BORN: 1775, Steventon, England
DIED: 1817, Winchester, England
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Mansfield Park (1814)
Northanger Abbey (1818)
Though virtually unknown in her own lifetime, Jane Austen's humorous novels of love and manners are now celebrated as among the best of British literature. Her work, which stands between the melodramatic style of the eighteenth century and the realism of the later nineteenth century, uses humor and social commentary to reflect on a woman's place in English life. Austen wrote about a world in which women had no rights and no importance outside of marriage. Still, her attention to detail, unforgettable characters, and lively, humorous tone make her novels much more than drawing-room romances. Indeed, they are among the most beloved works in the English language.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born in Steventon, Hampshire, England, on December 16, 1775, Jane Austen was the seventh of eight children. She was the daughter of George Austen and Cassandra Leigh, who came from a prominent English family. Though her father had suffered financial hardship as a child, he was able to improve his place in life through education and ambition and married into the wealthy Leigh family before settling down as an Anglican rector and priest. Austen would grow up in a close-knit, large family of six brothers and one older sister. Her family's support led not only to her education, but her success as a writer.
Ambitious Education List for an Aspiring Female Writer Though Austen and her beloved sister Cassandra had little in the way of formal education, they grew up in a house where learning was valued. They attended school briefly but had to leave because their father could not afford to continue their studies. Instead, they studied at home under the supervision of their father and brothers. Austen was an enthusiastic reader with access to classics by William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, David Hume, Ben Johnson, Daniel Defoe, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Such a challenging reading list was considered highly ambitious, even inappropriate, for a young lady of Jane Austen's time. Though she also studied sewing, music, and drawing (accomplishments expected of a young lady of her class), she developed a lifelong love of reading and began writing at a young age.
Austen's early work tended to imitate or poke fun at the literary forms of the eighteenth century. For example, she imitated epistolary novels (novels written in letter format); in fact, her first two published novels were initially written in this style. However, Austen abandoned this approach as her skills surpassed its benefits.
An Age of Revolution One aspect of Austen's work that has intrigued readers and critics is the surprising lack of mention of the revolutionary and tumultuous world events that marked the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in her novels. Austen was born just one year before the beginning of the American Revolution, an event of momentous importance in British and world history. She was a teenager when the French Revolution began, and must certainly have followed the anti-aristocratic actions of the French revolutionaries with interest and concern. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, almost every European power, including Britain, was locked in a desperate struggle with France's self-appointed—and seemingly unstoppable—Emperor Napoleon. Only after Napoleon overextended himself by invading Russia in 1812 did his fortunes sour and the tide turn in favor of Britain and its allies. Austen lived through a period of social and political upheaval unlike any other in history, but Austen chose to place her stories in a local context into which the events of the world seemed not to intrude. It seems that personal, social, and artistic considerations likely influenced Austen to avoid even fictional commentary on world events.
Thwarted in Love, Focused on Writing Austen's life was restricted by distinct expectations of a woman's proper role in society. Upper-class women in England were entirely legally dependent on their male relatives for financial support, and they were expected to marry well and be dutiful wives and mothers. Despite these social constraints, Austen did have some unconventional
female role models during her childhood and youth. Her Aunt Perrot, a maternal relative, defended herself successfully in court after a shoplifting allegation that was probably true. Her intelligence and independence left a lifelong impression on Jane, as did the lively wit of her cousin, Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide.
Austen fell in love with Tom Lefroy, a neighbor's nephew, when she was twenty-one years old. However, the romance was not to be—his family did not like the match, and he was sent away from the neighborhood. Her writing, which had initially been for the amusement of family and friends, became more focused during this period and she completed early drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in the late 1790s. She also completed a draft of Northanger Abbey in those early years, but that work would not be published until after her death.
In these early novels, Austen played with contrasts—city versus country, money versus poverty, common sense versus sentimentality. She also focused on character, creating lively, humorous heroines and intelligent heroes. Her heroines tend to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles in their determination to marry for love instead of money or social status, though the material pleasures of a comfortable living are never ignored.
In 1800, Austen's father unexpectedly announced his retirement and his intention to move the family to Bath. This upset Austen greatly (she is said to have fainted upon hearing the news), and she disliked the urban environment of the spa town. While visiting friends, she received her first and only proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, an unattractive man who was the heir to significant property. Austen initially accepted him, aware that his money would allow her to live comfortably and provide for her parents in their old age, but she soon realized her mistake and withdrew her acceptance. Her refusal to marry a man for convenience rather than love would be reflected over and over again in her heroines.
From Financial Ruin to Professional Success Austen's father died in 1805, and that event devastated the family emotionally and financially. The Austen women were forced to rely on the other men in the family for financial assistance, which led to their leaving Bath to live with an older brother in Southampton from 1806 to 1809. After that, they settled in a small cottage at Chawton in Austen's beloved Hampshire. There, Austen's period of relatively low production ended. She worked hard editing Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and began Mansfield Park.
Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811; however, early editions did not include Austen's name, only that the book had been written by “A Lady.” The novel was well received and the print run sold out by 1813. Not only did her success please her, but the money Austen earned from Sense and Sensibility afforded her a certain independence. Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, was an immediate success, garnering more favorable reviews. Mansfield Park failed to impress the critics, but had popular success, outselling any of Austen's other novels during her lifetime.
Excited by her success (which was recognized by public figures such as the Prince Regent who was said to have kept a set of her books at each of his residences), Austen kept working. In 1815 she published Emma, a book about a matchmaking heroine who is unlucky in love, and began work on Persuasion, a mature novel about a woman who gets a second chance.
Widespread Recognition After Death Austen remained productive, but her health began to suffer. Her brother Henry, who had persuaded her publishers to take on her first novels, had arranged for Northanger Abbey's publication, but his bank failed and he was plunged into financial ruin. The entire family suffered and the brothers were no longer able to afford to care for their female relatives. Though Austen had played down her physical symptoms, it soon became apparent that she was quite ill. By 1817, she was confined to her bed.
Historians suspect that Austen suffered from Addison's disease, a condition that affects the adrenal glands. Though she was hard at work on her unfinished last novel, Sanditon, her physical symptoms soon forced her to stop writing. Nursed by her beloved sister Cassandra, she died on July 18, 1817.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Austen's famous contemporaries include:
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824): A leading figure of English Romantic poetry.
Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802–1838): An English poet and novelist whose romantic verse influenced later poets.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827): Preeminent German composer whose music helped bridge the Classical and Romantic eras.
Ironically, Austen's death meant the beginning of her recognition as an author. Her obituaries identified her as the author of her popular novels, and Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were both published after her death. While critics of the nineteenth century were unsure how to assess Austen's literary success, her
reputation as an author and one of England's most important literary voices grew steadily throughout the twentieth century.
Works in Literary Context
Jane Austen was influenced by the books she read while under her father and brothers' educational care. Though she read serious works by authors like Shakespeare, Joseph Addison, William Cowper, and Samuel Richardson, she was also heavily influenced by such authors as Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth. The influence of Austen's own work on future generations of writers is almost impossible to estimate; her work affected writers from Henry James to contemporary writers like Helen Fielding.
Sentiment and Immoral Literature While Austen may have enjoyed the sentimental or Gothic novel, which combined horror and romance, she also was its greatest critic. Many of her works, most notably North-anger Abbey, point to novels as a dangerous moral downfall for young girls whose parents fail to adequately protect them from their dangerous content. Though part of this critique was probably tongue-in-cheek, Austen referred to immoral plays and novels as a way of pointing out the loss of virtue she saw in her own society.
Relationships Between Women Austen's novels all center around a female heroine and feature vivid, descriptive passages that depict close relationships between females. Given Austen's own close relationship with her sister and the inspiration she gained from other women in what was often a closed society, it is not surprising that her works should celebrate and investigate relationships between women. Though Austen does show close friendships and supportive sister pairings (such as Jane and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice and Marianne and Elinor in Sense and Sensibility), she also shows the potentially destructive character of female relationships. For example, in Mansfield Park, the mild-mannered Fanny is preyed upon by the lively Mary Crawford, an immoral woman who uses her friendship to get closer to her cousin. The title character of Emma is not a good friend to Harriet, whose life she tries to control through faulty matchmaking attempts.
Not content to only show friendships, Austen also examined family relationships between women. She often uses a silly or selfish older female character as a foil for her heroine. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth's romantic future is constantly jeopardized by her mother's meddling ways, and in Mansfield Park, Fanny is made unhappy by the whimsical demands of her aunts. Though older women are often depicted as conniving or standing in the way of love, women in Austen novels generally have to band together to survive in a man's world.
Marriage and Social Rank In Austen's fiction, marriage is the ultimate goal and the primary source of conflict. Ironically, Austen was a spinster throughout her life, but she saw firsthand the perils of relying on a male relative for financial support. Since women at the time were not allowed to own property and there were no lucrative professions for women, women had to rely on family members and marry as soon as possible in order to live comfortably. This created the “marriage of convenience,” in which a woman would marry for money or social standing. However, Austen, who herself turned down a man who was not her intellectual equal, stands firmly on the side of love in marriage. While secondary characters often enter into matches of convenience, Austen's heroines wait for love.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Jane Austen's novels often pit spirited heroines against men in a “battle of the sexes.” This theme has been explored in other works of fiction, including:
Battle of the Sexes Austen specializes in strong, humorous female characters. Though her female characters are often flawed, they are placed in contrast to male characters who are immoral, silly, conniving, or otherwise threaten their happiness. For example, Mansfield Park's Fanny Price must fend off the advances of Henry Crawford, a playboy she cannot love. Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice must endure the attentions of Mr. Collins, a ridiculous cleric who tries to win her hand, and has her happiness threatened by Wickham, a dashing but immoral suitor who eventually elopes with her sister. While men often threaten women's social position and future happiness, they also provide entertainment and moral support. The lively exchanges between Elizabeth Bennet and William Darcy are among literature's most entertaining and humorous dialogues, and readers will not soon forget such sympathetic male characters as Captain Wentworth of Persuasion and Mr. Knightley in Emma.
Works in Critical Context
Contemporary responses to Austen's work were few. Because she published anonymously, her true identity was unknown to most, and though her books sold well, they received few positive reviews. Her real critical heyday came after her death when her books took on a critical stature on par with Shakespeare and other major writers in the English language.
Early Admirers Among Austen's early admirers were writers Richard Whately and Sir Walter Scott. Both praised Austen's realistic descriptions and her lively representations of life. Though the Victorians preferred more sweeping romance and natural depictions of strong emotion, the praise of Scott and Whately created a foundation for future critical response.
The growing literary elite of the nineteenth century considered Austen's work to be sophisticated and tasteful, which prevented it from spreading to the masses. However, the publication of a memoir by Austen's niece and a series of low-cost printings contributed to Austen's growing popularity near the end of the nineteenth century. It became popular to idolize Austen. This “Austenolatry” created a backlash in the literary community, and elite “Janeites” like Henry James told themselves they were the only people who really understood Austen's complex body of work.
Modern Appraisals Whomever Austen's work “belonged” to, it could no longer be ignored by critics. From the end of the nineteenth century on, her work was increasingly scrutinized. Mark Twain and Richard Simpson were among these early critics, but the literary world would have to wait until the twentieth century for the meatiest study of Austen's body of work.
In 1911, A.C. Bradley, a Shakespearean scholar, presented “Jane Austen: A Lecture.” In it, Bradley praised Austen's narrative skill and compared her to Samuel Johnson. An academic edition of Austen's works followed in the 1920s, but Mary Lascelles's Jane Austen and Her Art (1939) marked the real start of serious Jane Austen scholarship.
A new wave of academic interest in the author came in the 1960s and 1970s, when feminist critics turned their attention to Austen's life and heroines. Critics like Margaret Kirkham reexamined Austen as a subversive force dedicated to the rights of women and placed her in a context of eighteenth-century feminist ideals. More recently critics like Moira Ferguson have examined Austen's work through a postcolonial lens, looking at her use of female characters as a critique of imperial and colonial English society.
Responses to Literature
- Austen's works are considered to be “novels of manners,” and were often dismissed for failing to show passionate emotions. Do you agree with this assessment of Austen's novels? Give examples from her work that reveal ways she does or does not evoke strong emotion in her characters and/or their circumstances.
- Marriage and love are central to Austen's novels. Using your library and the Internet, write a paper that focuses on the status of women and how traditional marriage customs of the early nineteenth century affect their lives.
- Austen loved to satirize novels of her time. Choose a popular contemporary literary style and write an essay that satirizes that style.
Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen. 1926. Ed. R.W. Chapman. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Copeland, Edward, and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Fergus, Jan. Jane Austen: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan, 1991.
Galperin, William. The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction. Brighton, UK: Harvester, 1983.
Lascelles, Mary. Jane Austen and Her Art. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Lynch, Deidre, ed. Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Southam, B.C., ed. Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, 1812-1870. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.
Wiltshire, John. Re-creating Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
The Republic of Pemberley. Accessed February 4, 2008, from http://www.pemberley.com
scope of the novels
gender, class, and imperialism in the novels
AUSTEN, JANE (1775–1817), English novelist.
Jane Austen is one of the most important English-language novelists and probably the earliest woman writer whose work is consistently considered part of the canon of great literature. She completed six novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1817), and Persuasion (1817). Her work was widely read during her lifetime and has been popularly and critically acclaimed since her death.
Her first four novels were published anonymously during her lifetime (though her identity was known to many), her last two posthumously. Stylistically and thematically, her work anticipates that of later nineteenth-century authors, including realist novelists such as Charles Dickens (1812–1870) and popular writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837–1915).
For many decades family members and biographers portrayed Austen as a reclusive spinster and an apolitical portraitist of village life, and praised her for her style and modest purview. However, since the 1970s critics have been more willing to study Austen in broadly historical rather than narrowly biographical context and to recognize the critiques of gender, class, and imperialism that are intrinsic to her works.
Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775, in the village of Steventon, in rural Hampshire, England, where her father was the rector, or head priest. As was typical of educated families at that time, five of her brothers were better schooled than Jane and her sister Cassandra (one brother, George, was disabled and an exception). The Austens were socially well connected—they traveled in what is called "polite" society, which consisted of locally elite families—but were of very modest means. Her father's death in 1805 left Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister in difficult financial circumstances (her brothers were by that time independent). As a single, middle-class woman, Austen had few options for earning her living; she made some money from her novels, but was never self-supporting. She spent most of her adult life without her own home or income, dependent on her brothers, and obliged to accept the living arrangements others imposed on her. As an adult she lived in various places, including the resort town of Bath, where some of her novels take place. She died on 18 July 1817 in Winchester at the age of forty-two, probably of Addison's disease.
In an 1814 letter, Austen wrote that "3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on." All of her novels center on a few comfortable families in a provincial setting, and in all of them the protagonist is a young, single woman who marries at the end of the novel. In Sense and Sensibility, sensible Elinor Dashwood suffers heart-sickness but ends happily married to Edward Ferrars, while her overly romantic sister Marianne, subdued by illness, ends engaged to Colonel Brandon. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet overcomes her prejudice, and the extremely wealthy Mr. Darcy his pride, and the two find love and marriage with one another. Such settings and plots seem in some ways limited, and Austen herself called her work a "little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour."
For many years critics tended to take Austen's self-effacing descriptions of her work at face value. Austen was praised as a brilliant stylist, but one whose work was divorced from the larger concerns of the day. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries scholars have revised their opinions of her life and work. While Austen was single, she was hardly reclusive; on the contrary, she was involved in the lives of her nieces and nephews; was close to her sister, Cassandra; and was part of a supportive network of female friends. Her novels are shaped by her love of contemporary theater and her appreciation of regency society as fundamentally theatrical. They also reflect her readings of and critiques of contemporary novels and ideas about them; many characters in her novels are novel-readers, and Northanger Abbey is a satire of the gothic novels with which it competed in the marketplace.
Austen is also recognized as a critic of gender and class hierarchies. She was a harsh observer of the legal, economic, and cultural limitations placed on the women of the upper-middle classes who were her main characters. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters must marry because they cannot inherit their father's "entailed" estate—that privilege is reserved for a distant male relation. Women in polite circles could not earn a living without giving up their respectability; marriage was the only economic alternative—the only career—open to them. All of Austen's heroines marry happily and well, but not all marriages in the novels are successful; many minor characters have unhappy or loveless marriages. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr. Collins not because she loves him but because she knows that she needs a husband. Furthermore, many unmarried female characters suffer economic deprivation. In Emma, the widowed Mrs. Bates and her unmarried adult daughter Miss Bates are of Emma's social circle, but are forced by their small income to live in rented rooms. This brings them perilously close to lower-middle-class status, and subjects them to Emma's social derision.
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of … joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? … The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.
Northanger Abbey, chapters five, fourteen.
"Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?" "I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther." "And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence!"
Mansfield Park, chapter twenty-one.
Finally, much attention has been paid during the 1990s to the relationship between Austen and imperialism. The theorist of empire Edward Said maintains that Mansfield Park, in which Sir Thomas Bertram's wealth is derived from a plantation in Antigua maintained by slave labor, was a key part of an imperial culture that helped to make later expansion and oppression possible. The 1999 film version of Mansfield Park reinforces other critical readings of the novel that see slavery as the core of the moral satire of Mansfield Park, and the Bertram estate represented in it as morally blighted. Recent outpourings of Austen criticism and film interpretations of Austen's novels demonstrate the author's ongoing significance and relevance to contemporary culture.
Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters. Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1995.
Fraiman, Susan. "Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism." In Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, edited by Deidre Lynch, 206–223. Princeton, N.J., 2000.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York, 1993.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York, 1997.
Susie L. Steinbach
Early Years. Jane Austen was Hampshire, England, where her father, George Austen, was a rector in the local parish church. As an Anglican clergyman, he earned a modest income. The rectory was home not only to George Austen, his wife, Cassandra, andtheir eight children, but also to pupils George Austen tutored to earn extra money. Jane Austen’ education was informal, relatively brief, and no more rigorous than the schooling given to most girls of her time and social class. In 1782 she accompanied her older sister, Cassandra, and a cousin to study in the home of an aunt named Mrs. Ann Cawley, first in Oxford and then in Southampton. They remained with Mrs. Cawley until autumn 1783. In 1784 the sisters were sent to a girls’ boarding school in Reading, which was similar to Mrs. Goddard’ s casual school in Austen’ novel Emma (1815), and remained there until December 1786. The rest of Austen’ education occurred at home, where she learned to play the piano and to draw. Neither Jane nor Cassandra Austen ever married.
Reading. Above all, Jane Austen was an active reader of nonfiction as well as a less-respectable and relatively new form, the novel. Apparently, her entire family delved into the books in her father’s substantial library, for she later wrote that everyone in her family were “great novel readers, and not ashamed of being so.” She read the epistolary novels of seduction and betrayal by Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), the often bawdy books of Henry Fielding (1707–1754), and the fiction of the most popular female writer of her time, Fanny Burney (1752–1840). Indeed, Austen had great respect for women writers, and in her “Defense of the Novel,” which was included in North anger Abbey (1818), all three of the novels she explicitly praised were by women: Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796) by Burney and Belinda (1801) by Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849).
The Classics. While her family was living in Bath in 1803, Jane Austen sold her first novel, Northanger Abbey, for only £10 to a publisher who later decided not to publish it. Several decades would pass before writers such as Honore de Balzac (1799–1850), Charles Dickens (1812–1870), and Emile Zola (1840–1902) were able toearn comfortable incomes just from writing. Though Austen never achieved financial independence, she continued to write novels and sell them. In 1805 her father died, leaving his wife and unmarried daughters with only a meager income and largely dependent on the Austen brothers. The three women lived for a time with brother Frank Austen in Southampton, and in 1809 they moved to Chawton in Hampshire (not far from Steventon), where they were provided a small house on the estate of brother Edward, who had been adopted by a wealthy cousin. Jane Austen wrote little in Bath and not at all inSouthampton, but once back in Hampshire she wrote ceaselessly. She revised a 1795–1796 manuscript as Sense and Sensibility (1811) and a 1797 work as Pride and Prejudice and began Mansfield Park (1814). In 1810 a publisher accepted Sense and Sensibility but agreed toprint it only if Austen agreed to pay printing costs if the book did not break even. It eventually earned her the modest sum of £140. The novel appeared anonymously, with “By a Lady” on the title page, and during her lifetime her subsequent novels were attributed to “the author of” one or two of her previous works. She then sold Pride and Prejudice—which she called her “own darling child”—in November 1812, and it was published two months later. At first only her family knew of her authorship, but the secret could not be kept for long. On hearing a group of Scottish ladies praise Pride and Prejudice, Jane’ brother Henry revealed that his sister was the author. She had sold Pride and Prejudice for the flat fee of £110 and so earned no royalties from it, even when a second edition was published in autumn 1813, along with a second edition of Sense and Sensibility. By this time Austen’s books were attracting attention, and when Mansfield Park was published in 1814, the first edition sold out in six months. She then started to write Emma, which some literary critics have praised more highly than Pride and Prejudice, and saw it published in 1815, the same year she started Persuasion (1818).
Death. Austen’s writing career came to an end when she became seriously ill with what was probably Addison’s disease, a tubercular disease of the kidneys. Sister Cassandra was at her side when she died in 1817.She was buried in Winchester Cathedral.Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously the following year.
Between Classicism and Realism. Writing in domestic tranquility in rural Hampshire, Jane Austen honed her skills as a keen observer of middle-class provincial society. She was the first novelist to focus on the trivial comedy of provincial family life, through which she examined the perplexities of emotion and conduct. She followed Richardson in the minute presentation of daily life but avoided his weeping emotionalism. Like Fielding, she treated subjects with a comic-ironic detached attitude; and, like Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) as well as Fielding, she retained a psychological closeness to the inner world of her characters. Characterization was becoming more important than plot in some Romantic novels, and Jane Austen was the first great novelist to combine harmoniously in her narrative the internal and external formation of character. In this sense her fiction is both a climax of the eighteenth-century novels of Richardson, Fielding, and Defoe and a harbinger of the Realists of the nineteenth century, Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola. Novelist Walter Scott (1771–1832) said of Austen well after her death, “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements, feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The big bow-wow I can do myself like any one going; but the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.” Later in the century, Henry James (1843–1916) made a comment about women writers in general that applies to Austen in particular, as James intended:“women are delicate and patient observers; they hold their noses close, as it were, to the texture of life. They feel and perceive the real with a kind of personal tact, and their observations are recorded in a thousand delightful volumes.”.
Park Honm, Jane Austen: Her Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press,1988).
Carol Shields, Jane Austen (New York: Viking, 2001).
Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957).
Born: December 16, 1775
Died: July 18, 1817
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 Senseand 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 dialectical—the 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 1797–1798 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.
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 dignity—although 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.
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, 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.
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 titledElinor 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.
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.
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, 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.
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). □