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Jane Austen (; 16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist known primarily for her six major novels, which interpret, critique and comment upon the British landed gentry at the end of the 18th century. Austen's plots often explore the dependence of women on marriage in the pursuit of favourable social standing and economic security. Her works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th-century literary realism. Her use of biting irony, along with her realism and social commentary, have earned her acclaim among critics and scholars.
With the publications of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began another, eventually titled Sanditon, but died before its completion. Her novels have rarely been out of print, although they were published anonymously and brought her little fame during her lifetime.
A significant transition in her posthumous reputation occurred in 1833, when her novels were republished in Richard Bentley's Standard Novels series, illustrated by Ferdinand Pickering, and sold as a set. They gradually gained wider acclaim and popular readership. In 1869, fifty-two years after her death, her nephew's publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen introduced a compelling version of her writing career and supposedly uneventful life to an eager audience.
Austen has inspired a large number of critical essays and literary anthologies. Her novels have inspired many films, from 1940's Pride and Prejudice to more recent productions like Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Love & Friendship (2016).
There is little biographical information about Jane Austen's life except the few letters that survive and the biographical notes her family members wrote. During her lifetime Austen wrote approximately 3,000 letters but only about 160 survive. Many of the letters were written to Austen's older sister Cassandra, who in 1843 burned the greater part of them and cut pieces out of those she kept. Ostensibly Cassandra destroyed or censored her sister's letters to prevent their falling into the hands of relatives and ensuring that "younger nieces did not read any of Jane Austen's sometimes acid or forthright comments on neighbors or family members". Cassandra believed that in the interest of tact and Jane's penchant for forthrightness, these details should be destroyed. The paucity of record of Austen's life leaves modern biographers little to work with.
The situation was compounded as successive generations of the family expunged and sanitized the already opaque details of Austen's biography. The heirs of Jane's brother, Admiral Francis Austen, destroyed more letters; details were excised from the "Biographical Notice" her brother wrote in 1818; and family details continued to be elided or embellished in her nephew's A Memoir of Jane Austen, published in 1869, and in William and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh's biography Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, published in 1913. The legend the family and relatives created reflects their biases in favour of "good quiet Aunt Jane", portraying a woman whose domestic situation was happy and whose family was the mainstay of her life. Austen scholar Jan Fergus explains that modern biographies tend to include details excised from the letters and family biographical materials, but that the challenge is to avoid the polarising view that Austen experienced periods of deep unhappiness and was "an embittered, disappointed woman trapped in a thoroughly unpleasant family."
Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, on 16 December 1775. She was born a month later than her parents expected; her father wrote of her arrival in a letter that her mother "certainly expected to have been brought to bed a month ago". He added that her arrival was particularly welcome as "a future companion to her sister". The winter of 1776 was particularly harsh and it was not until 5 April that she was baptised at the local church with the single name Jane.
For much of Jane's life, her father, George Austen (1731–1805) served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon, and a nearby Deane. He came from an old, respected, and wealthy family of wool merchants. Over the centuries as each generation of eldest sons received inheritances their wealth was consolidated, and George's branch of the family fell into poverty. He and his two sisters were orphaned as children and had to be taken in by relatives. His sister Philadelphia went to India to find a husband and George entered St John's College, Oxford on a fellowship, where he most likely met Cassandra Leigh (1739–1827). She came from the prominent Leigh family; her father was rector at All Souls College, Oxford, where she grew up among the gentry. Her eldest brother James inherited a fortune and large estate from his great-aunt Perrot, with the only condition that he change his name to Leigh-Perrot.
George and Cassandra exchanged miniatures in 1763 and probably were engaged around that time. George received the living for the Steventon parish from the wealthy husband of his second cousin, Thomas Knight, who owned Steventon and its associated farms, one of which the Austen family rented to live in. Two months after Cassandra's father died they married on 26 April 1764 at St Swithin's Church in Bath, by licence, in a simple ceremony. They left for Hampshire the same day.
Their income was modest, with George's small per annum living; Cassandra brought the expectation of a small inheritance at the time of her mother's death to the marriage. They took up temporary residence at the nearby Deane rectory until Steventon, a 16th century house in disrepair, underwent necessary renovations. Cassandra gave birth to three children while living at Deane: James in 1765, George in 1766, and Edward in 1767. Her custom was to keep an infant at home for several months and then placed it with Elizabeth Littlewood, a woman living nearby to nurse and raise for twelve to eighteen months.
In 1768 the family finally took up residence in Steventon. Henry was the first child to be born there, in 1771. At about this time Cassandra could no longer ignore that little George was developmentally disabled. He was subject to seizures, may have been deaf and dumb, and she chose to send him out to be fostered. In 1773, Cassandra was born, followed by Francis in 1774, and Jane in 1775.
According to Honan, life in the Austen home was lived in "an open, amused, easy intellectual atmosphere" where the ideas of those with whom the Austens might disagree politically or socially were considered and discussed. The family relied on the patronage of their kin and hosted visits from numerous family members. Cassandra Austen spent the summer of 1770 in London with George's sister, Philadelphia, and her daughter Eliza, accompanied by his other sister, Mrs Walter and her daughter Philly. Philadelphia and Eliza Hancock were, according to Le Faye, "the bright comets flashing into an otherwise placid solar system of clerical life in rural Hampshire, and the news of their foreign travels and fashionable London life, together with their sudden descents upon the Steventon household in between times, all helped to widen Jane's youthful horizon and influence her later life and works."
Cassandra Austen's cousin Thomas Leigh visited a number of times in the 1770s and '80s, inviting young Cassie to visit them in Bath in 1781. The first mention of Jane occurs in family documents on her return, "… and almost home they were when they met Jane & Charles, the two little ones of the family, who had to go as far as New Down to meet the chaise, & have the pleasure of riding home in it." Le Faye writes that, "Mr Austen's predictions for his younger daughter were fully justified. Never were sisters more to each other than Cassandra and Jane; while in a particularly affectionate family there seems to have been a special link between Cassandra and Edward on the one hand, and between Henry and Jane on the other."
From 1773 until 1796, George Austen supplemented his income by farming and by teaching three or four boys at a time, who boarded at his home.
In 1783, Austen and her sister Cassandra were sent to Oxford to be educated by Mrs Ann Cawley who took them with her to Southampton when she moved there later in the year. In the autumn both girls were sent home when they caught typhus and Austen nearly died. Austen was from then home educated, until she attended boarding school in Reading with her sister from early in 1785 at the Reading Abbey Girls' School, ruled by Mrs La Tournelle, who possessed a cork leg and a passion for theatre. The school curriculum probably included some French, spelling, needlework, dancing and music and, perhaps, drama. The sisters returned home before December 1786 because the school fees for the two girls were too high for the Austen family. After 1786, Austen "never again lived anywhere beyond the bounds of her immediate family environment".
The remainder of her education came from reading, guided by her father and brothers James and Henry. Irene Collins believes that Austen "used some of the same school books as the boys" her father tutored. Austen apparently had unfettered access both to her father's library and that of a family friend, Warren Hastings. Together these collections amounted to a large and varied library. Her father was also tolerant of Austen's sometimes risqué experiments in writing, and provided both sisters with expensive paper and other materials for their writing and drawing.
Private theatricals were an essential part of Austen's education. From her early childhood, the family and friends staged a series of plays in the rectory barn, including Richard Sheridan's The Rivals (1775) and David Garrick's Bon Ton. Austen's eldest brother James wrote the prologues and epilogues and she probably joined in these activities, first as a spectator and later as a participant. Most of the plays were comedies, which suggests how Austen's satirical gifts were cultivated. At the age of 12, she tried her own hand at dramatic writing; she wrote three short plays during her teenage years.
Beginning at age 11, perhaps earlier, Austen wrote poems and stories for her own and her family's amusement. In these works the details of daily life are exaggerated, common plot devices are parodied, and the "stories are full of anarchic fantasies of female power, licence, illicit behaviour, and general high spirits", according to Janet Todd. Austen later compiled "fair copies" of 29 early works into three bound notebooks, now referred to as the Juvenilia, containing work written between 1787 and 1793. She titled the three notebooks – Volume the First, Volume the Second and Volume the Third – which preserve 90,000 words she wrote during those years. The Juvenilia are often, according to scholar Richard Jenkyns, "boisterous" and "anarchic"; he compares them to the work of 18th-century novelist Laurence Sterne.
Among these works are a satirical novel in letters titled Love and Freindship [sic], written at age 14 in 1790, where she mocked popular novels of sensibility, and The History of England, a manuscript of 34 pages accompanied by 13 watercolour miniatures by her sister, Cassandra. Austen's History parodied popular historical writing, particularly Oliver Goldsmith's History of England (1764). Honan speculates that not long after writing Love and Freindship [sic] in 1789, Austen decided to "write for profit, to make stories her central effort", that is, to become a professional writer. Beginning in about 1793, Austen began to write longer, more sophisticated works.
In August 1792 she started Catharine or the Bower, which presaged her mature work, especially Northanger Abbey; it was left unfinished and the story picked up in Lady Susan, which Todd describes as less prefiguring than Catharine. A year later, she began but abandoned a short play, later titled Sir Charles Grandison or the happy Man, a comedy in 6 acts, which she returned to and completed around 1800. This was a short parody of various school textbook abridgements of Austen's favourite contemporary novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753), by Samuel Richardson.
Between 1793 and 1795 Austen wrote Lady Susan, a short epistolary novel, usually described as her most ambitious and sophisticated early work. It is unlike any of Austen's other works. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin describes the novella's heroine as a sexual predator who uses her intelligence and charm to manipulate, betray and abuse her lovers, friends and family. Tomalin writes:
According to Janet Todd, the model for the title character may have been Eliza de Feuillide, who inspired Austen with stories of her glamorous life and various adventures. Eliza's French husband was guillotined in 1794; she married Jane's brother Henry Austen in 1797.
Austen sent short pieces of writing to her newborn nieces Fanny Catherine and Jane Anna Elizabeth. There is manuscript evidence that Austen continued to work on these pieces as late as 1809–1811, and that her niece and nephew, Anna and James Edward Austen, made further additions as late as 1814.
She also attended church regularly, socialized frequently with friends and neighbours, and read novels – often of her own composition – aloud with her family in the evenings. Socialising with the neighbours often meant dancing, either impromptu in someone's home after supper or at the balls held regularly at the assembly rooms in the town hall. Her brother Henry later said that "Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it".
When Austen was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a neighbour, visited Steventon from December 1795 to January 1796. He had just finished a university degree and was moving to London for training as a barrister. Lefroy and Austen would have been introduced at a ball or other neighbourhood social gathering, and it is clear from Austen's letters to Cassandra that they spent considerable time together: "I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together."
Austen wrote in her first surviving letter to her sister Cassandra that Lefroy was "very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man". She called him her "friend" and explained that on this account Cassandra must be anxious to know more about her new "friend". Five days later in another letter, Austen wrote she expected an "offer" from her "friend" and that "I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat", going on to write "I will confide myself in the future to Mr Tom Lefroy, for whom I don't give a sixpence" and refuse all others. The next day, Austen wrote: "The day will come on which I flirt my last with Tom Lefroy and when you receive this it will be all over. My tears flow as I write at this melancholy idea".
Halperin cautioned that Austen often satirised popular sentimental romantic fiction in her letters, and some of the statements about Lefroy may have been ironic. However, it is clear that Austen was genuinely attracted to Lefroy and subsequently none of her other suitors ever quite measured up to him. The Lefroy family intervened and sent him away at the end of January. Marriage was impractical, as both Lefroy and Austen must have known. Neither had any money, and he was dependent on a great-uncle in Ireland to finance his education and establish his legal career. If Tom Lefroy later visited Hampshire, he was carefully kept away from the Austens, and Jane Austen never saw him again. In November 1798, Lefroy was still on Austen's mind as she wrote to her sister she had tea with one of his relatives, wanted desperately to ask about him, but could not bring herself to raise the subject.
Early manuscripts (1796–1798)
After finishing Lady Susan, Austen began her first full-length novel Elinor and Marianne. Her sister remembered that it was read to the family "before 1796" and was told through a series of letters. Without surviving original manuscripts, there is no way to know how much of the original draft survived in the novel published anonymously in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility.
Austen began a second novel, First Impressions (later published as Pride and Prejudice), in 1796. She completed the initial draft in August 1797, aged 21; as with all of her novels, Austen read the work aloud to her family as she was working on it and it became an "established favourite". At this time, her father made the first attempt to publish one of her novels. In November 1797, George Austen wrote to Thomas Cadell, an established publisher in London, to ask if he would consider publishing First Impressions. Cadell returned Mr. Austen's letter, marking it "Declined by Return of Post". Austen may not have known of her father's efforts. Following the completion of First Impressions, Austen returned to Elinor and Marianne and from November 1797 until mid-1798, revised it heavily; she eliminated the epistolary format in favour of third-person narration and produced something close to Sense and Sensibility. In 1797, Austen met her cousin (and future sister-in-law), Eliza de Feullide, a French aristocrat whose first husband the Comte de Feullide had been guillotined, causing her to flee to Britain, where she married Henry Austen. The description of the execution of the Comte de Feullide related by his widow left Austen with an intense horror of the French Revolution that lasted for the rest of her life.
During the middle of 1798, after finishing revisions of Elinor and Marianne, Austen began writing a third novel with the working title Susan – later Northanger Abbey – a satire on the popular Gothic novel. Austen completed her work about a year later. In early 1803, Henry Austen offered Susan to Benjamin Crosby, a London publisher, who paid £10 for the copyright. Crosby promised early publication and went so far as to advertise the book publicly as being "in the press", but did nothing more. The manuscript remained in Crosby's hands, unpublished, until Austen repurchased the copyright from him in 1816.
Bath and Southampton
In December 1800 George Austen unexpectedly announced his decision to retire from the ministry, leave Steventon, and move the family to 4, Sydney Place in Bath. While retirement and travel were good for the elder Austens, Jane Austen was shocked to be told she was moving from the only home she had ever known. An indication of her state of mind is her lack of productivity as a writer during the time she lived at Bath. She was able to make some revisions to Susan, and she began and then abandoned a new novel, The Watsons, but there was nothing like the productivity of the years 1795–1799. Tomalin suggests this reflects a deep depression disabling her as a writer, but Honan disagrees, arguing Austen wrote or revised her manuscripts throughout her creative life, except for a few months after her father died.
The years from 1801 to 1804 are something of a blank space for Austen scholars as Cassandra destroyed all of her letters from her sister in this period for unknown reasons. In December 1802 Austen received her only known proposal of marriage. She and her sister visited Alethea and Catherine Bigg, old friends who lived near Basingstoke. Their younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, had recently finished his education at Oxford and was also at home. Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. As described by Caroline Austen, Jane's niece, and Reginald Bigg-Wither, a descendant, Harris was not attractive – he was a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless. However, Austen had known him since both were young and the marriage offered many practical advantages to Austen and her family. He was the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters had grown up. With these resources, Austen could provide her parents a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a permanent home and, perhaps, assist her brothers in their careers. By the next morning, Austen realised she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. No contemporary letters or diaries describe how Austen felt about this proposal. In 1814, Austen wrote a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, who had asked for advice about a serious relationship, telling her that "having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection". The English scholar Douglas Bush wrote that Austen had "had a very high ideal of the love that should unite a husband and wife ... All of her heroines ... know in proportion to their maturity, the meaning of ardent love". A possible autobiographical element in Sense and Sensibility occurs when Elinor Dashwood contemplates that "the worse and most irremediable of all evils, a connection for life" with an unsuitable man.
In 1804, while living in Bath, Austen started but did not complete her novel, The Watsons. The story centres on an invalid and impoverished clergyman and his four unmarried daughters. Sutherland describes the novel as "a study in the harsh economic realities of dependent women's lives". Honan suggests, and Tomalin agrees, that Austen chose to stop work on the novel after her father died on 21 January 1805 and her personal circumstances resembled those of her characters too closely for her comfort.
Her father's relatively sudden death left Jane, Cassandra, and their mother in a precarious financial situation. Edward, James, Henry, and Francis Austen pledged to make annual contributions to support their mother and sisters. For the next four years, the family's living arrangements reflected their financial insecurity. They spent part of the time in rented quarters in Bath before leaving the city in June 1805 for a family visit to Steventon and Godmersham. They moved for the autumn months to the newly fashionable seaside resort of Worthing, on the Sussex coast, where they resided at Stanford Cottage. It was here that Austen is thought to have written her fair copy of Lady Susan and added its "Conclusion". In 1806 the family moved to Southampton, where they shared a house with Frank Austen and his new wife. A large part of this time they spent visiting various branches of the family.
On 5 April 1809, about three months before the family's move to Chawton, Austen wrote an angry letter to Richard Crosby, offering him a new manuscript of Susan if needed to secure the immediate publication of the novel, and requesting the return of the original so she could find another publisher. Crosby replied that he had not agreed to publish the book by any particular time, or at all, and that Austen could repurchase the manuscript for the £10 he had paid her and find another publisher. She did not have the resources to buy the copyright back at that time, but was able to purchase it in 1816.
Around early 1809 Austen's brother Edward offered his mother and sisters a more settled life – the use of a large cottage in Chawton village that was part of Edward's nearby estate, Chawton House. Jane, Cassandra and their mother moved into Chawton cottage on 7 July 1809. Life was quieter in Chawton than it had been since the family's move to Bath in 1800. The Austens did not socialise with gentry and entertained only when family visited. Her niece Anna described the family's life in Chawton as "a very quiet life, according to our ideas, but they were great readers, and besides the housekeeping our aunts occupied themselves in working with the poor and in teaching some girl or boy to read or write."
During her time at Chawton, Jane Austen published four generally well received novels. Through her brother Henry, the publisher Thomas Egerton agreed to publish Sense and Sensibility, which appeared in October 1811. Reviews were favourable and the novel became fashionable among young aristocratic opinion-makers; the edition sold out by mid-1813. Austen's earnings from Sense and Sensibility provided her with some financial and psychological independence. Egerton then published Pride and Prejudice, a revision of First Impressions, in January 1813. He advertised the book widely and it was an immediate success, garnering three favourable reviews and selling well. By October 1813 Egerton was able to begin selling a second edition. Mansfield Park was published by Egerton in May 1814. While Mansfield Park was ignored by reviewers, it was very popular with readers. All copies were sold within six months, and Austen's earnings on this novel were larger than for any of her other novels. Unknown to Austen, her novels were translated into French and published in cheaply produced, pirated editions in France. The literary critic Noel King commented that given the prevailing rage in France at the time was for lush romantic fantasies, it is remarkable that her novels with the emphasis on everyday English life had any sort of a market in France. However, King cautioned that Austen's chief translator in France, Madame Isabelle de Montolieu, had only the most rudimentary knowledge of English, and her translations were more of "imitations" than translations proper, as Montolieu depended upon assistants to provide a summary, which she then translated into an embellished French that often radically altered Austen's plots and characters. The first of the Austen novels to be published that credited her as the author was in France, when Persuasion was published in 1821 as La Famille Elliot ou L'Ancienne Inclination.
Austen learned that the Prince Regent admired her novels and kept a set at each of his residences. In November 1815, the Prince Regent's librarian James Stanier Clarke invited Austen to visit the Prince's London residence and hinted Austen should dedicate the forthcoming Emma to the Prince. Though Austen disliked the Prince Regent, she could scarcely refuse the request. Austen disapproved of the Prince Regent on the account of his womanising, gambling, drinking, spendthrift ways and generally disreputable behaviour. She later wrote Plan of a Novel, according to hints from various quarters, a satiric outline of the "perfect novel" based on the librarian's many suggestions for a future Austen novel. Austen was greatly annoyed by Clarke's often pompous literary advice, and the Plan of A Novel parodying Clarke was intended as her revenge for all of the unwanted letters she had received from the royal librarian.
In mid-1815 Austen moved her work from Egerton to John Murray, a better known London publisher, who published Emma in December 1815 and a second edition of Mansfield Park in February 1816. Emma sold well but the new edition of Mansfield Park did poorly, and this failure offset most of the income from Emma. These were the last of Austen's novels to be published during her lifetime.
While Murray prepared Emma for publication, Austen began The Elliots, later published as Persuasion. She completed her first draft in July 1816. In addition, shortly after the publication of Emma, Henry Austen repurchased the copyright for Susan from Crosby. Austen was forced to postpone publishing either of these completed novels by family financial troubles. Henry Austen's bank failed in March 1816, depriving him of all of his assets, leaving him deeply in debt and losing Edward, James, and Frank Austen large sums. Henry and Frank could no longer afford the contributions they had made to support their mother and sisters.
Illness and death
Austen was feeling unwell by early 1816, but ignored the warning signs. By the middle of that year, her decline was unmistakable, and she began a slow, irregular deterioration. The majority of biographers rely on Dr. Vincent Cope's 1964 retrospective diagnosis and list her cause of death as Addison's disease, although her final illness has also been described as resulting from Hodgkin's lymphoma. When her uncle died and left his entire fortune to his wife, effectively disinheriting his relatives, she suffered a relapse, writing, "I am ashamed to say that the shock of my Uncle's Will brought on a relapse ... but a weak Body must excuse weak Nerves".
She continued to work in spite of her illness. Dissatisfied with the ending of The Elliots, she rewrote the final two chapters, which she finished on 6 August 1816. In January 1817 Austen began The Brothers (titled Sanditon when published in 1925), and completed twelve chapters before stopping work in mid-March 1817, probably due to illness. Todd describes Sanditon's heroine, Diana Parker, as an "energetic invalid". In the novel, Austen mocked hypochondriacs and though she describes the heroine as "bilious", five days after abandoning the novel she wrote of herself that she was turning "every wrong colour" and living "chiefly on the sofa". She put down her pen on 18 March 1817, making a note of it.
Austen made light of her condition, describing it as "bile" and rheumatism. As her illness progressed, she experienced difficulty walking and lacked energy; by mid-April she was confined to bed. In May Cassandra and Henry brought her to Winchester for treatment, by which time she suffered agonising pain and welcomed death. Austen died in Winchester on 18 July 1817, at the age of 41. Henry, through his clerical connections, arranged for his sister to be buried in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral. The epitaph composed by her brother James praises Austen's personal qualities, expresses hope for her salvation and mentions the "extraordinary endowments of her mind", but does not explicitly mention her achievements as a writer.
After Austen's death, Cassandra, Henry Austen and Murray arranged for the publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey as a set. Henry Austen contributed a Biographical Note which for the first time identified his sister as the author of the novels. Tomalin describes it as "a loving and polished eulogy". Sales were good for a year – only 321 copies remained unsold at the end of 1818.
In 1832 Richard Bentley purchased the remaining copyrights to all of her novels, and over the following winter published five illustrated volumes as part of his Standard Novels series. In October 1833, Bentley released the first collected edition of her works. Since then, Austen's novels have been continuously in print.
Genre and style
Austen's works critique the sentimental novels of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th-century literary realism. The earliest English novelists, Richardson, Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, were followed by the school of sentimentalists and romantics such as Walter Scott, Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, Laurence Sterne and Oliver Goldsmith, whose style and genre Austen rejected, returning the novel on a "slender thread" to the tradition of Richardson and Fielding for a "realistic study of manners". In the mid-20 century, literary critics F. R. Leavis and Ian Watt placed her in the tradition of Richardson and Fielding; both believe that she used their tradition of "irony, realism and satire to form an author superior to both".
Walter Scott noted Austen's "resistance to the trashy sensationalism of much of modern fiction – 'the ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering places and circulating libraries'". Yet her rejection of these genres is complex, as evidenced by Northanger Abbey and Emma. Similar to William Wordsworth, who excoriated the modern frantic novel in the "Preface" to his Lyrical Ballads (1800), Austen distances herself from escapist novels; the discipline and innovation she demonstrates is similar to his, and she shows "that rhetorically less is artistically more." She eschewed popular Gothic fiction, stories of terror in which a heroine typically was stranded in a remote location, a castle or abbey (32 novels between 1784 and 1818 contain the word "abbey" in their title). Yet in Northanger Abbey she alludes to the trope, with the heroine, Catherine, anticipating a move to a remote locale. Rather than full-scale rejection or parody, Austen transforms the genre, juxtaposing reality, with descriptions of elegant rooms and modern comforts, against the heroine's "novel-fueled" desires. Nor does she completely denigrate Gothic fiction: instead she transforms settings and situations, such that the heroine is still imprisoned, yet her imprisonment is mundane and real – regulated manners and the strict rules of the ballroom. In Sense and Sensibility Austen presents characters who are more complex than in staple sentimental fiction, according to critic Keymer, who notes that although it is a parody of popular sentimental fiction, "Marianne in her sentimental histrionics responds to the calculating world ... with a quite justifiable scream of female distress."
Richardson's Pamela, the prototype for the sentimental novel, is a didactic love story with a happy ending, written at a time women were beginning to have the right to choose husbands and yet were restricted by social conventions. Austen attempted Richardson's epistolary style, but found the flexibility of narrative more conducive to her realism, a realism in which each conversation and gesture carries a weight of significance. The narrative style utilises free indirect speech – she was the first English novelist to do so extensively – through which she had the ability to present a character's thoughts directly to the reader and yet still retain narrative control. The style allows an author to vary discourse between the narrator's voice and values and those of the characters.
Austen had a natural ear for speech and dialogue, according to scholar Mary Lascelles "Few novelists can be more scrupulous than Jane Austen as to the phrasing and thoughts of their characters." Techniques such as fragmentary speech suggest a character's traits and their tone; "syntax and phrasing rather than vocabulary" is utilised to indicate social variants. Dialogue reveals a character's mood – frustration, anger, happiness – each treated differently and often through varying patterns of sentence structures. When Elizabeth Bennett rejects Darcy, her stilted speech and the convoluted sentence structure reveals that he has wounded her:
Austen's plots highlight women's traditional dependence on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. As an art form, the 18th-century novel lacked the seriousness of its equivalents from the 19th century, when novels were treated as "the natural vehicle for discussion and ventilation of what mattered in life". Rather than delving too deeply into the psyche of her characters, Austen enjoys them and imbues them with humour, according to critic John Bayley. He believes that the well-spring of her wit and irony is her own attitude that comedy "is the saving grace of life". Part of Austen's fame rests on the historical and literary significance that she was the first woman to write great comic novels. Samuel Johnson's influence is evident, in that she follows his advice to write "a representation of life as may excite mirth".
Her humour comes from her modesty and lack of superiority, allowing her most successful characters, such as Elizabeth Bennet, to transcend the trivialities of life, which the more foolish characters are overly absorbed in. Austen used comedy to explore the individualism of women's lives and gender relations, and she appears to have used it to find the goodness in life, often fusing it with "ethical sensibility", creating artistic tension. Critic Robert Polhemus writes, "To appreciate the drama and achievement of Austen, we need to realize how deep was her passion for both reverence and ridicule ... and her comic imagination reveals both the harmonies and the telling contradictions of her mind and vision as she tries to reconcile her satirical bias with her sense of the good."
As Austen's works were published anonymously, they brought her little personal renown. They were fashionable among opinion-makers, but were rarely reviewed. Most of the reviews were short and on balance favourable, although superficial and cautious. They most often focused on the moral lessons of the novels. Sir Walter Scott, a leading novelist of the day, contributed one anonymously. Using the review as a platform to defend the then-disreputable genre of the novel, he praised Austen's realism. The other important early review was attributed to Richard Whately in 1821. However, Whately denied having authored the review, which drew favourable comparisons between Austen and such acknowledged greats as Homer and Shakespeare, and praised the dramatic qualities of her narrative. Scott and Whately set the tone for almost all subsequent 19th-century Austen criticism.
Because Austen's novels did not conform to Romantic and Victorian expectations that "powerful emotion [be] authenticated by an egregious display of sound and colour in the writing", 19th-century critics and audiences preferred the works of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. In a rare sympathetic review, in this case of Emma in 1815, Sir Walter Scott wrote that book displayed "the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes from an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him". Though Scott was positive, Austen's work did not match the prevailing aesthetic values of the Romantic zeitgeist. Her novels were republished in Britain from the 1830s and sold at a steady rate, but they were not bestsellers. The first French critic who paid notice to Austen was Philarète Chasles who completely dismissed her as a writer, giving her two sentences in an 1842 essay on the influence of Sir Walter Scott, calling her a boring, imitative writer who wrote nothing of substance. Apart from Chasles, Austen was almost completely ignored in France until 1878.
Austen had many admiring readers in the 19th century who considered themselves part of a literary elite. Philosopher and literary critic George Henry Lewes expressed this viewpoint in a series of enthusiastic articles published in the 1840s and 1850s. This theme continued later in the century with novelist Henry James, who referred to Austen several times with approval and on one occasion ranked her with Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Henry Fielding as among "the fine painters of life".
The publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869 introduced Austen to a wider public as "dear aunt Jane", the respectable maiden aunt. Publication of the Memoir spurred the reissue of Austen's novels – the first popular editions were released in 1883 and fancy illustrated editions and collectors' sets quickly followed. Author and critic Leslie Stephen described the popular mania that started to develop for Austen in the 1880s as "Austenolatry". In 1878, the French critic Léon Boucher published the essay Le Roman Classique en Angleterre, where he called Austen a "genius", which was the first time that epithet had been used in France to describe Austen. The first proper translation of Austen into French that was completely faithful to the original occurred in 1899 when Félix Fénéon translated Northanger Abbey into French as Catherine Moreland. Around the start of the 20th century, members of the literary elite reacted against the popularisation of Austen. They referred to themselves as Janeites in order to distinguish themselves from the masses who did not properly understand her works. For example, Henry James responded negatively to what he described as "a beguiled infatuation" with Austen, a rising tide of public interest that exceeded Austen's "intrinsic merit and interest". The American literary critic A. Walton Litz noted that the "anti-Janites" in the 19th and 20th centuries comprise a formidable literary squad of Mark Twain, Henry James, Charlotte Bronte, D.H. Lawrence and Kingsley Amis, but in "every case the adverse judgement merely reveals the special limitations or eccentricities of the critic, leaving Jane Austen relativity untouched".
Several of Austen's works have been subject to academic study. The first dissertation on Austen was published in 1883, by George Pellew, a student at Harvard University. The first examination came from a 1911 essay by Oxford Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley. In his essay, Bradley groups Austen's novels into "early" and "late" works, a distinction still used by scholars today. The first academic books devoted to Austen in France was Jane Austen by Paul and Kate Rague published in 1914, where the Ragues set out to explain why French critics and readers should take Austen seriously. The same year, Léonie Villard published Jane Austen, Sa Vie et Ses Oeuvres, which was originally her PhD thesis, marking the first time that Austen had subjected to a serious academic study in France. The second examination in English was R. W. Chapman's 1923 edition of Austen's collected works. Not only was it the first scholarly edition of Austen's works, it was also the first scholarly edition of any English novelist. The Chapman text has remained the basis for all subsequent published editions of Austen's works.
With the publication in 1939 of Mary Lascelles's Jane Austen and Her Art, the academic study of Austen took hold. Lascelles's innovative work included an analysis of the books Austen read and the effect of her reading on her work, an extended analysis of Austen's style, and her "narrative art". Concern arose that academics were taking over Austen criticism and that it was becoming increasingly esoteric, a debate that has continued since.
The period since World War II has seen more scholarship on Austen using a diversity of critical approaches, including feminist theory, and perhaps most controversially, postcolonial theory. The continuing disconnection between the popular appreciation of Austen, particularly by modern Janeites, and the academic appreciation of Austen has widened considerably. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Austen was in disfavor with the authorities who only wanted Western authors to be published in translation whose work could be presented as representing the West in a negative light, and Austen was regarded as too "frivolous" for this purpose. As hostile as the treatment of Austen was in the 1950s, it paled besides the treatment of her books during the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" in China between 1966–69, when Austen was banned as a "British bourgeois imperialist" author. In the late 1970s, Austen was allowed to be published in China, where her popularity with readers confounded the authorities who had trouble understanding that people sometimes want to read books for enjoyment instead of dialectical purposes. A sign of the way that Austen can still spark debate can be seen when the American English professor Gene Koppel mentioned in a lecture that Austen and her family were "Tories of the deepest dye" [the Tories were the conservative party while the Whigs were the liberal party], a statement which greatly upset many of Koppel's liberal students, who much to his amusement, complained to him how was it possible that Austen was a conservative?. The conservative Koppel noted several feminist authors such as Claudia Johnson and Mollie Sandock were claiming Austen for their own cause. Citing the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Koppel argued that different people can and do react to the same work of literature in different ways as art is always a subjective discipline as various people have their standards for evaluating literature. As such, Koppel argued that competing interpretations of Austen's work, provided that they are grounded in readings of her work are all equally valid, and so it is equally possible to see Austen as a feminist critiquing Regency society and as a conservative upholding the values of Regency society.
Austen's novels have resulted in sequels, prequels and adaptations of almost every type, from soft-core pornography to fantasy. From the 19th century, her family members published conclusions to her incomplete novels, and by 2000 there were over 100 printed adaptations. The first dramatic adaptation of Austen was published in 1895, Rosina Filippi's Duologues and Scenes from the Novels of Jane Austen: Arranged and Adapted for Drawing-Room Performance, and Filippi was also responsible for the first professional stage adaptation, The Bennets (1901). The first film adaptation was the 1940 MGM production of Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. BBC television dramatisations since the 1970s have attempted to adhere meticulously to Austen's plots, characterisations and settings. The British critic Robert Irvine noted that in American film adaptations of Austen's novels, starting with the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice and continuing on to today, class is subtly downplayed as the United States is officially an egalitarian nation where all people are equal and the society of Regency England depicted by Austen that is grounded in a hierarchy based upon the ownership of land and the antiquity of the family name is one that Americans cannot embrace in its entirety.
From 1995 a large number of Austen adaptations began to appear, with Ang Lee's film of Sense and Sensibility, for which screenwriter and star Emma Thompson won an Academy Award, and the BBC's immensely popular TV mini-series Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. A 2005 British production of Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, was followed in 2007 by ITV's Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and in 2016 by Love & Friendship, a film version of Lady Susan that borrowed the title of Austen's Love and Freindship [sic].
List of works
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