Nearly two hundred years after her works first appeared, Jane Austen has the distinction of being widely read all over the world, and being considered by specialists as one of the most important English-language novelists. This eminence is surprising given the limited scope of her works: her narratives are primarily organised by the courtship of young gentlewomen in the period 1795-1810; her social scene is circumscribed by the drawing rooms, assembly rooms, walks and gardens of the minor landed gentry; her concern is primarily with the correct assessment of character and with right conduct. What makes this elementary matter of interest today is her extraordinary skill in drawing characters, many of whom remain indelibly etched in readers' minds, the elegant economy of her plot, and her skill in showing through irony how different characters present themselves to the world, and either understand or fail to understand the world. In these formal respects Austen was a supreme innovator to whom all subsequent novelists have been indebted. Austen has also been particularly valued in recent years by feminist critics who have appreciated the high intelligence of her heroines and of her discriminating writing.
“Of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course.” This remark made by Jane Austen's nephew J. E. Austen-Leigh on the first page of his A Memoir of Jane Austen (1870) famously conveys the world-view her class liked to sustain despite the Napoleonic wars and the boom in agrarian capitalism which transformed gentry fortunes in her lifetime. Jane Austen was the seventh child and second daughter of Cassandra Leigh Austen (1739-1827), who had distant connections to a duke and was related to Lord Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey, the largest landowner in Warwickshire. Austen's father was the Reverend George Austen (1731-1805), rector of the modest parish of Steventon in Hampshire. Her father had been given the living of Steventon by another distant cousin, Thomas Knight of Godmersham Park near Canterbury. George Austen also had the benefit of the neighbouring parish of Deane thanks to his uncle Francis who had already paid for his education at Tonbridge School and supported him through Oxford. These benefices indicate that George Austen was a minor and relatively impecunious member of the landed gentry, sufficiently related to those of wealth to have a life of modest ease, but without means to provide his daughters with dowries or his widow with adequate means of support.
To supplement his revenue from his clerical livings, George Austen, like many rectors in this period, was seriously engaged in farming, having over 100 acres under the management of a factotum, and he also tutored some of the sons of local gentlemen, including Lord Lymington, son of the Earl of Portsmouth, and the son of Warren Hastings, first governor general of British India. He had a carriage, but, like Mr Woodhouse in Emma, had horses which did double service pulling carts for the farm. When his children were young, the family must have felt economically secure, but the agricultural revolution was rapidly and radically changing the nature of landed wealth and the growing power of the professional and mercantile classes created competitive economic pressures on the gentry. Of Austen's children, the eldest (James, 1765-1819) would follow his father as a country clergyman holding livings in Hampshire and in Warwickshire (where he put in a curate and never visited); the second eldest (George, 1766-1852) was handicapped so put with other people and largely unmentioned; the third son (Edward, 1767-1852) would be adopted by Thomas Knight and become his heir at Godmersham. The fourth son (Henry, 1771-1850) served as a Captain in the Oxfordshire militia, one of the many regiments raised to defend against French invasion, then moved into banking (January 1801), made rather a fortune, then lost it and more (1815), and sought his final consolations in the clergy. The fifth son (Francis, a.k.a “Frank”, 1774-1865) and the sixth (Charles, 1779-1852) had the good fortune to reach maturity as the Napoleonic wars devastated Europe. At age 12 Frank entered the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth and rose to the rank of admiral, growing rich on prize money for taking French vessels. Charles followed a similar path. The two sisters, Jane (1775-1817) and Cassandra (1773-1845) were the fifth and seventh children to be born, therefore relatively young members of the large and predominantly male family. They would remain close and unmarried, one may presume hindered from marriage by lack of dowries if not by their high intelligence.
The early life of Jane and Cassandra is marked by few conspicuous events. In 1783 they were sent to school in Oxford (where brother James was currently studying), then to Southampton where they caught typhus, of which Jane nearly died, and in 1784-6 they were sent to the Abbey School in Reading, but otherwise they were educated at home. Family life was warm, humourous and loving; George Austen tutored his own children along with his paying pupils and taught his daughters just as well as he taught his boys, not least because lacking dowries they might need to seek employment as governesses. Relaxation in the family came from occasional visits to Bath and to relatives, monthly dances at the Assembly Rooms in Basing (now Basingstoke), amateur dramatics, and from piano-playing and dancing, both of which Jane particularly enjoyed. Reading privately or aloud from works both serious and light — notably contemporary poetry and novels — was very much part of everyday life and it is clear that Austen had read widely in Richardson (particularly Sir Charles Grandison ), Fielding, Sterne, novels of sentiment and gothic terror, and poetry. The prose of Johnson — whose cadences are everywhere in her writing — Cowper's poem The Task, and the very successful novels of Frances Burney — Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796) — were particularly influential.
From an early age Austen's letters, sketches and drafts reveal an acute critical understanding of contemporary literary genres, sharp ironic wit and brilliant stylistic control, notably when she is parodying the presumptions of a style, whether a literary convention or everyday mode of address. Her precocious literary talent seems to stem from a smartness in her personality which not everyone admired: her sister-in-law-to-be, Eliza de Feuillide, thought her prim, whimsical and affected. One local matron considered her the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly. Her early writings portray just such types (and a good many more), mainly through parodies of contemporary novelistic technique. Notable amongst these works are three short and sportive epistolary novels, Love and Friendship (1789), A Collection of Letters (1791) and Lady Susan (1793-94), each more mature than the last but still evidently the work of a brilliant apprentice who is dissecting and displaying ways of telling stories. Then in 1795-8, just as Austen turns 20, we find her working on two novels in letters which will be published after several revisions and some sixteen years: Elinor and Marianne (drafted 1795) is a tale of antithesis, exploring contemporary questions about proper feminine conduct through the contrast between the rational Elinor and the romantic Marianne who falls hopelessly in love with the dashing John Willoughby, predictably to have her heart broken. Austen would re-work this novel in 1797-98 into Sense and Sensibility, its title perhaps too clearly giving the clue to its exploration of the limits of Romantic freedom. First Impressions (drafted October 1796 to August 1797, then eventually published as Pride and Prejudice in 1813) also takes some of its impulse from contemporary events, the narrative involving the effect on a Hampshire family rather like Austen's own of billetting a militia regiment in the local town. In this novel the witty and attractive heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, has too much pride in herself and the pertinacity of her own opinions to admit her love for the haughty and eminently desirable Mr Darcy. Finally, however, as in the long line of romances which descend from this archetype, the two will learn to respect each other's estimable qualities and the wedding bells will peal.
Successful as Austen's writing became in the 1810s, there was something in it which held it back from earlier public acceptability — probably its independent quality of mind, its ironic play with such received ideas as those with which Pride and Prejudice resonantly opens: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.” In 1797 George Austen offered First Impressions to Thomas Cadell, but he turned it down without a reading. Austen then wrote Susan (1798-9), a novel comically revising materials from her first visit to Bath in 1797 (and perhaps also from her second in 1799) and parodying the conventions of the sentimental and gothic fiction. Susan was to be the first work she sold — to Crosby in 1803 for £10 — and her last to be published, as Northanger Abbey (1818). For reasons unkown, Crosby failed to publish Susan so it languished until bought back by Henry Austen in 1809 (and then languished again until, after Austen's death, Henry provided the new title and sold it and Persuasion to John Murray in 1817). Only in the 1810s, when the political climate was less nervous and when Austen's work itself had undergone several revisions, notably dropping epistolary narration, the predominant eighteenth-century mode, and inventing a new narrative — impersonal, ironic omniscience — was it to be commercially acceptable.
Austen's apparently settled and productive life as a writer was transformed utterly in May 1801 when George Austen retired from his Steventon living, hired his eldest son as a curate in his stead, and moved to Bath. One can only assume that this translation highlighted the question hanging over the future of his wife and daughters. Just at this time Austen had one, and possibly two romantic experiences: the first, suppositious, was with a young clergyman met on holiday in Sidmouth in 1801, who sadly died; the second, certain, was in December 1802 when Harris Bigg-Wither, a family friend proposed, was accepted, went to bed a happy man, and woke to hear that his bride-to-be had changed her mind. Bigg-Wither offered a fine house in Hampshire and union with respected family friends of the Austens; but he was taciturn, stuttered, and was no intellectual match. (Turning him down was just the kind of decision made by Elizabeth Bennet in response to Mr Collins and these experiences are also thought to lie behind an incomplete novel, The Watsons, which was begun in 1804, left unfinished, and published in her nephew's Memoir of 1871).
The Austens moved to Bath at a time when it was past its heyday. The Assembly Rooms, once so famously smart, were now less well attended, in part because fashionable society was moving to coastal resorts such as Brighton (following the Prince Regent), and in part because too many of the lower orders were obtaining tickets of entry. Rather in the way of other declining resorts, the accommodation was taken up by the elderly retired who had sufficient but not grand means. During these years (1801-1804) the Austens appear to have taken several summer holidays to seaside resorts on the south coast of Dorset and Devon which were becoming fashionable — Sidmouth, Teignmouth, Charmouth, Dawlish, Lyme Regis — and which would be mentioned in her works.
In 1805 the Reverend George Austen died, his stipend as rector came to an end, leaving his wife and daughters confronting the actual poverty which always haunts women of the minor gentry in Austen's world. Fortunately Mrs Austen's sons clubbed together to make up her income to the £600 enjoyed when Mr Austen was alive, thus saving her from misery and their sisters from the “slave-trade” of governessing. Nonetheless, Bath being more and more invaded by the lower classes (meaning in this case the commercial middle class and lower-middle class), accommodation was a problem and the Austen women joined up with their friend Martha Lloyd and moved to Clifton, another genteel spa town on the hill above Bristol, then to Southampton where Frank Austen, now a Captain and having made some prize money, rented a house for his new wife, his mother and sisters, then in 1809 eventually settling in a cottage belonging to Edward Austen (soon to change his name to Edward Knight) at Chawton in Hampshire. Here their income sufficed for one indoor servant and one outdoor, and for social amusement they could rely on occasional parties in the great houses of their Hampshire connections.
Austen was to live in this small house and in the company of these three other women on a very limited budget until her death eight years later. But it was also here that she was to experience her literary success, writing before she began her household duties every morning, revising two earlier novels and producing three entirely new ones .
In 1810 Austen again revised Sense and Sensibility and sent it to T. Egerton of Whitehall who agreed to publish at the author's expense. Egerton published Sense and Sensibility on 30th October 1811 and saw it sell out by 1813, justifying a second edition, and making its author the respectable sum of £140. As her first published novel reached the public Austen was already at work on Mansfield Park, a novel which centres on Fanny Price, a young woman who is taken up by grand relations on her mother's side—Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park—and who will eventually prove the philosophical and moral exemplar her adoptive family needs in order to justify its continuity. In 1812 she finished revising Pride and Prejudice and sold it for £110. It was published in 1813, did well, receiving the commendation of the Prince Regent himself (to Austen's dismay, for she derogated his dissipation), went to a second edition in the same year and to a third in 1817. In 1813 she finished Mansfield Park and saw the second edition of Sense and Sensibility. In 1814 Mansfield Parkwas published by Egerton and sold out in six months. It would go to an unprofitable second edition in 1816.
Emma was next, begun in 1814, finished by the end of March 1815, published that December. Emma is a comedy of misreading, the charming heroine, Emma Woodhouse, being a schemer of romantic matches and marriages who charmingly mistakes everything, even her own love for the most eligible bachelor around, her close friend Mr Knightley. Austen's narration in Emma produces a masterpiece of irony as the reader is led to sympathise with and like the heroine, even whilst she is, with the best will in the world, making a fool of herself.
Austen began work on her next novel, Persuasion, in August 1815, finishing it in July 1816, shortly after Sir Walter Scott offered fulsome praise of Emma in the the March issue of the prestigious Quarterly Review, just about the highest accolade a novelist of this day could receive. Persuasion, published posthumously in 1818, tells the story of the love of Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth which seven years previously had been prevented by lack of money, but which now becomes possible through the prize money Wentworth has earned in the Napoleonic Wars. Woven into this narrative is a moral and historical contrast between the vain obsession of Mr Ellliot with his aristocratic pretensions which has led to the ruin of his own estate, and the newfound wealth and moral realism of naval officers, typified by Admiral Croft who comes to rent Kellynch Hall.
In 1817 Austen was falling ill with Parkinson's disease but she nonetheless began work on Sanditon, a satire on invalidism and the speculative conversion of a fishing village into a Regency bathing resort. She managed to write twelve chapters before she died on the 18th July. She was buried in Winchester cathedral.
Austen's novels were successful in her own day with readers of genteel birth and literary sophistication but were far from being bestsellers and certainly not on a par with the historical novels of Walter Scott or the gothic novels of Matthew Lewis. Austen's critical reputation through the middle nineteenth century seems to have been a rather underground or female affair, to judge by G. H. Lewes's essay calling attention to her merits in Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine (July, 1859), the more especially when contrasted with Scott whose works, bound in leather, seemed the necessary furnishing of gentlemen's libraries. However Austen's reputation begins to rise towards the end of the century, her work being notably appreciated in the essays and prefaces of Henry James. In the twentieth she was often seen as on a par with Shakespeare, as Macaulay had predicted in a rare and appreciative essay published in the Edinburgh Review in 1843. Such a status was not unequivocally endorsed, Shakespeare being in every sense broader in technique and understanding. Austen's narrow concern with domestic life sets radical limits on what her novels can explore, but it is this narrowness which now seems most typical: where eighteenth-century novels had often followed the adventures of picaresque rogues and her own contemporaries had sought the historically significant — what Scott called “the big bow-wow” — or the bizarre and horrific, Austen brought high intelligence and moral realism to apparently banal middle-class life. Her kind of discriminating observation was to become the ground of most valuable novel writing in the twentieth-century, the other currents feeding adventure and escapist fiction. In order to refine this moral realism, Austen needed to develop techniques which are now part of every novel writer's repertoire: she practically invented the free-indirect style (although there are intimations in Mrs Radcliffe and even occasionally in Fielding) and thus made it possible for an apparently omniscient narrator to tell a tale as if impersonally, whilst in fact implying an ironic discrepancy between what is represented and how it should be read. This invention enabled her to develop humorous characterisation which transcends the limits of caricature, and to develop a psychological understanding of characters which makes many of them entirely remarkable to this day.
Citation: Clark, Robert. "Jane Austen". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 January 2001; last revised 15 March 2010. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5167, accessed 09 December 2023.]