“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”Jane Austen
Jane Austen was an English writer and novelist. She is known for her six celebrated, critically acclaimed and widely popular novels, which throw light on the British middle class and gentry of the Georgian era (1714-1837). Strangely, Austen was met with only moderate success during her lifetime.
Born to a father who was scholarly and calm and a mother who was animated and witty, Jane as she grew up became increasingly close to her elder sister Cassandra, her confidante and collaborator.
Austen’s novels, four of which were published anonymously with the credit, “by a lady” during her lifetime and the remaining two, which were published by her younger brother Henry Austen became increasingly popular, and her fame sky-rocketed in the 20th century making this hazel-eyed, spinster with a supposedly unremarkable life – the much-loved and revered icon of literature. Not to forget no other writer can claim as many film and TV adaptations and fan fiction to her name as Austen.
Her books throw light on a Georgian society which monitors, sets limits and watches closely. Social and class distinctions are talked upon, rebuked and satirized.
Writing at a time when pulp fiction was the norm and novels were a major source of entertainment for the middle class, Austen’s novels focus on the gentry, upper middle class and the common people. Her heroines despite being smart, eloquent, spunky and attractive are “tamed” by wiser and in some cases older men, and by all means to avoid the prospect of spinsterhood and social ridicule marry for financial security.
Despite the gender and moral limitations in her work – an offshoot of the society she lived in, her romantic comedies came in as a breath of fresh air, fortifying the female voice and perspective. She was an observant social critic who used irony like no other. Her inclusion of the common people and her satire of the rich and their follies made her novels truly modern.
Childhood & Early Life
- Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire on December 16, 1775 to George Austen and Cassendra Leigh Austen who had eight children. Her father was a scholar and a rector and her mother a homebody in charge of children and servants, focussed on running a household economically. She had seven siblings.
- Performing plays privately with her family and friends (a bunch of amateurs) in her father’s rectory barn was part of her childhood. They performed comedies, primarily. Austen writes about the acting itch in her novel, The Mansfield Park.
- Austen’s early adulthood was spent in helping run the family home, play piano, attend church, and socialize with neighbors. Her nights and weekends quite often involved attending balls, about which she wrote extensively in her books and as a result, she became a skilled dancer.
- Even though there is evidence that in 1802 Jane agreed to marry the heir of a Hampshire family, she changed her mind later.
- Jane may have never married but she did experience love and its many disappointments about which she wrote vividly.
- At the young age of eleven and in between 1787-93, Austen wrote three volumes titled as ‘Volume the First’, ‘Volume the Second’ and ‘Volume the Third’, which are collectively termed as Juvenelia or the work produced by an author or artist in their childhood and early youth.
- Juvenelia comprised of plays, verses, sketches, moral fragments, short novels and other prose. She sent parts of Juvenelia, also known as “scraps” to her nieces and younger sister, as guidelines for proper conduct in life.
- From the high-spirited, snarky parodies of sentimental comedies and sentimental novels, Austen moved to writing the more serious, a precursor to later novels, Lady Susan. An epistolary novel, written in 1794 and published in 1871, this is a short book about the coquettish Lady Susan Vernon and her daughter, Frederica Vernon.
- Lady Susan was a short, epistolary novel, written in 1794 and published in 1871, about the coquettish Lady Susan Vernon and her daughter, Frederica Vernon.
- Austen biographer, Claire Tomlain writes about Lady Susan: “It stands alone in Austen’s work as a study of an adult woman whose intelligence and force of character are greater than those of anyone she encounters.”
- While she was writing Lady Susan, she began working on another book, which later became Sense and Sensibility.
- By 1811, she had finished writing her two most celebrated novels, Pride and Prejudice, which was first titled as First Impressions and Sense and Sensibility, which was initially titled as Elinor and Marianne — after its two central characters.
- Sense and Sensibility was published anonymously in 1811 to positive reviews.
- In 1811, she began working on Mansfield Park and completed writing it in 1813. Mansfield Park was published in 1814.
- By the time Mansfield Park was published, Jane Austen was an author of repute (even though she never disclosed her name).
- Pride and Prejudice published in 1813 was then in its third edition.
- In March 1815, Austen finished writing Emma, which was published in December 1815 and dedicated to Prince Regent, an admirer of her work.
- From 1811 until her death in 1817, Austen was acknowledged and appreciated for her novels which were an amalgamation of entertainment and moral instructions.
- Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously in 1817 by her brother.
- Her last novel was Sandition, which she failed to complete owing to her illness. She had managed to complete about 11 chapters of this novel.
Major Literary Works
- She wrote six major novels in her lifetime, with the exception of the short and epistolary Lady Susan.
- Pride and Prejudice: Her most successful and celebrated work which made her into a cult icon. Story in brief: This witty novel published in three volumes is a master class in character delineation and social satire focuses on the Bennet family and its two elder daughters Jane and Elizabeth Bennet. And their courtship and marriage to Charles Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy respectively.
- Emma: This witty novel published in three volumes as well is perhaps the only one, wherein the central character Emma Woodhouse is rich. She is also smart, attractive and thinks of herself as an excellent matchmaker. Her blind confidence in her abilities leads to several comic mishaps.
- Sense and Sensibility: This novel published in three volumes traces the journey of the two Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne.
- Mansfield Park: Published in three volumes, this is the most serious of Austen’s novels and traces the journey of Fanny Price, a morally upright, dutiful, and prim young woman whose morals and docile nature is tested in the Bertram household.
- Persuasion: Austen’s final novel which she wrote in spite of her failing health is probably her most mature work. It’s a story of second chance and a closer look at the question of whether one should marry for love or money through the eye’s of its two main characters: Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth.
- Northanger Abbey: Poking fun at the Gothic thriller novels and the fictional world of books, Austen writes a novel which takes its heroine Catherine Mortland, an avid reader first into Bath and then to Northanger Abbey.
Awards & Achievements
- Even though in her lifetime she had to publish anonymously following the trend of other women writers, Austen’s books were well-received and became fashionable and she received moderate success in her lifetime.
- By the mid nineteenth century, her novels were appreciated by the literary elite and her books became part of the school reading lists in 1833.
- By the mid twentieth century she came to be regarded as one of the greatest English novelist. It was around this time that Austen clubs and societies were formed to celebrate her contribution to the world of literature.
- In the early twenty first century, her books were adapted widely for film and television and Austen fan fiction centering on prequels and sequels began.
- The Janeites, a Jane Austen fan club which is defined by the Austen scholar Claudia Johnson — as the self-consciously idolatrous enthusiasm for ‘Jane’ and every detail relative to her gained ground.
- In 2019, BBC News listed Pride and Prejudice as one of the 100 most influential novels of all times.
- She became known as the ‘most elegant’ and ‘most distinguished British novelist’.
Personal Life & Legacy
- Jane Austen never married. But she seems to have developed a romantic attachment towards her neighbor Tom Melfroy.
- She moved with her family to Bath and to many other places after her father’s death, finally settling down in Chawton, Hampshire.
- Until her death in 1817, she remained attached to her elder sister, friend and confidante Cassandra Austen, who monitored and guarded Jane closely. In fact, Cassendra and her brother Henry is known to have burnt many of Jane’s letters in order to protect their sister’s image and save the family from embarrassment. In the letters Jane wrote she may have come across as snarky, acerbic and secretive.
- In 1816, Jane became ill with what many consider as Addison’s disease. Despite her illness, she continued to write “The Brothers”, which was later published as Sandition.
- She died on July 18, 1817, in Winchester, Hampshire, England.
- Austen’s popularity and cult status is evident in the fact that her books have never gone out of print.
- Through her modern approach, her focus on the mind and heart, her social realism and a fresh approach to romances, Jane Austen remains relatable and popular like no other writer of this century. Not to forget, it was she who modernized the English novel.