Jane Austen

November 6, 2012 2:22 pm
Jane Austen (1775-1817), English novelist, noted for her witty studies of early-19th-century English society. With meticulous detail, Austen portrayed the quiet, day-to-day life of members of the upper middle class. Her works combine romantic comedy with social satire and psychological insight.
Two common themes in Austen’s books are the loss of illusions—usually leading characters to a more mature outlook—and the clash between traditional moral ideals and the everyday demands of life. In most of her novels, her characters correct their faults through lessons learned as a result of tribulation. Because of her sensitivity to universal patterns of human behavior, many people regard Austen as one of the greatest novelists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England. She was the seventh child of eight, and her family was close, affectionate, and lively. She lived most of her life among the same kind of people about whom she wrote. Her lifelong companion and confidant was her older and only sister, Cassandra. Neither woman ever married, but dozens of relatives and friends widened Austen’s social experiences beyond her immediate family. The Austens frequently staged amateur theatricals, and they were devoted readers of novels at a time when reading novels was regarded as a questionable activity. They also provided a delighted audience for Jane’s youthful comic pieces, and later for her novels. Jane had almost no formal education, but she read extensively and critically. At age 13 she was already writing amusing and instructive parodies and variations on 18th-century literature—from sentimental novels to serious histories.
By the time she was 23 years old, Austen had written three novels: Elinor and Marianne, First Impressions, and Susan, which were early versions of, respectively, Sense and Sensibility(1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Northanger Abbey (1818). A fragment, Lady Susan, which scholars date between 1793 and 1795, most likely also belongs to this period, but it was not published until 1871.
In 1801 the family moved to the town of Bath. After Jane’s father died in 1805, Jane, Cassandra, and their mother moved several times, eventually settling in 1809 in the village of Chawton, very near Steventon. Austen lived and wrote there for the last eight years of her life.
All of Austen’s novels were originally published anonymously. Several of them went through two editions in her lifetime. Pride and Prejudice was particularly praised, and Emma (1816) received a favorable review from English writer Sir Walter Scott, who was a prominent literary figure of the time.
After her literary experiments as a teenager, Austen had two periods of busy and fruitful writing. The first lasted from 1795 to 1798. During this time she wrote the first versions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey.
Austen’s family preserved the writing she did as a teenager, which was published more than a century after her death as Love & Freindship and Other Early Works. It includes the story “Love and Freindship” [sic], which Austen completed when she was about 15 years old. It is a comic parody of 18th-century melodramatic fiction.
The main theme of Austen’s first full novel, Sense and Sensibility, is that sensibility—responsiveness, openness, enthusiasm—is highly desirable, but that it must be tempered by good sense and prudence. In other words, a person needs both sense and sensibility for fulfillment and survival. Nineteen-year-old Elinor Dashwood, the elder of the two sisters at the center of the story, combines both qualities; her 16-year-old sister, Marianne, is less balanced.
The novel focuses on the romantic affairs of the two sisters. When Marianne sprains her ankle on a hillside in a rainstorm and handsome John Willoughby rescues her, she follows her heart and passionately responds to what she believes is his courtship. He, however, breaks off the relationship when he learns that Marianne is not rich. In the meantime, Elinor becomes involved with a young man of integrity, Edward Ferrars, who, unknown to her, in a foolish moment of his youth had become secretly engaged to a woman whom he did not love. Both heroines suffer, but Elinor bears her suffering stoically while Marianne dramatizes hers, playing the role of the jilted maiden. Elinor is ultimately rewarded with a happy marriage to Edward while Marianne eventually accepts the proposal of the dull though loyal Colonel Brandon.
In Sense and Sensibility Austen challenges her readers and her characters to look closely at all facets of an individual’s personality. In so doing, Austen has been criticized for creating characters who are morally good, but too flawed to be appealing. For instance, Elinor may strike an ideal balance between sense and sensibility, but she also can strike the reader as cold and judgmental. Austen recognized that real people are flawed in significant ways, and so she did not permit the characters in her romances to drift too far from life.
Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s first undoubted masterpiece. The book focuses on the Bennet family and the search of the Bennet daughters for suitable husbands. Austen illuminates the topic of husband hunting and marriage in an acquisitive society and shows most of its aspects and consequences—comic, trivial, sensual, opportunistic, desperate, and hopeless. The story follows Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, both of whom are romantic and intelligent, as they are forced to give up their personal pride and prejudices before they can enter into a happy relationship together.
As do Austen’s earlier writings, Pride and Prejudice displays the themes of appearance versus reality, and impulse versus deliberation. Elizabeth, trusting her own impulses, makes a mistake about Darcy and his apparent arrogance that deliberation and further experience eventually cause her to correct. Of Elizabeth, Austen wrote: “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her…I do not know.”
In contrast to Elizabeth, her father, Mr. Bennet, is the book’s example of what it means to live with one’s mistakes. When he was courting Mrs. Bennet, her beauty blinded him to her silliness. Another character, Charlotte Lucas, scared of spinsterhood, deliberately chooses to ignore personal desire and the basic requirements of a good marriage according to every Austen novel—friendship and respect—and she marries for security and social status only.
Northanger Abbey—the novel originally titled Susan—parodies the exaggerated, mystery-filled and horror-filled Gothic novel form. The story is about Catherine Morland, a gullible and naive girl who enjoys reading Gothic novels. With the help of Henry Tilney, Catherine learns that real-life villains, specifically Henry’s social-climbing father, are characterized by mundane nastiness rather than melodramatic Gothic violence, and that extremely charming people, specifically Catherine’s friend Isabella Thorpe, can withdraw their affections as quickly as they offer them. Northanger Abbey is a novel of sustained and sparkling inventiveness, displaying the accurate and ironic social and psychological observation that also shows up in Austen’s mature fiction.
Austen’s second important period of writing lasted from 1811 to 1816, when her works first received public recognition and she deepened her mastery of her subjects and form. In this later period she revised and prepared Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication, and wrote her last three completed novels, Mansfield Park(1814), Emma, and Persuasion (1818). (Austen had already revised Susanin 1803, but it was not renamed Northanger Abbey and published until 15 years later.)
Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s most ambitious novel—in length, in variety of characterization, and in the scope of its theme. It centers on the effects of upbringing on personal morality in three families—the middle-class Bertrams, the fashionable Crawfords, and the impoverished Prices. Austen has been praised for her presentation of the complex relations between the members of the families, but as in Sense and Sensibility, she frustrates the expectations of her readers that the hero and heroine be vital, attractive characters.
Fanny Price is intelligent, true to her values, and sensitive, but she is also frail, self-pitying, and terribly shy. “Creepmouse” is the label the character Tom Bertram pins on her. Edmund Bertram is witty and attractive when he is allowed to be, but circumstances usually keep him on the defensive, and he often seems prim and judgmental. Fanny and Edmund are, however, destined for one another, and after difficulty and growth on both their parts, they end up marrying. Mary and Henry Crawford, on the other hand, who were raised in London high society by an aunt and uncle who loved them but were not much concerned with their moral education, possess the vitality and charm expected in a hero and heroine. Some people have argued that Fanny and Edmund should have married Henry and Mary, thus combining morality and vitality. Others maintain that Fanny and Edmund are warm, wonderful people who make a perfect match, and that while Mary and Henry might be attractive, they are irredeemably shallow.
An important topic in Mansfield Park, as in Persuasion,and to a lesser extent in the rest of Austen’s fiction, is religion. Near the end of the novel, Edmund Bertram is ordained a priest in the Church of England—in spite of Mary Crawford’s insistence that a career in the church is unchallenging and dull, unworthy of Edmund. The Anglican ministry, and its significance and importance (or lack thereof), are discussed several times in the course of the novel.
Modern critics have asserted that Austen’s interest in heredity, education, economics, and social forces leaves no doubt that her fictional world is a modern one unconcerned with religious affairs. But some critics insist that the moral intensity of the novels strongly indicate a spiritual dimension to the stories. Critics see this dimension in the willingness of moderate and practical heroines to sacrifice their chances of worldly happiness rather than compromise their basic values, the constant emphasis on unselfish love and self-sacrifice, and the awareness of the limitations and mystery of the human mind and personality.
The subject of the novel Emma is self-deception, and the book’s heroine is the personification of this subject. The novel follows the evolution of the lovely Emma from a domineering, self-infatuated meddler into a chastened young woman ready for marriage to the admirable and aptly named Mr. Knightly. He helps her to see herself more clearly and guides her away from a future as disastrously, and comically, muddled as her past. Emma is considered not as witty as Pride and Prejudice, and its heroine is not as appealing as Elizabeth Bennet. But Emma’s self-delusion, and the slow but progressive awareness by which she arrives at self-knowledge, give the novel a unity and perfection of form.
Persuasion, Austen’s last completed work, is very different from its predecessors. The main character, Anne Elliot, at 27 years old, is older than any other Austen heroine, and the great romance in her life seemingly has taken place more than seven years before the novel begins. She had been courted by a dashing but penniless young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, and had accepted him. Then, persuaded by a cautious older friend that the marriage would not work out well, she broke the engagement. Since the unhappy episode, Anne has led a life of almost total isolation. Anne’s mother, who shared her intelligence and sensitivity, died when Anne was 14. Her father, Sir Walter, and her two sisters are shallow, self-absorbed, and contemptuous of Anne. Only Anne’s inner strength and determination keep her from succumbing to self-pity and resentment.
When Sir Walter is forced to lease his estate to an admiral returning from the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), Anne discovers that the admiral’s wife is a sister of the now promoted and wealthy Captain Wentworth. He thus reenters Anne’s life, but he still resents her having broken their earlier engagement and begins courting another, younger woman. Over time Anne and Wentworth are slowly drawn together again, and this time it is the man who learns from the woman that his values are askew, not the other way around, as in Emma. This subtle work follows the themes of chance and fate, and it shows a constant awareness of the mystery and frailty of human existence.
Scholars debate how Austen’s deteriorating physical condition during the last year of her life affected her work. Persuasionhas been called autumnal in its tone. Yet Sanditon, the novel she undertook a few months before her death and left unfinished, explores ambiguities of appearance and difficulties of judgment with a boldness of technique and a flexibility of tone that shows progress even from Pride and Prejudiceand Emma.
Several other incomplete works were published after Austen’s death. These include The Watsons (1923), Fragment of a Novel(1925), and Plan of a Novel (1926). Her correspondence has been published as Jane Austen’s Letters (1932; revised edition, 1952). Popular interest in Austen and her works increased during the 1990s, in part because of motion-picture and television adaptations of Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion.
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