Jane Austen, in a portrait based on one drawn by her sister Cassandra.
|Born:||16 December 1775
Steventon, Hampshire, England
|Died:||18 July 1817
Winchester, Hampshire, England
Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist. Her insights into women's lives and her mastery of form and irony have made her one of the most noted and influential novelists of her era despite being only moderately successful during her lifetime.
In 1775, Jane Austen was born at the rectory in Steventon, Hampshire, one of two daughters of the Rev. George Austen (1731–1805) and his wife Cassandra (née Leigh) (1739–1827). As an unmarried woman financially and socially dependant upon her parents, she remained in Steventon for most of her life. Her brothers James and Henry followed in the path of their father and joined the clergy, while Francis and Charles both pursued naval careers. She also had a sister, Cassandra, with whom she maintained a close relationship throughout her life. The abundant correspondence between the sisters provides historians with the greatest insight into Austen's past. The only undisputed portrait of Jane Austen is a somewhat rudimentary coloured sketch done by Cassandra, which currently resides in the National Portrait Gallery, London. In 1783, she was educated briefly by a relative in Oxford, then in Southampton, and finally in 1785–1786 attended the Reading Ladies boarding school in the Abbey gatehouse in Reading, Berkshire. This uncommonly advanced level of education may have contributed to her early proclivity towards writing, and she began her first novel in 1789.
Austen's life was not nearly as eventful as that of her characters. In 1801 the family moved to the socially esteemed spa city of Bath, which provides the setting for many of her novels; though Jane Austen, like her character Anne Elliot, seemed to have "persisted in a disinclination for Bath", although her dislike may have been influenced by the family's precarious financial situation in that city. In 1802 Austen received a marriage proposal from a wealthy but "big and awkward" man named Harris Bigg-Wither, who was six years her junior. Such a marriage would have freed her from some of the constraints and dependency then associated with the role of a spinster. Such considerations may have influenced her to initially accept his offer, only to change her mind and refuse him the following day. It seems clear that she did not love him. After the death of her father in 1805, Austen, her sister, and her mother lived in Southampton with her brother Frank and his family for several years before moving to Chawton in 1809. Here her wealthy brother Edward had an estate with a cottage, where he allowed his mother and sisters to live. This home is now a museum and is a popular site for tourists and literary pilgrims alike.
Austen lived the remainder of her life at Chawton, and wrote her later novels there. In 1816, she began to suffer from ill-health. It is now thought she may have suffered from Addison's disease, a failure of the adrenal glands that was often caused by tuberculosis. The disease was at that time unnamed. Her condition became increasingly unstable, and on July 18, 1817 she died at the age of forty one and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
Adhering to a common contemporary practice for female authors, Austen published her novels anonymously, 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 literature, Jane Austen was not an intensely passionate Romantic. Passionate emotion usually carries danger in an Austen novel and the young woman who exercises moderation is more likely to find real happiness than one who irrationally elopes with a capricious lover. Her artistic values had more in common with David Hume and John Locke than with her contemporaries William Wordsworth or Lord Byron. Among Austen's influences were Samuel Johnson, William Cowper, Samuel Richardson, George Crabbe and Fanny Burney. It should be noted that excessive calculation and practicality also tends to result in disaster in Austen novels.
Her posthumously published novel Northanger Abbey satirises the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, but Austen is most famous for her mature works, which took the form of socially astute comedies of manners. These, especially Emma, are often cited for their perfection of form, while modern critics continue to unearth new perspectives on Austen's keen commentary regarding the predicament of unmarried genteel English women in the late 1790s and early 1800s, a consequence of inheritance law and custom, which usually directed the bulk of a family's fortune to eldest male heirs.
Her novels received only moderate renown when they were published, though Sir Walter Scott in particular praised her work:
In Austen's final novel Persuasion, several characters read a work by Scott and praise it.
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. Twentieth century scholars ranked her among the greatest literary geniuses of the English language, sometimes even comparing her to Shakespeare.
Trilling wrote in an essay on Mansfield Park,
Negative views of Austen have been notable, with more demanding detractors frequently accusing her writing of being unliterary and middle-brow. Charlotte Brontë criticized the narrow scope of Austen's fiction:
Mark Twain's reaction was revulsion:
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 of quite 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, unliberated and disquieting. In her era options were limited, and both women and men often married for financial considerations. 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, honor and self-respect.
Austen's work is today considered an important part of the English literary canon and is the subject of a massive body of scholarly and critical work. The novels are also widely read in a non-academic setting, simply for pleasure.
Since her death, Austen's unfinished novels and minor works, including her Juvenilia (written in three notebook volumes between 1787 and 1793), have been published. Her major works have never been out of print.
Today, visitors remember Austen at two museums dedicated to her. The Jane Austen Centre in Bath is a public museum located in a Georgian House in Gay Street, just a few doors down the street from number 25 where Austen stayed in 1805. The Jane Austen's House Museum is located in Chawton cottage, in Hampshire, where Austen lived from 1809 to 1817.
In popular culture, Austen's novels have been adapted in a great number of film and television series, varying greatly in their faithfulness to the originals. Pride and Prejudice has been the most reproduced of her works, with six films, the most recent being the 2005 adaptation directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Bennett), Donald Sutherland (Mr. Bennett), Matthew Macfadyen (Mr. Darcy), and Dame Judi Dench (Lady Catherine de Bourgh), as well as the 2004 Bollywood adaptation Bride & Prejudice. Previously, there were five television series produced by the BBC, the most noteworthy being the well-loved 1995 version, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. The 2001 film Bridget Jones's Diary included characters and plot line inspired by the novel, though it is to be noted that this movie was based on a novel by Helen Fielding.
Emma has been adapted on television several times, first in 1948. Recent versions include a 1972 British television version, the 1995 teen film Clueless, in 1996 with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam, and also in 1996 on British television with Kate Beckinsale.
Sense and Sensibility has been made into four films including the 1995 version directed by Ang Lee and starring Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson (who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay). Persuasion has been adapted into two television series and one feature film. Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey have both been made into films. The 1980 film Jane Austen in Manhattan is about rival stage companies who wish to produce the only complete Austen play "Sir Charles Grandison" (from the Richardson novel of the same title), which was rediscovered in 1980.