Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)

Jane Austen (December 16, 1775- July 18, 1817) was a prominent English novelist whose work is considered part of the Western canon.

Her insights into women's lives and her mastery of form and irony made her arguably the most noted and influential novelist of her era.

Jane Austen was born at the rectory in Steventon, Hampshire, in 1775, daughter to the Rev. George Austen (1731-1805) and his wife Cassandra (nee Leigh) (1739-1827). She lived in the area for most of her life and never married. She had six brothers and one older sister, Cassandra, to whom she was very close. The only undisputed portrait of Jane Austen is a coloured sketch done by Cassandra which resides in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Her brothers Frank and Charles went to sea, eventually becoming admirals. In 1783, she was educated briefly by a relative in Oxford, then at Southampton. In 1785-1786, she was educated at the Reading Ladies boarding school in the Abbey gatehouse in Reading, Berkshire. In general, she received an education superior to that generally given to girls of her time, and took early to writing, her first tale begun in 1789.

Austen's life was a singularly uneventful one and, but for a disappointment in love, tranquil and happy. In 1801 the family moved to Bath, the scene of many episodes in her writings. In 1802 Austen received a marriage proposal from a wealthy young man named Harris Bigg-Wither, whom she first accepted, but then refused the next day. Having refused this offer of marriage, Austen never subsequently married. After the death of her father in 1805, Austen, her sister, and her mother lived with her brother Frank and his family for several years until they moved in 1809 to Chawton. Here her wealthy brother Edward had an estate with a cottage, which he turned over to his mother and sisters. (Their house today is open to the public.)

Austen continued to live in relative seclusion and began to suffer ill-health. It is now thought she may have suffered from Addison's disease. She traveled to Winchester in 1817 to seek medical attention, but so rapid was the progress of her malady that she died two months later and was buried in the cathedral.

Adhering to contemporary convention for female authors, Austen published her novels anonymously. Her novels achieved a measure of popular success and esteem yet her anonymity kept her out of leading literary circles. Although all her works are love stories and although her career coincided with the Romantic movement in English literature, Jane Austen was no Romantic. Passionate emotion usually carries danger in an Austen novel and the young woman who exercises rational moderation is more likely to find real happiness than one who elopes with a lover. Her artistic values had more in common with David Hume and John Locke than with her contemporaries William Wordsworth or Lord Byron. Three of Austen's favorite influences were Samuel Johnson, William Cowper and Fanny Burney.

Her novels were fairly received when they were published, with Sir Walter Scott in particular praising her work:

"That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements of feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with."

Austen also earned the admiration of Macaulay (who thought that in the world there were no compositions which approached nearer to perfection), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Sydney Smith, and Edward FitzGerald. Nonetheless, she was a somewhat overlooked author for several decades following her death. Interest in her work revived during the late nineteenth century. Twentieth century scholars rated her among the greatest talents in English letters, sometimes even comparing her to Shakespeare. Lionel Trilling and Edward Said were important Austen critics.

Negative views of Austen have been notable, with more demanding detractors frequently accusing her writing of being un-literary and middle-brow. Charlotte Brontë criticized the narrow scope of Austen's fiction. Mark Twain's reaction was one of revulsion:

"Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book."

Austen's literary strength lies in the delineation of character, especially of women, by delicate touches arising out of the most natural and everyday incidents in the life of the middle and upper classes, from which her subjects are generally taken. Her characters, though ordinary types, are drawn with such firmness and precision, and with such significant detail as to retain their individuality intact through their entire development, and they are uncoloured by her own personality. Her view of life seems largely genial, with a strong dash of gentle but keen irony.

Some contemporary readers may find the world she describes, in which people's chief concern is obtaining advantageous marriages, to be unliberated and disquieting. Options were limited in this era and both women and men often married for money. Female writers worked within the similarly narrow genre of romance. Part of Austen's prominent reputation rests on how well she integrates observations on the human condition within a convincing love story. Much of the tension in her novels arises from balancing financial necessity against other concerns: love, friendship, and morals.

Books by Jane Austen