Austen, Jane

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Austen, Jane (1775-1817). English Novelist.

Jane Austen transformed the English novel after Fielding, Henry and Richardson, Samuel. Her standing is based on six books: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813) Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Northanger Abbey (1818), and Persuasion (1818). Writing at the intersection of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, her fiction captures much of its complexity. Basic to her innovation is a feminized treatment of history. Austen is also studied for her sophisticated point of view: a narrative voice speaking at ironical distance from her characters or shifting into a character’s thoughts, usually but not always the heroine’s.

Austen was born on December 16, 1775 in the county of Hampshire. Her father was an Oxford-educated Anglican clergyman, rector of the church at Steventon, and her mother's relatives included aristocracy, so Austen's family were upper-middle class socially but near the bottom of that class economically. She had five brothers, two of whom became naval officers, and an older sister Cassandra, her closest friend and literary advisor. Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, at age 41, probably of Addison's disease or stomach cancer, in Winchester. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral.

From childhood she read widely in her father's extensive library of history, sermons, poetry, drama, and French and Latin textbooks. The family enjoyed novels, which some other parents deemed unsuitable for daughters. Austen's teenage writing ("juvenilia"), in three manuscripts, suggests Enlightenment attitudes: it questions parental and governmental authority, popular histories, and marriage customs in tones parodying the novel of sensibility or the historian's pretension to objectivity.

In 1795 Austen composed Elinor and Marianne, later revised as Sense and Sensibility. In 1796-97 she wrote First Impressions, later titled Pride and Prejudice; the first title suggests its grounding in individual empirical sensory experience, the second its questioning of traditional criteria for evaluating others. First Impressions was rejected by the publisher Cadell. As Pride and Prejudice, like the other five novels, it undermines the comedic conflict and ending of the Eighteenth Century romance plot with real-life contingencies: sisters, and younger brothers, displaced by elder male relatives’ inheritance, and women otherwise doomed to the “governess trade” (Jane Fairfax in Emma); the deficient education of most young women; and the constraints, and protections, of custom. Austen's novels have been shown to resemble Shakespeare's comedies.

Also in 1796-97 Austen began revising Sense and Sensibility. It treats the Cult of Sensibility as well as sentimental fiction: rather than reading Elinor Dashwood as a spokesperson for Sense, or reason, and Marianne for Sensibility, some argue that each character grapples with both. In 1798 Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, criticizing women's education and satirizing excessive responses to Gothic novels; it was sold to the publisher Crosby as Susan in 1803; he never published it, possibly because of its irreverence toward authority.

The 1790s' conservative backlash against potentially subversive books may explain Austen’s inability to get published then. Years after Crosby refused to print Susan, her brother Henry bought it back for £10. Austen changed the heroine's name to Catherine Morland and probably made other changes, including an "Advertisement by the Authoress" addressing Crosby's odd behavior. Northanger Abbey was not published until after Austen's death, in a volume with Persuasion, by Murray in 1818.

In 1801 Austen's father decided to retire, giving his Steventon living to his son James. The family moved to Bath, a change perhaps traumatic to Austen. From 1803 through 1804 besides trying to publish Susan, she tried unsuccessfully to get Lady Susan (unrelated to Susan) into print, and she wrote The Watsons, which she never finished. In 1805 Mr. Austen died, reducing Jane, her sister Cassandra, and her mother to genteel poverty, the state in which fictional Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters find themselves in Sense and Sensibility (1811) and the probable future of the Bennet women in Pride and Prejudice (1813), Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1814), Jane Fairfax in Emma (1816), and Anne and Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion (1818). Most of her protagonists are upper class gentry socially but financially poor, or about to be.

The Austen women lived in Bath until 1806. From then through 1809 they lived mostly in Southampton, and some biographers attribute her producing no fiction those six years to depression. They were supported by Austen’s brothers, especially Edward, the heir of Mr. Austen's relatives the Knights. From 1809 through the end of their lives, a two-story brick house on the edge of Edward's estate Chawton, in Hampshire, was the Austen women's home. There Austen revised or completed fiction from the 1790s through 1804 and composed Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. From January through March 1817, when illness forced her to stop, she composed twelve chapters of Sanditon. The unfinished Sanditon suggests a new direction: a multi-plot novel with no potential mate for the main character Charlotte. It satirizes the Prince Regent’s, later George IV's, court, especially its reputation for sexual misconduct; Regency-era seaside resort development; and the politics of health, both the private body’s and the body politic.

Austen was not the isolated spinster some earlier scholars imagined. Her education was extended by travel and contact with world travelers. She made long visits to her brother Henry in London. With two brothers in the navy during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars and ties to Warren Hastings, the controversial first Governor-General of India whose son was Mr. Austen's god-child, Austen received first-hand accounts of major events. Her cousin and friend Eliza Hancock de Feullide, born in India, married a Frenchman who was guillotined in the Revolution, and soon after his death she visited the Austens. Her second marriage was to Henry Austen.

Besides ignoring the historical context of Austen's plots, decades of Austen readers, who assumed her novels were, as she remarked tongue-in-cheek in a letter, about “3 or 4 families in a country village” only, missed allusions to specific late Georgian and Regency events. For example, the 1807 British court decision effectively abolishing the slave trade (although not ownership), the Mansfield Proclamation (after the judge's name) probably inspired the title and a sub-plot of Mansfield Park, which refers to slavery on plantations in Antigua in 1808-1809.

Compared to Burney, Frances (Fanny), Sir Walter Scott, and Edgeworth, Maria, Austen reaped small profit from her publications, slightly less than £700 total, although Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park received good reviews during Austen's lifetime. The period of greatest Austen readership is ours. Simplistic identification of her novels with the comedy of manners has been discarded in studies recognizing elements of Romanticism as well as the Enlightenment/counter-Enlightenment. Austen's heroines, especially Anne Elliot in Persuasion, express an anxiety about language's capacity to render feelings accurately that resembles Wordsworth's. At the same time, her heroines respond as heirs of Lockean empiricism to their communities; their responses prompt readers to examine early Nineteenth Century social norms in a time of economic hardship, anxiety about women's nature and status, and the political and moral health of the nation.

All of Austen’s fiction examines the conventions of the novel and contributed to helping Britain to define itself as a cohesive nation in the Eighteenth through the early Nineteenth Century. Narrated from a woman's perspective, her fiction personalizes this process of self-discovery as conflicts between rational and emotional responses.

Further Reading:

Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, 1997.

Roger Sales, Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England, 1994.

James Thompson, Between Self and World: The Novels of Jane Austen, 1988.

Mary Jane Curry