Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) English author who wrote romantic fiction combined with social realism. Her famous novels include: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816).
Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire on 16th December 1775. She was the 7th daughter of an 8 child family. Her father, George Austen, was a vicar and lived on a reasonable income of £600 a year. However, although they were middle class, they were not rich; her father would have been unable to give much to help her daughters get married. Jane was brought up with her 5 brothers and her elder sister Cassandra. (another brother, Edward, was adopted by a rich, childless couple and went to live with them). Jane was close to her siblings, especially Cassandra, to whom she was devoted. The two sisters shared a long correspondence throughout her life; much of what we know about Jane comes from these letters, although, unfortunately Cassandra burnt a number of these on Jane’s death.
Jane was educated at Oxford and later a boarding school in Reading. In the early 1800s two of Jane’s brother’s joined the navy, leaving to fight in the Napoleonic wars; they would go on to become admirals. The naval connections can be seen in novels like Mansfield Park. After the death of her father in 1805, Jane, with her mother and sister returned to Hampshire. In 1809, her brother, Edward who had been brought up by the Knights, invited the family to the estate he had inherited at Chawton. It was in the country house of Chawton, that Jane was able to produce some of her greatest novels.
Novels of Jane Austen
Her novels are a reflection of her outlook on life. She spent most of her life insulated from certain sections of society. Her close friends were mainly her family, and those of similar social standing. It is not surprising then that her novels focused on 2 or 3 families of the middle or upper classes. Most novels were also based on the idyll of rural country houses that Jane was so fond of.
Her novels also focus on the issue of gaining a suitable marriage. Marriage was a big issue facing women and men of her time; often financial considerations were paramount in deciding marriages. As an author, Jane used to satirise these financial motivations, for example, in Pride and Prejudice the mother is ridiculed for her ambitions to marry her daughters for maximum financial remuneration. Jane, herself remained single throughout her life. Apart from brief flirtations, Jane remained single, and appeared to have little interest in getting married (unlike the characters of her novels.
The strength of Jane’s novels was her ability to gain penetrating insights into the character and nature of human relationships, from even a fairly limited range of environments and characters. In particular, she helped to redefine the role and aspirations of middle class women like herself. Through providing a witty satire of social conventions, she helped to liberate contemporary ideas of what women could strive for.
During her lifetime the novels were reasonably popular. One of her strongest supporters was Walter Scott. He said of her novels:
“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.“
King George IV actually requested that one novel could be dedicated to him. Emma is therefore dedicated to the King, even though Jane did not maintain any liking towards the King.
Not all were favourable to Jane. The literary critic and wit Mark Twain said:
“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.“
Death of Jane Austen
Jane died in 1816, aged only 41. She died of Addison’s disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands. She was buried at Winchester Cathedral.