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That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with.
- Sir Walter Scott
Jane Austen's novels are a microcosm of daily social life in England in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and her genius as a writer of psychologically complex characters, finely-balanced dialogue and devastatingly ironic situations is celebrated as enthusiastically now as ever.
Jane Austen was born on 16 December, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, the seventh child of the parish rector, George Austen. She was very close to her family, especially her elder (and only) sister, Cassandra.
Jane began writing in her teens, and much of her juvenalia survives. In 1795, aged 19, she wrote Elinor and Marianne, later revised to become Sense & Sensibility. First Impressions, later called Pride & Prejudice, and Susan, which became Northanger Abbey, followed in quick succession.
Around 1800, when Jane was 25 and still unmarried, her parents decided to move to Bath. The actual move didn't take place until 1801 but Jane seems to have stopped writing. She didn't start again in earnest until 1810, apart from half a novel, The Watsons, which was written yet abandoned in 1804. In other words, a ten-year virtual silence from this previously prolific young author.
This silence coincides with a prolonged absence from her native Hampshire and a period of comparative upset and uncertainty: the move to unfashionable but still bustling Bath in 1801, a marriage proposal in 1802 - accepted and then rejected within a twenty-four hour period, the death of her father in 1805, moving to Southampton in 1806 before finally being given a modest but comfortable home back in her beloved Hampshire in 1809.
The second phase of Jane Austen's activities as a writer began in 1810 when she revised Elinor and Marianne for publication as Sense & Sensibility. Between 1811 and 1816 she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, and had begun her last novel, Sanditon, which she never finished.1 In these years she finally found fame as an author, with the publication of Sense & Sensibility in 1811, followed by Pride & Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814 and Emma in 1815. Her name never appeared on any of her books while she was alive; they were instead inscribed as being 'By a Lady'. Perhaps this is because it was deemed a little racy for an unmarried lady of Jane Austen's class to indulge in the writing of novels. Inevitably, though, word spread about who she was.
Jane Austen died in 1817, at the age of 42, after a long illness. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously in 1818. In this publication her brother Henry wrote a short biographical note in which he names the author as Jane Austen and describes her life, and the months leading up to her death.
A Closer Look
George Austen was reasonably well-off for a country rector, running a small boarding school in addition to his parish duties. But with five older brothers, Jane's financial portion was never going to be significant. She and her elder sister Cassandra had to marry to have any hope of independence from the family home.
This home must have been a boisterous one during Jane's childhood and early adulthood. The family was part of a friendly community in its corner of Hampshire. In 1796, when Jane had just turned 20, she met an intelligent young man named Tom Lefroy with whom she enjoyed some flirtations at local balls and of whom she wrote enthusiastically to Cassandra. But his family, perhaps spotting a danger even before he himself, removed him from the situation by sending him away. It is a theme that recurs in her novels, but unlike those fictions, Jane never saw him again, and so never got the second chance that she gives her heroines.
In 1797, Cassandra's fiancé Tom Fowle died in the West Indies. They were to have married at Easter. Cassandra must have been devastated, but her sister's fortunes could not mar a very productive period in Jane Austen's writing life, hard at work as she was on First Impressions (Pride & Prejudice).
In 1798 Jane spent time in Bath with her relations, the Leigh-Perrots, and probably began work on Susan, later Northanger Abbey, soon afterwards, which is largely set in Bath. This novel, still entitled Susan, was bought by a London publisher, Cadell, for £10 but never published by him.
By the time the Austens moved to Bath, the boys had all left home and their two sisters, in their late twenties, were looking decidedly spinsterly. Unexpectedly, in 1802, Jane received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, an old friend of the family and six years Jane's junior. She accepted, but changed her mind overnight, retracting her acceptance the next morning and escaping back to Bath in distress. There is nothing to suggest that Harris Bigg-Wither was at all suitable as a life partner for Jane, but she hadn't handled herself very well.
It turned out to be Jane's last chance at marriage. The next few years of her life were characterised by further upset and her muse deserted her. But almost immediately upon settling back in Hampshire, her writing spirit returned. Her novel Susan was sent back, six years late, by its would-be publisher in 1809, but Jane was already at work revising Sense & Sensibility, which was to eventually be her first published novel.
Many of Jane Austen's letters survive, but many were also destroyed – probably by Cassandra. Perhaps they showed Jane in a bad light. By the time of her early death in 1817 she was enjoying a reasonable amount of fame and the family seemed interested in preserving a rather saintly image of the author. Her brother Henry penned a biographical preface to the posthumously published Northanger Abbey and Persuasion which reads like a particularly cloying obituary: 'Faultless herself, as nearly as human nature can be, she always sought, in the faults of others, something to excuse, to forgive and forget.'
Well, we know from her novels how devastating her pen could be. Even the letters that were not destroyed show Jane's judgement sometimes deserting her and her wit being horribly misapplied, as in this tasteless comment to Cassandra:
Mrs Hall of Sherbourne was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright - I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.
However, the evidence is that Jane Austen remained more or less stoic in the face of the privations and obligations a maiden aunt is forced to endure, and she was certainly a favourite with many of her nieces and nephews. Enthusiastic letters survive from her nieces Fanny and Anna, and her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote her first biography in 1870.
I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow... All that interests in any character [is this]: has he (or she) the money to marry with? ...Suicide is more respectable.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Yet both Jane's contemporary audience and our own were gripped by this 'pinched and narrow' life, recognising – as Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his pomposity, did not – that such concerns are really about desperate survival in a mercenary society ruled by protocol. In the world of the Austen novel, life-changing decisions and events turn on a glance or a word, pitched battles are fought over the tea table and love scenes played out in the ball room or the shrubbery.
You will allow, that in both [dancing and marriage], man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal.
- Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey
In a time when gentlewomen were not properly educated, not allowed to work and generally not able to own property, not to make every effort to get married could be seen as irresponsible and a burden on the rest of the family. But Austen's heroines are not desperate to rush into marriage, and end up getting married because they fall in love, not the other way around. Sometimes rather sentimental, often stubborn, they are above all intelligent and quick-witted, willing and capable of learning from their mistakes.
It is tempting to try to reconstruct the character of Jane Austen herself from the models of her heroines, but how would one choose from the many attributes on display? Did she have Elizabeth Bennett's quick wit or Emma Woodhouse's sharp tongue? Was she wild and imaginative like Catherine Morland, or sententiously wise beyond her years like Fanny Price? Clearly it is an impossible enterprise.
She was more disturbed by Mr. Knightley's not dancing than by any thing else. There he was among the standers-by, where he ought not to be; he ought to be dancing, - not classing himself with the husbands, and fathers, and whist-players.
- Emma Woodhouse in Emma
There is more similarity between Austen's heroes, who tend to be reserved, bookish chaps. Edward Ferrars, Edmund Bertram and Captain Wentworth take their careers seriously, and Darcy and Mr Knightly are often observed managing their estates and business affairs. Henry Tilney is rather less reserved but no less mature and sensible. Moreover there is a steadiness and constancy in the way they conduct themselves.
Above all, these men bring with them intimations of a life away from the oppressive society of the drawing-room and the often silly or mean-spirited influence of the older women who are prisoners in their own lives, reduced to spending all their time gossiping and match-making. In the absence of a formal education for women, what is prized above all in the world of Jane Austen's novels is judgement. Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price have an innate sense of judgement. Elizabeth Bennett has too – although it temporarily fails her, she realises her mistake in time. Catherine Morland and Emma Woodhouse are mentored into better judgement by their future lovers, Henry Tilney and Mr Knightly.
Jane Austen's particular skill is to draw her characters so precisely that we feel we know them, or know someone very like them. Her anti-heroes, the Wickhams and Willoughbys of the stories, are charming and entertaining, not villains but weak and immature men who get themselves into sticky situations through selfishness and lack of judgement. A woman such as Mrs Bennett is excruciating, but she is also a victim of circumstances. Never taught anything other than how to charm a man into marrying her, saddled with five daughters and a husband who has all but absented himself from his responsibilities with regards to his family, she is in a difficult position and the reader cannot help but admire her energy, if nothing else!
It is only a novel... only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.
- Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen is rightly celebrated for the insightful portrayal of people and situations, but she is also an important factor in the development of the novel, the literary form she prized above all.
The modern novel owes more to Austen in terms of structure than, say, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, or Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. When Austen was writing, the novel was in its infancy and many 18th-Century novels were sprawling, often epistolary affairs, long-winded and melodramatic. The novel was not particularly highly regarded as a literary form, it was seen mostly as a form of entertainment. The Austen family was unabashedly fond of novels, and the evidence is that the young Jane's avid reading was not particularly censored.
But whatever the failings of the form – and Austen's satire on the gothic novel, Northanger Abbey shows that she was very much alive to its excesses – she must have had a clear vision of what the ideal novel could be.
Austen wastes no time in plunging the reader into the story. In her first paragraphs she delivers all the information necessary to get the reader to the point where the story really begins. With a minimum of strokes she paints a picture, often laced with irony, of a complete family history, the life of the heroine up until this point, and the problem she now faces. Thus the stage is set for a compelling and intimate tale.
In the Austen novel, description is out, dialogue is in. Jane Austen is the master of the multi-layered scene, where what is being spoken is not necessarily what is being thought, and where in a situation of seeming harmony, each character is vigorously pursuing his or her own agenda.
Jane Austen's plots are masterly and original. For example, her device of communicating a major event to the heroine not at first hand but in the form of hearsay, rumour or a letter; then allowing a slow realisation to take place which culminates in a shock of feeling.
Austen has been accused of being passive on such contemporary socio-political issues as the Napoleonic Wars or Caribbean slavery, but this is a somewhat patronising attitude. She is writing about ordinary people not revolutionaries, and if the vast majority of the English middle class did not concern itself with slavery in Antigua, why should her characters depart from this norm? There was no shortage of exotic stories in her own family, yet she did not make use of them. Her cousin and friend Eliza married a French count who was guillotined in 1794, yet such romantic material makes not even a cameo appearance. Is this passivity? Or is it restraint, an ability to focus on the story that she wants to tell?
As for military matters, perhaps Jane Austen agrees with Mary Wollstonecroft's assessment of soldiers, which has very little to do with their ability to fight and more to do with their ability to waste time:
It may be further observed, that officers are also particularly attentive to their persons, fond of dancing, crowded rooms, adventures, and ridicule. Like the fair sex, the business of their lives is gallantry - They were taught to please, and they only live to please. Yet they do not lose their rank in the distinction of sexes, for they are still reckoned superior to women, though in what their superiority consists, beyond what I have just mentioned, it is difficult to discover.
- from Vindication of The Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecroft, 1792
Certainly the soldiers billeted in Meryton in Pride & Prejudice fit this description rather well!
In the comedy of folly I know no novelist who has beaten her. The letters of Mr. Collins, a clergyman in Pride and Prejudice, would move laughter in a low-church archbishop.
- Anthony Trollope
From the modest fame of her later years, to the praise and respect of her fellow authors, to her current status as one of English literature's best-loved novelists, Jane Austen's reputation has grown probably more than she ever anticipated or hoped. For an isolated young author she displayed an astonishing confidence in her own abilities, revising and refining her work with no help other than the comments of her close family members.
Most of her novels have made very successful films or television series, and there is very little 're-interpretation' of her work – it stands alone on its dramatic merits for today's audiences too. Perhaps the most controversial of the films so far is the 1999 Mansfield Park, written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema. The reason the film caused some controversy was Rozema's willingness to bring to the fore issues that usually stay in the background in Austen: poverty, slavery, extra-marital affairs and flirtatious impropriety.
The material is slightly unusual for Austen – although probably very tame compared to many of the novels she would have read as a young woman, full of rapes, ravages and melodrama. It was the first novel she wrote after a gap of many years, and after the upheaval of moving house several times and the death of her father. Many more of the stronger characters in the novel are male, and the novel includes the only instance of Jane Austen writing a dialogue between male characters only, with no women present or overhearing - it is very short and has Edmund defending Fanny's actions over the theatricals to her uncle.
Her brother Henry speaks of her novels being 'placed on the same shelf as the works of a D'Arblay and and Edgeworth', once-popular names now forgotten and entirely over-shadowed by Jane Austen herself. Despite being somewhat left on the shelf in her lifetime, it is now her rightful place.