Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Major works:
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Mansfield Park (1814)
Emma (1816)
Persuasion (1818)
Northanger Abbey (1818)

Biographical notes

purple bullet Austen was the seventh child of eight in a country clergyman's family, and she grew up in comfortable circumstances that permitted a "proper gentlewoman's" education: primarily sewing, embroidery, singing, piano, French, Italian, etc. More important than her formal education, consisting of four years of boarding school, was the extensive reading her father encouraged from the family library. In a time when novels were morally suspect, the Austen family were "great novel readers and not ashamed of being so," and before she was in her teens Jane was writing stories and theatricals as family entertainment.

purple bullet Her father tried unsuccessfully to get several of her early stories published, including an early version of Pride and Prejudice called First Impressions. Three of Austen's greatest novels, including Pride and Prejudice, were originally drafted before the turn of the nineteenth century: the years of revising and refining resulted in the brilliantly polished work that makes Austen one of the greatest of all British novelists.

purple bullet Austen never married, although there were at least three close calls: one suitor who died shortly after proposing, one whose family put an end to their courtship because Austen would bring no wealth to the marriage, and one whose proposal Austen accepted only to decline the next day because while she liked the man, she did not love him (something of a bold decision for a woman in Austen's circumstances in this era). Her life was relatively pleasant and free from major drama; while her family means were never so great as to permit a purely genteel life of leisure, she mostly lived the good country life described in her novels: lots of quality family time, with occasional balls and extended social visits for variety. Austen was greatly admired in her own time, though some in the mid-nineteenth century (Charlotte Bront
ё, e.g.) were critical of her work's lack of "passion." From the 1870s forward, however, critical appreciation of Austen has never waned. Rudyard Kipling humorously portrayed the "cult of Austen" that arose beginning in the 1870s in his 1924 story "The Janeites," in which World War I soldiers cope with the horrors or war through a secret society based on deep admiration of Austen's novels.

General features of the novels

purple bullet The novels are notably unconcerned with major political and historical events of her time, which included the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and increasing social upheaval accompanying England's rapid industrialization in the early 1800s.  Far too modestly, Austen described her writing as a "little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour."  More than momentous historical matters and "adventure," Austen's novels are concerned with timeless universals, and they demonstrate quite evidently her "comprehensive knowledge of human nature" (Baugh 1205).

purple bullet Northanger Abbey more particularly parodies the gothic novels popular in the 1790s, but on the whole Austen's novels are considered "novels of manners," which are concerned largely with portraying the social customs and conventions of a particular social class: "In the true novel of manners the mores of a specific group, described in detail and with great accuracy, become powerful controls over characters. The novel of manners is often, although by no means always, satiric; it is always realistic, however" (Harmon and Holman 345). Pride and Prejudice is a classic example of the genre.

purple bullet Austen plots are generally free of "adventure" or coincidence, dealing mostly with domestic matters and affairs of the heart. Austen famously advised a niece interested in writing novels to concentrate only on subject matter she knew intimately from first-hand experience, saying "3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on."

purple bullet Austen is recognized as a master of comedy, with works ranging from rather pointed satire (Northanger Abbey, e.g.) to the typically more gently ironic humor we find predominant in Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

purple bullet Austen novels involve relationship difficulties between conflicting personalities, and usually her primary characters undergo a process of "self-education and self-correction" effected through a series of tribulations and misunderstandings (Baugh 1203-4).

purple bullet Austen's work strikes some modern readers as having feminist undertones, though she is generally considered a socially very conservative writer.  Austen's more outspoken and independent female protagonists learn to moderate mild tendencies to "brazenness": she seems to recommend that "a sound education, a marriage based on congenial dispositions as well as passion, and social decorum give the best promise to happiness in life" (Baugh 1204).

A few themes, motifs, and features to consider as you read Emma

purple bullet Classic novel structure: exposition, complications and crises, climax, denouement.

purple bullet Irony and humor: mockery of social tradition and satire of specific social and personality types.

purple bullet Competing views of marriage: practical considerations, sordid reality, and the ideal.

purple bullet Psychological realism and character development—even as objects of satire, Austen's characters are credible, consistent human beings of some depth.

purple bullet As bildungsroman or novel of initiation: self-education, self-correction, growth and change in the main characters.

purple bullet Feminist and forward thinking? Or politically, socially conservative?

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