AUSTEN, JANE (1775–1817), English novelist.
Jane Austen is one of the most important English-language novelists and probably the earliest woman writer whose work is consistently considered part of the canon of great literature. She completed six novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1817), and Persuasion (1817). Her work was widely read during her lifetime and has been popularly and critically acclaimed since her death.
Her first four novels were published anonymously during her lifetime (though her identity was known to many), her last two posthumously. Stylistically and thematically, her work anticipates that of later nineteenth-century authors, including realist novelists such as Charles Dickens (1812–1870) and popular writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837–1915).
For many decades family members and biographers portrayed Austen as a reclusive spinster and an apolitical portraitist of village life, and praised her for her style and modest purview. However, since the 1970s critics have been more willing to study Austen in broadly historical rather than narrowly biographical context and to recognize the critiques of gender, class, and imperialism that are intrinsic to her works.
Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775, in the village of Steventon, in rural Hampshire, England, where her father was the rector, or head priest. As was typical of educated families at that time, five of her brothers were better schooled than Jane and her sister Cassandra (one brother, George, was disabled and an exception). The Austens were socially well connected—they traveled in what is called "polite" society, which consisted of locally elite families—but were of very modest means. Her father's death in 1805 left Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister in difficult financial circumstances (her brothers were by that time independent). As a single, middle-class woman, Austen had few options for earning her living; she made some money from her novels, but was never self-supporting. She spent most of her adult life without her own home or income, dependent on her brothers, and obliged to accept the living arrangements others imposed on her. As an adult she lived in various places, including the resort town of Bath, where some of her novels take place. She died on 18 July 1817 in Winchester at the age of forty-two, probably of Addison's disease.
SCOPE OF THE NOVELS
In an 1814 letter, Austen wrote that "3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on." All of her novels center on a few comfortable families in a provincial setting, and in all of them the protagonist is a young, single woman who marries at the end of the novel. In Sense and Sensibility, sensible Elinor Dashwood suffers heart-sickness but ends happily married to Edward Ferrars, while her overly romantic sister Marianne,Page 131 | Top of Article subdued by illness, ends engaged to Colonel Brandon. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet overcomes her prejudice, and the extremely wealthy Mr. Darcy his pride, and the two find love and marriage with one another. Such settings and plots seem in some ways limited, and Austen herself called her work a "little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour."
GENDER, CLASS, AND IMPERIALISM IN THE NOVELS
For many years critics tended to take Austen's self-effacing descriptions of her work at face value. Austen was praised as a brilliant stylist, but one whose work was divorced from the larger concerns of the day. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries scholars have revised their opinions of her life and work. While Austen was single, she was hardly reclusive; on the contrary, she was involved in the lives of her nieces and nephews; was close to her sister, Cassandra; and was part of a supportive network of female friends. Her novels are shaped by her love of contemporary theater and her appreciation of regency society as fundamentally theatrical. They also reflect her readings of and critiques of contemporary novels and ideas about them; many characters in her novels are novel-readers, and Northanger Abbey is a satire of the gothic novels with which it competed in the marketplace.
Austen is also recognized as a critic of gender and class hierarchies. She was a harsh observer of the legal, economic, and cultural limitations placed on the women of the upper-middle classes who were her main characters. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters must marry because they cannot inherit their father's "entailed" estate—that privilege is reserved for a distant male relation. Women in polite circles could not earn a living without giving up their respectability; marriage was the only economic alternative—the only career—open to them. All of Austen's heroines marry happily and well, but not all marriages in the novels are successful; many minor characters have unhappy or loveless marriages. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr. Collins not because she loves him but because she knows that she needs a husband. Furthermore, many unmarried female characters suffer economic deprivation. In Emma, the widowed Mrs. Bates and her unmarried adult daughter Miss Bates are of Emma's social circle, but are forced by their small income to live in rented rooms. This brings them perilously close to lower-middle-class status, and subjects them to Emma's social derision.
Finally, much attention has been paid during the 1990s to the relationship between Austen and imperialism. The theorist of empire Edward Said maintains that Mansfield Park, in which Sir Thomas Bertram's wealth is derived from a plantation in Antigua maintained by slave labor, was a key part of an imperial culture that helped to make later expansion and oppression possible. The 1999 film version of Mansfield Park reinforces other critical readings of the novel that see slavery as the core of the moral satirePage 132 | Top of Article of Mansfield Park, and the Bertram estate represented in it as morally blighted. Recent outpourings of Austen criticism and film interpretations of Austen's novels demonstrate the author's ongoing significance and relevance to contemporary culture.
Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters. Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1995.
Fraiman, Susan. "Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism." In Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, edited by Deidre Lynch, 206–223. Princeton, N.J., 2000.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York, 1993.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York, 1997.
SUSIE L. STEINBACH