The English writer Jane Austen (1775-1817) was one of the most important novelists of the 19th century.
In her intense concentration on the thoughts and feelings of a limited number of characters, Jane Austen creates as profound an understanding and as precise a vision of the potentialities of the human spirit as the art of fiction has ever achieved. Although her novels received favorable reviews, she was not celebrated as an author during her lifetime.
Jane Austen was born in 1775 at Steventon, in the south of England, where her father was rector of the parish. She was the seventh of eight children in an affectionate and high-spirited family. In 1801 she moved to Bath with her father, her mother, and her only sister, Cassandra. After the Reverend Austen's death in 1805, the three women moved to Southampton and in 1809 to the village of Chawton, where Jane Austen lived for the rest of her life. She never married, but received at least one proposal and led an active and happy life, unmarked by dramatic incident and surrounded by her sister and brothers and their families.
Austen began writing as a young girl and by the age of 14 had completed Love and Friendship (sic). This early work, an amusing parody of the melodramatic novels popular at that time, shows clear signs of her talent for humorous and satirical writing. Three volumes of her collected juvenilia were published more than a hundred years after her death.
Jane Austen's first major novel was Sense and Sensibility, whose main characters are Elinor Dashwood and her sister Marianne. The first draft was written in 1795 and titled Elinor and Marianne. In 1797 Austen rewrote the novel and titled it Sense and Sensibility. After years of polishing, it was finally published in 1811.
As the original and final titles indicate, the novel contrasts the temperaments of the two sisters. Elinor governs her life by sense or reasonableness, while Marianne is ruled by sensibility or feeling. Elinor keeps her wits about her under the strain of an affair during which her beloved becomes entangled with another girl. After his mother disinherits him, his beloved, an avaricious schemer, jilts him and he returns to Elinor—who has the sense to take him back. A more disagreeable moral revelation is evident in Marianne Dashwood's actions. She is in love with a scoundrel, who tires of her and goes off to London. She follows him there and is bitterly disillusioned by his callous treatment. She then gives up her romantic dreams of passionate fulfillment and marries a stodgy, middle-aged suitor. Although the plot favors the value of sense over that of sensibility, the greatest emphasis is placed on the moral complexity of human affairs and on the need for enlarged and subtle thought and feeling in response to it.
In 1796, when Austen was 21 years old, she wrote the novel First Impressions. The work was rewritten and published under the title Pride and Prejudice in 1813. It is her most popular and perhaps her greatest novel. It achieves this distinction by virtue of its perfection of form, which exactly balances and expresses its human content. As in Sense and Sensibility, the twin abstractions of the title are closely associated with the protagonists, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Elizabeth is guilty of prejudice against the aristocratic Darcy, and he manifests excessive pride in his cold and unbending attitude toward Elizabeth, her sister Jane, and other members of the Bennet family.
The form of the novel is dialectical—the opposition of ethical principles is expressed in the relations of believable characters. The resolution of the main plot with the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy represents a reconciliation of conflicting moral extremes. The value of pride is affirmed when humanized by Elizabeth's warm personality, and the value of prejudice is affirmed when associated with Darcy's standards of traditional honor.
During 1797-1798 Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, which was published posthumously. It is a fine satirical novel, making sport of the popular Gothic novel of terror, but it does not rank among her major works. In the following years she wrote The Watsons (1803 or later), which is a fragment of a novel similar in mood to her later Mansfield Park, and Lady Susan (1804 or later), a novelette in letters.
In 1811 Jane Austen began Mansfield Park, which was published in 1814. It is her most severe exercise in moral analysis and presents a conservative view of ethics, politics, and religion.
The novel traces the career of Fanny Price, a Cinderella-like heroine, who is brought from a poor home to Mansfield Park, the country estate of her relative, Sir Thomas Bertram. She is raised with some of the comforts of her cousins, the children of Sir Thomas, but her social rank is maintained at a lower level. Despite their strict upbringing, the Bertram children become involved in marital and extramarital tangles, which bring disasters and near-disasters on the family. But Fanny's upright character guides her through her own relationships with dignity—although sometimes with a chilling disdainfulness—and leads to her triumph at the close of the novel. While one may not like the rather priggish heroine, one does develop a sympathetic understanding of Fanny's thoughts and emotions and learn to value her at least as highly as the more attractive but less honest members of the Bertram family and its circle.
Shortly before Mansfield Park was published, Jane Austen began a new novel, Emma, and published it in 1816. Again the heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is difficult to love but, like Fanny Price, does engage the reader's sympathy and understanding. Emma is a girl of high intelligence and vivid imagination who is also marked by egotism and a desire to dominate the lives of others. She exercises her powers of manipulation on a number of neighbors who are not able to resist her prying into their lives. Most of Emma's attempts to control her friends, however, do not have happy effects for her or for them. But influenced by John Knightley, an old friend who is her superior in intelligence and maturity, she realizes how misguided many of her actions are. The novel ends with the decision of a warmer and less headstrong Emma to marry Mr. Knightley. The triviality of some of the characters—particularly Emma's hypochondriac father—distresses many readers, but there is much evidence to support the contention of some critics that Emma is Austen's most brilliant novel. The saturation of a narrow human situation with the author's satirical wit and psychological penetration is here carried to its highest point.
Persuasion, begun in 1815 and published posthumously (together with Northanger Abbey) in 1818, is Jane Austen's last complete novel and is perhaps most directly expressive of her feelings about her own life. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is a woman growing older with a sense that life has passed her by. Several years earlier she had fallen in love with Captain Wentworth but was parted from him because her class-conscious family insisted she make a more suitable match. But she still loves Wentworth, and when he again enters her life, their love deepens and ends in marriage.
Austen's satirical treatment of social pretensions and worldly motives is perhaps at its keenest in this novel, especially in her presentation of Anne's family. The predominant tone of Persuasion, however, is not satirical but romantic. It is, in the end, the most uncomplicated love story that Jane Austen ever wrote and to some tastes the most beautiful.
The novel Sanditon was unfinished at her death in 1817. She died at Winchester, where she had gone to seek medical attention, and was buried there.
Jane Austen's career is described in R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems (1949). Chapman also edited the definitive editions of her novels and letters. The best critical study of the novels is Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and Her Art (1939). Marvin Mudrick presents a vigorous view of her fiction in Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (1952). The context of her novels is treated in Avrom Fleishman, A Reading of Mansfield Park: An Essay in Critical Synthesis (1967).