Authors: Jane Austen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist

December 16, 1775

Steventon, Hampshire, England

July 18, 1817

Winchester, Hampshire, England

Biography

Jane Austen was the seventh of eight children, the second daughter of a rural clergyman respected for his learning and literary taste. Two of her brothers followed their father to Oxford University and into the church; two others rose to be admirals in the navy. Except for brief schooling in Oxford, Southampton, and Reading, which ended at the age of nine, Austen was educated at home, where she learned French, a smattering of Italian, and some history and gained a thorough acquaintance with the essayists, novelists, and poets of the eighteenth century as well as with the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton.

Jane Austen

(Library of Congress)

Always somewhat shy but lively and witty, Austen developed into a young lady of cultivated manners. A brief but genuine romance with a young man whose identity is uncertain ended with his death. When she was nearly twenty-seven, she accepted, and the next day rejected, the marriage proposal of Harris Bigg-Wither, a friend of long standing, whom she realized she did not love.

Aside from writing, Jane Austen devoted her life to domestic duties and household affections and especially to being the companion and confidante of many of her nieces and nephews, who found her unfailingly kind, sympathetic, and amusing.

Having spent the first twenty-five years of her life in the rectory at Steventon, she moved in 1801, upon her father’s retirement, with her parents and sister Cassandra to Bath. After her father’s death in 1805 and a sojourn of three years in Southampton, she settled with her mother and sister in a cottage belonging to her brother Edward at Chawton, Hampshire, where she resided until two months before her death. There, working mainly in the general sitting room, she composed the final drafts of all her major works, hurriedly slipping the small sheets under the blotting paper if a visitor or servant appeared. In 1816 her health began to fail, and in May 1817, she and Cassandra moved to Winchester for adequate medical attention. Despite weakness and pain, she remained cheerful to the end. She died peacefully on July 18, 1817, at the age of forty-one and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

Jane Austen’s novels, the first published when she was thirty-five and followed by five others in as many years, were the final fruits of an early and painstaking apprenticeship to literature. Three small volumes of juvenilia, written by the time she was eighteen years old, bear witness to her youthful talent for mimicry and burlesque; they also contain her first serious piece, “Catharine, or the Bower,” in which she anticipates Northanger Abbey. Her first completed novel, First Impressions (the lost original of Pride and Prejudice), was begun in October 1796 and finished in August 1797; her father offered the manuscript to a publisher without success. In November 1797, she started Sense and Sensibility. The next year she wrote Northanger Abbey, a revised version of which, titled Susan, she sold in 1803 for ten pounds to the publisher Crosby, who advertised but failed to publish it. Finally retrieved in 1816, an amended text appeared posthumously in 1818. The Watsons, a fragmentary progenitor of Emma, and Lady Susan, a biting epistolary satire, probably the germ of Mansfield Park, have survived in manuscripts written on paper watermarked 1803 and 1805, respectively. Extensively revised or rewritten between 1809 and 1811, Sense and Sensibility was published on October 31, 1811. The book was favorably received, and the edition sold out in less than two years, bringing its author 140 pounds. Pride and Prejudice appeared in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815. Persuasion was issued with Northanger Abbey in 1818, and by that date Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park had reached a second edition and Pride and Prejudice a third. Austen was engaged on a rough draft of the early chapters of a new novel, Sanditon, only a few weeks before she died.

Far ahead of her time in the techniques of narration, especially in the authorial control of point of view, Jane Austen, through her fidelity to life, her delineation of character, and her ironic insight, produced sophisticated comedy unsurpassed in the English novel. Entertainment, however, was not her sole aim. She was primarily a moral writer striving to establish criteria of sound judgment and right conduct in human relationships, and she inculcates the related virtues of self-awareness and unselfishness.

Northanger Abbey, the earliest of the major novels in chronological order of composition, while showing kinship to the juvenilia in its dependence on the burlesque of the gothic novel, offers much more than mere parody. The education of its callow heroine, Catherine Morland, by examples of the discrepancy between appearance and reality, typifies Austen’s method and illustrates her penchant for proportion and symmetry in both literature and life. Although Sense and Sensibility also contains an element of literary satire, in this case upon the contemporary novel of feeling, it is essentially a paradigm of the proper balance between self-control and emotion. Pride and Prejudice, the most scintillating of her novels and long the popular favorite among them, provides in Elizabeth Bennet one of the most delightful heroines of fiction. She and Darcy eventually overcome “first impressions” (which was Austen’s original title) that were on both sides distorted by pride and prejudice. With its sparkling dialogue and the ironic commentary shifting from the author to a character within the story, Mr. Bennet, this book represents the apex of Austen’s dramatic act. Convinced that Pride and Prejudice was too playful, she tended to the opposite extreme with Mansfield Park, where her irony is chastened and her censure of worldly values borders on didacticism. Emma, her profoundest moral comedy, is a study in the self-delusions of vanity. Unified in time (a cycle of one year) and place (Highbury and its environs), the beautifully concentric action revolves around a dominant heroine, who, having every advantage in life, is a victim only of herself. Persuasion, more patently infused with emotion than the other Austen novels, is saved from sentimentality by the full play of wit. In it Austen examines, through the person of the author’s only mature heroine, twenty-seven-year-old Anne Elliot, the conflicting aims of prudence and true love.

Jane Austen’s style—unadorned, concise, flexible, and animated—is the ideal instrument for her art. Her dialogue, without resort to slang or obvious tags, shows a precise ear for individual and revealing rhythms of speech. Her ironic detachment and technical skill have established her reputation with modern critics, but the deftness with which she pleases and instructs has endeared her works to generations of readers.

Beginning in the 1990s, every one of Austen’s novels was made into a film or television production, thereby generating a new and enthusiastic audience. Critics speculated that the restraint and courtesy with which Austen depicts human relationships had particular appeal in an age where those qualities were less valued.

Author Works Long Fiction: Sense and Sensibility, 1811 Pride and Prejudice, 1813 Mansfield Park, 1814 Emma, 1815 Northanger Abbey, 1818 Persuasion, 1818 Lady Susan, 1871 (novella) The Watsons, 1871 (fragment) Sanditon, 1925 (fragment), 1975 (completed by Anne Telscombe) Short Fiction: Minor Works, 1954 (volume 6 of the Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen; R. W. Chapman, editor) Nonfiction: Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, 1932 (R. W. Chapman, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Catherine, 1818 Lesley Castle, 1922 Three Sisters, 1933 Miscellaneous: Love and Freindship, and Other Early Works, 1922 Bibliography Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others. Edited by R. W. Chapman. 2 vols. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1932. The first collection of surviving Austen letters is arranged chronologically in two volumes with appendixes that give summary identifications of anyone who is ambiguously mentioned in the text of the letters. With corrected spelling and punctuation. Includes a map of eighteenth century Berkshire and Surrey, England. Brown, Julie Prewit. Jane Austen’s Novels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. Provides a somewhat feminist perspective on Austen as a conscious artist who masterfully employed ironic comedy and satiric realism. Five chapters explore the purpose and subtleties of each novel. Includes an eye-opening chapter on the artist as a woman writer. Bush, Douglas. Jane Austen. New York: Macmillan, 1975. This work, addressed to general readers, shows how Austen re-created themes from many minor eighteenth century writers. Each of Austen’s major works is summarized and briefly analyzed in an individual chapter. Copeland, Edward, and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Collection of thirteen essays is divided between those concerning Austen’s own world and those that address modern critical discourse, such as Claudia L. Johnson’s “Austen Cults and Cultures.” Some essays focus on Austen’s novels, whereas others deal with broad issues, such as class consciousness, religion, and domestic economy. This excellent overview includes a chronology and concludes with an assessment of late twentieth century developments in Austen scholarship. Galperin, William H. The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Careful study provides a fresh explication of Austen’s work. Examines how Austen used her fiction to serve as a “social and political” tool. Grey, J. David, ed. The Jane Austen Companion. New York: Macmillan, 1986. A collection of sixty-four essays from a wide range of academic and nonacademic lovers of Austen’s art. Individual essays cover a great variety of subjects and have diverse approaches. Includes “A Dictionary of Jane Austen’s Life and Works,” written by H. Abigail Bok. This volume is a comprehensive guide to both real and imagined places, people, and literary allusion in Austen’s work. Halperin, John. The Life of Jane Austen. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. A biographical study of Jane Austen’s life with a focus on the association between the life of the artist and the works she produced. Valuable for a realistic look at the life of a legendary figure. Includes illustrations. Lambdin, Laura Cooner, and Robert Thomas Lambdin, eds. A Companion to Jane Austen Studies. New York: Greenwood Press, 2000. Collection of twenty-two essays devoted to Austen’s works includes fourteen that examine her novels, including Sanditon and The Watsons—the two novels she left unfinished. Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen’s England. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Fascinating volume is full of illustrations that give Austen’s readers a look at the world of her novels. Arranged chronologically, taking the reader to the places Austen would have gone, usually through contemporary paintings. The first chapter, “The England of Jane Austen’s Time,” gives a good basic summary of social conditions around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Includes specific references to the novels; for example, a quote from the Box Hill episode in Emma is accompanied by a painting of Box Hill. Includes map, brief bibliography, and index. Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: A Family Record. London: British Library, 1989. Revision of the 1913 edition of Life and Letters of Jane Austen, written by a descendant of Austen’s nephew, James Edward. Thanks to additional extensive contemporary research, provides a thorough look at Austen’s life and the close-knit family on which she was financially dependent. Includes illustrations and a thorough chronology of Austen’s life. Lynch, Deidre, ed. Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Collection of nine essays explores the novelist as an enduring cultural phenomenon. Topics addressed include Austen’s novels as works of Regency pop fiction, Austen’s earliest readers and the reception of her work in the United States, and Austen and the discipline of novel studies. Mooneyham, Laura G. Romance, Language, and Education in Jane Austen’s Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Theorizes that a relationship exists among language, education, and romance in Austen’s work. Asserts that the romance between heroine and hero is in itself educational for the heroine because romance offers the opportunity for open communication. This approach is provocative and useful, especially because it emphasizes Austen’s own preoccupations. Covers all six of Austen’s complete novels in individual chapters. Menon, Patricia. Austen, Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and the Mentor-lover. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. An examination of how Austen, Eliot, and Brontë handled matters of gender, sexuality, family, behavior, and freedom in their work. Myer, Valerie Grosvenor. Jane Austen: Obstinate Heart. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1997. This biography of Jane Austen emphasizes her self-consciousness, born of an inferior social position and constant money worries. Still, she would refuse the proposal of a wealthy suitor because, as Myer states, Austen’s “obstinate heart” would only allow her to marry for love. Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997. Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Leisure. London: Hambledon Press, 1999. Examines the manners and customs of Austen’s class in her era and how Austen portrays them in her works. Sulloway, Alison. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989. Attempts to place Austen into a framework of “women-centered” authors such as Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Catharine Macaulay, to novelists Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Charlotte Smith. Counters early views of Austen as a conservative woman upholding the status quo in her novels. Suggests that Austen was a moderate feminist who sought reforms for women rather than outright revolution. Instead of reading Austen’s novels separately, Sulloway focuses on themes which she calls “provinces.” A valuable book which is thought-provoking and not overly theoretical. Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Todd, Janet M. The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Todd, an Austen scholar and editor of the author’s work, provides an overview of Austen’s life, her novels, the context in which they were written, and her works’ reception. Includes a detailed discussion of each novel, providing a good starting point for the study of her major works. Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998. Compelling account of Austen’s life is exceedingly well written and attempts to tell the story from the subject’s own perspective. Proceeding in chronological order, the book concludes with a postscript on the fates of Austen’s family members and two interesting appendixes: a note on Austen’s final illness and an excerpt from the diary of Austen’s niece Fanny. Waldron, Mary. Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Puts Austen’s writings in the context of other literary output of her era. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

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