, and the value of prejudice is affirmed when associated with the husband's standards of traditional honor.

During 17971798 Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, which was published posthumously (after death). It is a fine satirical novel, making sport of the popular Gothic novel of terror, but it does not rank among her major works. In the following years she wrote The Watsons (1803 or later), which is a fragment of a novel similar in mood to her later Mansfield Park, and Lady Susan (1804 or later), a short novel in letters.

Mansfield Park

In 1811 Jane Austen began Mansfield Park, which was published in 1814. It is her most severe exercise in moral analysis and presents a conservative view of ethics, politics, and religion.

The novel traces the career of a Cinderella-like heroine, who is brought from a poor home to Mansfield Park, the country estate of her relative. She is raised with some of the comforts of her cousins, but her social rank is maintained at a lower level. Despite their strict upbringing, the cousins become involved in marital and extramarital tangles, which bring disasters and near-disasters on the family. But the heroine's upright character guides her through her own relationships with dignityalthough sometimes with a chilling disdainfulness (open disapproval)and leads to her triumph at the close of the novel. While some readers may not like the rather priggish (following rules of proper behavior to an extreme degree) heroine, the reader nonetheless develops a sympathetic understanding of her thoughts and emotions. The reader also learns to value her at least as highly as the more attractive, but less honest, members of Mansfield Park's wealthy family and social circle.

Emma

Shortly before Mansfield Park was published, Jane Austen began a new novel, Emma, and published it in 1816. Again the heroine does engage the reader's sympathy and understanding. Emma is a girl of high intelligence and vivid imagination who is also marked by egotism and a desire to dominate the lives of others. She exercises her powers of manipulation on a number of neighbors who are not able to resist her prying. Most of Emma's attempts to control her friends, however, do not have happy effects for her or for them. But influenced by an old boyfriend who is her superior in intelligence and maturity, she realizes how misguided many of her actions are. The novel ends with the decision of a warmer and less headstrong Emma to marry him. There is much evidence to support the argument of some critics that Emma is Austen's most brilliant novel.

Persuasion

Persuasion, begun in 1815 and published posthumously in 1818, is Jane Austen's last complete novel and is perhaps most directly expressive of her feelings about her own life. The heroine is a woman growing older with a sense that life has passed her by. Several years earlier she had fallen in love with a suitor but was parted from him because her class-conscious family insisted she make a more appropriate match. But she still loves him, and when he again enters her life, their love deepens and ends in marriage.

Austen's satirical treatment of social pretensions and worldly motives is perhaps at its keenest in this novel, especially in her presentation of Anne's family. The predominant tone of Persuasion, however, is not satirical but romantic. It is, in the end, the most uncomplicated love story that Jane Austen ever wrote and, to some tastes, the most beautiful.

The novel Sanditon was unfinished at her death on July 8, 1817. She died in Winchester, England, where she had gone to seek medical attention, and was buried there.

For More Information

Myer, Valerie Grosvenor. Jane Austen, Obstinate Heart: A Biography. New York: Arcade Pub., 1997.

Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Tyler, Natalie. The Friendly Jane Austen: A Well-Mannered Introduction to a Lady of Sense and Sensibility. New York: Viking, 1999.

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Austen, Jane

Jane Austen (ô´stən), 1775–1817, English novelist. The daughter of a clergyman, she spent the first 25 years of her life at "Steventon," her father's Hampshire vicarage. Here her first novels, Pride and Prejudice,Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey, were written, although they were not published until much later. On her father's retirement in 1801, the family moved to Bath for several years and then to Southampton, settling finally at Chawton Cottage, near Alton, Hampshire, which was Jane's home for the rest of her life.

Northanger Abbey, a satire on the Gothic romance, was sold to a publisher for £10 in 1803, but as it was not published, was bought back by members of the family and was finally issued posthumously. The novels published in Austen's lifetime were Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816). Persuasion was issued in 1818 with Northanger Abbey. The author's name did not appear on any of her title pages, and although her own friends knew of her authorship, she received little public recognition in her lifetime.

Jane Austen's novels are comedies of manners that depict the self-contained world of provincial ladies and gentlemen. Most of her works revolve around the delicate business of providing husbands for marriageable daughters. She is particularly noted for her vivid delineations and lively interplay of character, her superb sense of comic irony, and her moral firmness. She ridicules the silly, the affected, and the stupid, ranging in her satire from light portraiture in her early works to more scornful exposures in her later novels. Her writing was subjected to the most careful polishing. She was quite aware of her special excellences and limitations, comparing herself to a miniaturist. Today she is regarded as one of the great masters of the English novel. Her minor works include her Juvenilia, the novel Lady Susan, and the fragments The Watsons and Sanditon.

See her letters (4th ed., ed. by D. La Faye, 2011); biographies by J. A. Hodge (1972), J. Halperin (1986), P. Honan (1988), V. G. Myer (1997), D. Nokes (1997), C. Tomalin (1997), C. Shields (2001), and P. Byrne (2013); studies by A. W. Litz (1965), F. W. Bradbook (1966), A. M. Duckworth (1971), K. Kroeber (1971), F. B. Pinion (1973), S. M. Tave (1973), C. Johnson (1988), C. Harman (2010), R. M. Brownstein (2011), R. and L. Adkins (2013), and J. Barchas (2013).

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Austen, Jane

Austen, Jane (1775–1817). Country parson's daughter who became one of England's best-loved novelists. As she says in Emma (1816), ‘one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other’, and for some, minute attention to nuances of bygone manners makes her simple romances vapidly parochial. For others, her awareness of the realities of money and class and their bearing on human happiness will always be compelling. Though she rejected suggestions to try her hand at historical subjects, confident that ‘3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on’, it is misleading to think of her as a miniaturist. The Napoleonic wars occupy her only in letters from her sailor brothers, and she is less consciously concerned with the condition of England than novelists later in the century, but her penetration and seriousness reflect an admiration for Dr Johnson. He could not have matched the sprightly ironic comedy of Pride and Prejudice (1813) but would have appreciated the more sombre moral dilemmas of Mansfield Park (1814). Three years later, still unmarried, she was dead, leaving her sister Cassandra to supervise the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818).

John Saunders

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"Austen, Jane." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Austen, Jane

Austen, Jane (1775–1817) English novelist. She completed six novels of great art, insight and wit, casting an ironic but sympathetic light on the society of upper-middle-class England. In order of composition they are: Northanger Abbey (1818), a parody on the contemporary Gothic novel; Sense and Sensibility (1811); Pride and Prejudice (1813); Mansfield Park (1814); Emma (1816) and Persuasion (1818). Not particularly successful in their time, they have since established their place among the most popular and well-crafted works in English literature. Her work has recently undergone an enthusiastic revival in the public imagination, following several film adaptations, most notably Sense and Sensibility (1995).

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