Northanger Abbey, a satire on the Gothic romance, was sold to a publisher for £10 in 1803, but as it was not published, was bought back by members of the family and was finally issued posthumously. The novels published in Austen's lifetime were Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816). Persuasion was issued in 1818 with Northanger Abbey. The author's name did not appear on any of her title pages, and although her own friends knew of her authorship, she received little public recognition in her lifetime.
Jane Austen's novels are comedies of manners that depict the self-contained world of provincial ladies and gentlemen. Most of her works revolve around the delicate business of providing husbands for marriageable daughters. She is particularly noted for her vivid delineations and lively interplay of character, her superb sense of comic irony, and her moral firmness. She ridicules the silly, the affected, and the stupid, ranging in her satire from light portraiture in her early works to more scornful exposures in her later novels. Her writing was subjected to the most careful polishing. She was quite aware of her special excellences and limitations, comparing herself to a miniaturist. Today she is regarded as one of the great masters of the English novel. Her minor works include her Juvenilia, the novel Lady Susan, and the fragments The Watsons and Sanditon.
See her letters (ed. by R. W. Chapman, 2d ed. 1965); biographies by J. A. Hodge (1972), J. Halperin (1986), P. Honan (1988), V. G. Myer (1997), D. Nokes (1997), C. Tomalin (1997), and C. Shields (2001); studies by A. W. Litz (1965), F. W. Bradbook (1966), A. M. Duckworth (1971), K. Kroeber (1971), F. B. Pinion (1973), S. M. Tave (1973), and C. Johnson (1988).
Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist whose realism, biting social commentary and masterful use of free indirect speech, burlesque and irony have earned her a place as one of the most widely read and best-loved writers in English literature.
Austen lived her entire life as part of a small and close-knit family located on the lower fringes of English gentry. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. The steadfast support of her family was critical to Austen's development as a professional writer. Austen's artistic apprenticeship lasted from her teenage years until she was about thirty-five years old. During this period, she wrote three major novels and began a fourth.[B] From 1811 until 1815, with the release 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 after her death in 1817, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon, but died before completing it.
Austen's works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the eighteenth century and are part of the transition to nineteenth-century realism.[C] Austen's plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. Like those of Samuel Johnson, one of the strongest influences on her writing, her works are concerned with moral issues.
During her lifetime, Austen's works brought her little fame and only a few positive reviews. Through the mid-nineteenth century, her novels were admired only by a literary elite. However, the publication of her nephew's A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869 introduced her life and works to a wider public. By the 1940s, Austen was firmly ensconced in academia as a "great English writer", and the second half of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of Austen scholarship that explored many aspects of her novels: artistic, ideological, and historical. In popular culture, a Janeite fan culture has developed, centred on Austen's life, her works, and the various film and television adaptations of them.
Austen's immediate family was large: six brothers—James (1765–1819), George (1766–1838), Edward (1767–1852), Henry Thomas (1771–1850), Francis William (Frank) (1774-1865), Charles John (1779–1852)—and one sister, Cassandra Elizabeth (1773–1845), who, like Jane, died unmarried. Cassandra was Austen's closest friend and confidante throughout her life. Of her brothers, Austen felt closest to Henry, who became a banker and, after his bank failed, an Anglican clergyman. Henry was also his sister's literary agent. His large circle of friends and acquaintances in London included bankers, merchants, publishers, painters, and actors: he provided Austen with a view of social worlds not normally visible from a small parish in rural Hampshire. George was sent to live with a local family at a young age because, as Austen biographer Le Faye describes it, he was "mentally abnormal and subject to fits". He may also have been deaf and dumb. Charles and Frank served in the navy, both rising to the rank of admiral. Edward was brought up by his second cousin Thomas Knight, eventually inheriting Knight's estate and taking his name.
Austen was born on 16 December 1775 at Steventon rectory and publicly christened on 5 April 1776. After a few months at home, her mother placed Austen with a woman living in a nearby village who nursed and raised Austen for a year or eighteen months. In 1783, according to family tradition, Jane and Cassandra were sent to Oxford to be educated by Mrs Ann Cawley and they moved with her to Southampton later in the year. Both girls caught typhus and Jane nearly died. Austen was subsequently educated at home, until leaving for boarding school with her sister Cassandra early in 1785. The school curriculum probably included some French, spelling, needlework, dancing and music and, perhaps, drama. By December 1786, Jane and Cassandra had returned home because the Austens could not afford to send both of their daughters to school. Austen acquired the remainder of her education by reading books, guided by her father and her brothers James and Henry. George Austen apparently gave his daughters unfettered access to his large and varied library, was tolerant of Austen's sometimes risqué experiments in writing, and provided both sisters with expensive paper and other materials for their writing and drawing. According to Park Honan, a biographer of Austen, 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. After returning from school in 1786, Austen "never again lived anywhere beyond the bounds of her immediate family environment".
Private theatricals were also a part of Austen's education. From when she was seven until she was thirteen, the family and close friends staged a series of plays, including Richard Sheridan's The Rivals (1775) and David Garrick's Bon Ton. While the details are unknown, Austen would certainly have joined in these activities, as a spectator at first and as a participant when she was older. Most of the plays were comedies, which suggests one way in which Austen's comedic and satirical gifts were cultivated.
In 1793, Austen began and then abandoned a short play, later entitled 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 abridgments of Austen's favourite contemporary novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753), by Samuel Richardson. Honan speculates that at some point 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. Whenever she made that decision, beginning in about 1793, Austen began to write longer, more sophisticated works.
During the period 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 heroine of the novella as a sexual predator who uses her intelligence and charm to manipulate, betray, and abuse her victims, whether lovers, friends or family. Tomalin writes: "Told in letters, it is as neatly plotted as a play, and as cynical in tone as any of the most outrageous of the Restoration dramatists who may have provided some of her inspiration....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.
When Austen was twenty-one Tom Lefroy, a nephew of neighbours, visited Steventon from December 1795 to January 1796. He had just finished a university degree and was moving to London to train 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. 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.
Austen began work on a second novel, First Impressions, in 1796 and completed the initial draft in August 1797 (it would later become Pride and Prejudice); as with all of her novels, Austen read the work aloud to her family as she was working on it and it became an "establish 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 "a Manuscript Novel, comprised in three Vols. about the length of Miss Burney's Evelina" at the author's financial risk. Cadell quickly returned Mr. Austen's letter, marked "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.
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.
In December 1802, Austen received her only 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".
In 1804, while living in Bath, Austen started but did not complete a new novel, The Watsons. The story centres on an invalid clergyman with little money 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.
Rev. Austen's final illness had struck suddenly, leaving him, as Austen reported to her brother Francis, "quite insensible of his own state", and he died quickly. Jane, Cassandra, and their mother were left 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 lived part of the time in rented quarters in Bath and then, beginning in 1806, in 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 that was needed to secure immediate publication of the novel, and otherwise requesting the return of the original so she could find another publisher. Crosby replied 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. However, Austen did not have the resources to repurchase the book.
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. In Chawton, life was quieter than it had been since the family's move to Bath in 1800. The Austens did not socialise with the neighbouring gentry and entertained only when family visited. Austen's niece Anna described the Austen family's life in Chawton: "It was 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. Austen wrote almost daily, but privately, and seems to have been relieved of some household responsibilities to give her more opportunity to write. In this setting, she was able to be productive as a writer once more.
Austen learned that the Prince Regent admired her novels and kept a set at each of his residences.[G] In November 1815, the Prince Regent's librarian 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, she could scarcely refuse the request. 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.
In mid-1815, Austen moved her work from Egerton to John Murray, a better known London publisher,[H] 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 not, and this failure offset most of the profits Austen earned on Emma. These were the last of Austen's novels to be published during her lifetime.
While Murray prepared Emma for publication, Austen began to write a new novel she titled 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.
Early in 1816, Jane Austen began to feel unwell. She ignored her illness at first and continued to work and to participate in the usual round of family activities. By the middle of that year, her decline was unmistakable to Austen and to her family, and Austen's physical condition began a long, slow, and irregular deterioration culminating in her death the following year. The majority of Austen biographers rely on Dr. Vincent Cope's tentative 1964 retrospective diagnosis and list her cause of death as Addison's disease. However, her final illness has also been described as Hodgkin's lymphoma.[I]
Austen continued to work in spite of her illness. She became dissatisfied with the ending of The Elliots and rewrote the final two chapters, finishing them on 6 August 1816.[J] In January 1817, Austen began work on a new novel she called The Brothers, later titled Sanditon upon its first publication in 1925, and completed twelve chapters before stopping work in mid-March 1817, probably because her illness prevented her from continuing. Austen made light of her condition to others, describing it as "Bile" and rheumatism, but as her disease progressed she experienced increasing difficulty walking or finding the energy for other activities. By mid-April, Austen was confined to her bed. In May, their brother Henry escorted Jane and Cassandra to Winchester for medical treatment. Austen died in Winchester on 18 July 1817. Through his clerical connections, Henry 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, mentions the "extraordinary endowments of her mind", but does not explicitly mention her achievements as a writer.
Austen's works brought her little personal renown because they were published anonymously. Although her novels quickly became fashionable among opinion-makers, such as Princess Charlotte Augusta, daughter of the Prince Regent, they received only a few published reviews. 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 of them, anonymously. Using the review as a platform from which to defend the then disreputable genre of the novel, he praised Austen's realism. The other important early review of Austen's works was published by Richard Whately in 1821. He drew favourable comparisons between Austen and such acknowledged greats as Homer and Shakespeare, praising the dramatic qualities of her narrative. Whately and Scott set the tone for almost all subsequent nineteenth-century Austen criticism.
Austen had many admiring readers in the nineteenth century who considered themselves part of a literary elite: they viewed their appreciation of Austen's works as a mark of their cultural taste. 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". Around the turn of the century, members of the literary elite reacted against the popularization 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, 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".
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the first books of criticism on Austen were published. In fact, after the publication of the Memoir, more criticism was published on Austen in two years than had appeared in the previous fifty.
In a spurt of revisionist views in the 1940s, scholars approached Austen more sceptically and argued that she was a subversive writer. These revisionist views, together with F. R. Leavis's and Ian Watt's pronouncement that Austen was one of the great writers of English fiction, did much to cement Austen's reputation amongst academics. They agreed that she "combined [Henry Fielding's and Samuel Richardson's] qualities of interiority and irony, realism and satire to form an author superior to both". 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. However, the continuing disconnection between the popular appreciation of Austen, particularly by modern Janeites, and the academic appreciation of Austen has widened considerably.
Sequels, prequels, and adaptations of almost every sort have been based on the novels of Jane Austen, from soft-core pornography to fantasy. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, Austen family members published conclusions to her incomplete novels, and by 2000 there were over 100 printed adaptations. The first film adaptation was the 1940 MGM production of Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. BBC television dramatisations, which were first produced in the 1970s, attempted to adhere meticulously to Austen's plots, characterisations, and settings. Starting with Emma Thompson's film of Sense and Sensibility, a great wave of Austen adaptations began to appear around 1995. Books and scripts that use the general storyline of Austen's novels but change or otherwise modernise the story also became popular at the end of the twentieth century. For example, Clueless (1995), Amy Heckerling's updated version of Emma, which takes place in Beverly Hills, became a cultural phenomenon and spawned its own television series.
Juvenilia – Volume the First
Juvenilia – Volume the Second
Juvenilia – Volume the Third
Literary criticism Essay collections