Jane Austen was born into the rural professional middle class. Her father, George Austen (1731-1805), was a country clergyman at Steventon, a small village in the southern English county of Hampshire. He had risen by merit from a Kentish family in trade and the lower professions. Jane Austen's mother, Cassandra Leigh Austen (1739-1827), was from a higher social rank, minor gentry related distantly to titled people, but once she married the Reverend Austen in 1764 she entered wholeheartedly and with humor into the domestic life and responsibilities of managing a household economy by no means luxurious, bearing eight children--six sons and two daughters. In this setting the Austens mingled easily with other gentrified professionals and with local gentry families.
Yet they were also linked, though tenuously in some ways, with the larger world of fashionable society and of patronage, politics, and state. George Austen owed his education at Oxford University to his own merit as a student at Tonbridge School, but he owed his clerical position, or "living," at Steventon to the patronage of a wealthy relative, Thomas Knight of Godmersham Park, Kent, who held the appointment in his gift. Later the Knights, who were childless, adopted one of the Austens' sons, Edward, as their own son and heir to their estates in Kent and Hampshire. One of Jane Austen's cousins, Elizabeth (Eliza) Hancock, married a French aristocrat--Jean Capotte, Comte de Feuillide. The comte was guillotined during the French Revolution, and Eliza later married Jane Austen's brother Henry. Local friends of the Austens included the Reverend George Lefroy and his wife, Anne, sister of an eccentric, novel-writing, obsessively aristocratic Kentish squire, Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges. "Madam Lefroy," as she was known locally, was lively and energetic, wrote verses (some of which got published), enthusiastically embraced the contemporary literature and culture of Sensibility, and engaged in fashionable philanthropy among the local poor. She "took up" the young Jane Austen and encouraged her intellectual development. The closest friends of Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, were Elizabeth, Catherine, and Alethea Bigg, whose parents were local gentry and whose brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, later proposed marriage to Jane Austen. Other close friends were Mary and Martha Lloyd, daughters of a neighboring clergyman, whose mother was the daughter of a royal governor of South Carolina.
Austen's brothers, apart from Edward, went in for genteel but demanding professions. Her eldest brother, James (1765-1819), who had literary tastes and intellectual interests, followed his father's path to St. John's College, Oxford, and eventually became his father's successor as rector of Steventon. Her second brother, George (1766-1838), was born handicapped and did not play a part in the family life. The third son was Edward (1767-1852), who was adopted by the Knights and took over the Knight estates in 1797. The fourth child, Henry (1771-1850), was the liveliest, the most adventurous and the most speculative of the Austens. Like James, he went to St. John's College, Oxford, but instead of taking orders upon graduation he joined the army, gave that up for the relatively ungenteel line of banking, and married his glamorous widowed cousin, Eliza de Feuillide. When his bank failed in 1816 during the economic crisis following the Napoleonic Wars, he fell back on his father's profession and became a clergyman. The next child, Cassandra (1773-1845), was Jane's closest friend throughout her life and was known in the family for her steady character and sound judgment. Like Jane, she never married. Her fiancé, the Reverend Thomas Fowle, died while serving as a military chaplain in the West Indies in 1797. The two youngest Austen boys, Francis (1774-1865) and Charles (1779-1852), were trained at the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth, became officers, served in the French wars, and rose to the rank of admiral.
Though the issues and interests of the wider world may have come from afar somewhat muffled, they did flow through the rectory at Steventon, and later--less muffled--through the other habitations and homes of Jane Austen as well. But the rectory at Steventon with its lively, frank, and intimate yet open family life was her first and formative home. Her parents had a close and happy marriage. Her mother was thoroughly domestic yet commonsensical and humorous; her father was kind, loving, and encouraging to his daughters as well as his sons. Jane, known as "Jenny" in the family, was well liked by her brothers, who were often at home even while students at Oxford or Portsmouth, and who visited their sisters when they were away briefly at school.
The family members were readers, though more in literature of the day than abstruse learning. There was also a great deal of reading aloud in the Austen household. Many families at the time would have one of their members read to the others while they carried out small tasks. Reading aloud was considered a highly valuable professional and social skill, and the Reverend Mr. Austen, not surprisingly, excelled at it. The topic was later made a major point in Mansfield Park (1814). Jane Austen was helped by her father to select from his five-hundred-volume library, and there were, of course, books from circulating libraries. These rental libraries, greatly varying in extent of stock and luxury of appointment, specialized in lighter reading. They were the main way that middle-class people, who made up most of the reading public, got access to books and magazines of the day, which were otherwise quite expensive. For example a typical three-volume novel of the kind Austen wrote cost the equivalent of about two weeks' wages for a rural laborer (about half of the laboring class could not read, however). Like other families with literary interests, the Austens also enjoyed putting on plays. There was a vogue for such amateur domestic theatricals in the latter part of the eighteenth century. It was not surprising in such a family for Jane Austen to take to writing before she was even in her teens, and for her to amuse her family throughout her adolescence with burlesques of various kinds of literature.
This early domestic writing shows a firm grasp of the current literary genres as well as literary styles, conventions, and clichés. Prose fiction was the major but not the only object of Austen's parody. "The Visit" and "The Mystery" burlesque popular late-eighteenth-century sentimental comedy. "The History of England from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st" burlesques the objectivity, factuality, and authoritativeness of historiography, then considered a male discourse, by deliberately inserting attributes that would then have been considered "feminine," such as open prejudice, frank admission of ignorance, and occasional expressive passages, while making fun of the conventions of cause and effect and displaying a prominent interest in the sufferings of historical "women of feeling" such as Mary, Queen of Scots. "A Collection of Letters," with its letter "from a young lady crossed in love to her freind [sic]" and letter "from a young lady in distress'd circumstances to her friend," burlesques another kind of desultory sentimental text of the time. Other fragments parody sentimental didacticism and sentimental travel writing.
Austen's main interest, however, was in the varieties of prose fiction. For example "Frederic and Elfrida: A Novel" burlesques the contemporary sentimental novel, with its ideal hero and heroine, interspersed letters and verses, elegant dialogue, noble feelings, pathetic incidents, and plot of delayed courtship. "Jack and Alice: A Novel," "Edgar and Emma: A Tale," "Henry and Eliza: A Novel," and "The Beautiful Cassandra: A Novel in Twelve Chapters" burlesque such novel conventions as the opening in medias res, the use of short racy chapters, names taken from Burke's Peerage, scenes of fashionable dissipation, extensive use of correspondence, inset narratives, fatal attractions, and glamorously distressed protagonists. "The Generous Curate: A Moral Tale," "The Adventures of Mr Harley," "Sir William Mountague," and "Memoirs of Mr Clifford" burlesque the newly popular form of the tale, or brief narrative, often packed with incident and characters lightly sketched, in contrast to the more extended treatment of "sentiment" in novels. The epistolary novel, still much in vogue and the most obviously "sentimental" form of fiction by the 1780s, is burlesqued in "Amelia Webster," "The Three Sisters: A Novel," "Love and Friendship: A Novel in a Series of Letters," and "Lesley Castle: An Unfinished Novel in Letters." The last two, along with "Evelyn" and "Catherine; or, The Bower" are more extended satires on novelistic "heroinism," and several of these burlesques suggest a connection between sentimentalism, which was a common object of criticism in the Austen family, and other kinds of social and even political transgression. A fragment of a burlesque apparently to be called "The Female Philosopher" indicates that Austen was familiar with the increasing tendency in the 1790s to associate Sentimentalism, female appropriation of "philosophy" or social criticism from the period before the French Revolution, and the feminism of writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays, inspired by the egalitarian doctrines of the Revolution.
Austen's main techniques of satiric undermining are familiar ones. Simply by drastically abbreviating some forms she achieves a burlesque effect, for example packing material that could fill out a three-volume novel into a ludicrously rushed few pages. Other devices are the exaggeration of heroic language into purple patches, mixing vulgar colloquialisms with such language, terminating heroic incidents with bathos, the adoption of a nonchalant and provocatively unprofessional narrative character, and flagrantly disregarding conventions of narrative continuity and plotting. These devices reappear, toned down, in her later, full-length novels. Austen's burlesques are minor but amusing pieces and show excellent familiarity with generic and stylistic conventions of many kinds. Perhaps more important, Austen's will to parody was an acceptably feminine exercise of critical thought, especially applied to the culture of writing. In her time such critical thought was seen as primarily an activity for men, especially in the professions.
Furthermore, critical response to classic and contemporary literature was no mere aesthetic diversion at that time, but a major way of participating in civic culture. "Literature of the day," as it was called, included novels, plays, light verse as well as more serious poetry, magazines, and so on; this literature expressed and reflected the interests and concerns of those who wrote and read it, and these writers and readers were, like the Austens, mainly professional middle-class people. They condemned what they saw as aristocratic snobbery, upper-class decadence, and the patronage system that spread from the royal court and government through the rest of society. They also condemned middle-class emulation of their social "betters" and upper-class cultural domination of society through the fashion system, or "the ton." During the 1780s and 1790s, for example, middle-class observers were repeatedly scandalized by the moral misconduct and abuse of social position by the Prince of Wales and his brothers, supposedly the leaders of society. At the same time, the middle classes were becoming increasingly concerned about the condition and the culture of the lower classes. Much middle-class social criticism warned against contamination from the "vulgar." Such warnings became more urgent during the "Revolution Debate" of the 1790s, when the middle and upper classes had to take sides on the nature and significance of the French Revolution for Britain.
At the same time, many social critics complained that "literature of the day" contributed to what it attacked--that it was part of the very "fashion system" it condemned. "Fashionable novels," "indecent plays," and "sentimental" writing of various kinds were condemned for spreading decadent upper-class values and practices to eager middle-class--and especially female--readers. The Austen family kept up with "literature of the day" and were aware of its important and controversial place in civic life. Some of the Austens were even willing to contribute to this literature. James and Henry Austen had literary tastes, and at Oxford University they published a literary magazine called The Loiterer in 1789-1790. In genteelly satirical style it promotes the professionalization of culture, attacks decadent court culture and emulation of it by the middle classes, and criticizes the fashionable literature of Sensibility as a form of aristocratic culture in disguise. Yet The Loiterer also advances thoroughly Tory, loyalist politics and defends the established Church. These themes, not unusual for the time, illustrate the way interconnections of politics, religion, and culture were taken for granted. Austen herself probably contributed an ironic letter to the editors from "Sophia Sentiment," purporting to complain about the magazine's neglect of feminine literary interests.
The education of Austen and her sister was not nearly as thorough and systematic as that offered their brothers. While the men would have to prepare for a profession and therefore spend their formative years accumulating intellectual and moral capital for the future, the only career open to women of the Austens' class was that of wife and mother. The sisters were prepared accordingly with some training in "accomplishments," that is, "elegant" skills such as music, drawing, dancing, and comportment. Too close emotionally to be separated for schooling, despite their difference in age, the sisters were taken to study with Ann Cooper Cawley, the widow of a head of an Oxford college, in 1783. She then took her charges and their cousin Jane Cooper to Southampton, where the three girls caught typhus and were taken home by their mothers; unfortunately Mrs. Austen's sister caught the fever and died. In 1784 the sisters were sent to the Abbey School in Reading, where intellectual training was little emphasized. In December 1786 the girls returned home, where they received the majority of whatever education they ever had and largely educated themselves. Jane Austen acquired a good knowledge of the literature and culture that were thought valuable at the time, she had a modest talent for music, and she loved dancing. She especially admired the writings of Samuel Johnson and the poetry of William Cowper. With the rest of her family, she shared Johnson's Tory politics, practical piety, Anglican theology, fine sense of language in everyday as well as literary use, and commitment to emergent national cultural institutions. Cowper was the great poet of middle-class sensibility and gave epic scope and even heroic grandeur to middle-class life before the Romantic poets also attempted to do so.
All the Austens were novel readers and, as Jane Austen herself later boasted, were unashamed of the fact, unlike many of their contemporaries. The Austens realized and appreciated the potential of the novel for social criticism and moral discourse at a time when most critics condemned novels as immoral, disseminators of decadent court culture, and subliterature fit only for women (though dangerously seductive for the supposedly weak female intellect and strong female imagination). Austen admired the novels of Samuel Richardson, especially Sir Charles Grandison (1754), which she reread many times in her lifetime; with her niece Anna Austen she even tried adapting it into a play for performance by children of the family sometime after 1812. She and her family, with their gentry connections and professional standing, probably appreciated Richardson's portrayal of a landed gentleman thoroughly imbued with middle-class virtues. Richardson's novel not only argues for a fusion of gentry and professional middle-class cultures--a fusion that appealed strongly to the largely middle-class reading public; it also develops new techniques of "realism," or artistic persuasiveness, for representing the individual who is meritorious inwardly--intellectually and morally--rather than merely socially--by birth and rank.
As the Austens would have known well, the "Richardsonian revolution" in the novel was developed from the 1760s to the 1780s by women writers, especially Frances Burney, whose Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782) represent the novelistic version of the middle-class discourse of merit through a heroine rather than a hero. In Cecilia Burney also shifts from the Richardsonian epistolary form to authoritative third-person narration, using the new technique of "free indirect discourse," the narrator's filtered reporting of the character's inward thoughts and feelings. This device sustains the reader's sympathetic identification with the character while retaining distance, control, and "objectivity" for the narrator. The forms of the novel used by Burney were those taken up by Austen when she began seriously to write novels in the 1790s, and though she abandoned the epistolary form, letters do have important functions in her novels. Not surprisingly, when Burney published her third novel, Camilla, by subscription in 1796, Austen's father signed up for a copy for his literary daughter. Once again the Austens' response as a family to the literary culture of the day, including its social and political implications, was decisive in Austen's formation as a writer.
Until 1801 Austen lived in her family home at Steventon, reading the literature of the day, rereading her favorite authors, maintaining her local visiting network, discussing the characters and vicissitudes of new acquaintances and old friends, visiting her brother Edward and his family in Kent, dancing at balls given by the local gentry, accompanying her family to Bath for the recreations and social life of an elegant spa town, and keeping up with issues of the day, such as the long trial (1788-1794) in the House of Commons of Warren Hastings, first governor general of British India, on charges of corruption and abuse of office. (The Austens were pro-Hastings.) Austen closely followed the careers of her brothers, especially the naval officers, who were at war from 1793 until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. She shared the happiness, occasional bereavements, and disappointments of brothers and friends as they married, began families of their own, and lost their loved ones.
In December 1795 she fell in love herself, with Thomas Langlois Lefroy, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, who was visiting his uncle and aunt. Recognizing that the young man would be disinherited if he married the daughter of a penniless clergyman, Madam Lefroy cut short the courtship by sending her nephew away.
All the while Austen observed the successive feasts and holy days of the established Church, from quiet, but firm, personal conviction and not just from family duty. In the 1790s she also left behind writing the spirited literary satires with which she had amused her family from about the age of eleven to the age of eighteen. At first without her family's knowledge, she began to write novels that were meant to be full-length and seriously literary, if still humorous and even satirical.
Yet there is continuity between Austen's "juvenilia" and her maturer works. Both grew out of a family literary culture. As Lord David Cecil puts it, "Many authors start writing in order to relieve their private feelings; Jane Austen began in order to contribute to family entertainment. Her early works were examples of a family activity and expressions of a family outlook." But it was a family outlook confident in being representative of the reading public at large, a reading public dominated by the values and culture of the middle classes, led by the professionals and in many ways linked to the progressive elements of the landed gentry. Austen's novels continued to reflect and advance this outlook.
The novel was being used extensively in the Revolution debate of the 1790s: the struggle to lead the "political nation" and its immediate supporters and dependents (which could be equated with the reading public) into coalition either with politicized artisans and the lower-middle classes or with the landed gentry. In the late 1790s and early 1800s, however, writers turned to representing the reconciliation of social differences and conflicts that had threatened to take Britain, like France, over the brink of revolution in the early and mid 1790s and that continued to cause concern for the preservation of Britain's unity and empire against challenge from Napoleonic France. Women, conventionally seen as social mediators, were quick to take up the theme of national reconciliation in their writings, while avoiding overt discussion of the "unfeminine" subject of politics. Yet such writers wanted to continue the longstanding, middle-class critique of upper-class decadence, lower-class unreason, and middle-class social emulation of either.
Austen's novels participate in this post-Revolutionary literary movement. Austen began several novels in the latter half of the 1790s, though they were not published for some years, and then they were much altered. An epistolary novella, published after her death by her nephew as Lady Susan, in the second edition of his Memoir of Jane Austen (1871), depicts a selfish and witty courtly coquette. The text is partly a satirical exaggeration of the fashionable novels that portrayed such characters with apparent disapproval for fascinated and scandalized middle-class readers. In 1795 she wrote, again probably in epistolary form, a story titled "Elinor and Marianne," and began to revise it two years later in third-person narrative form as the novel that would be published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility . In 1796 and 1797 she worked on a novel titled "First Impressions," probably also in letter form; this novel was later revised and published in 1813 as Pride and Prejudice. Late in 1797 Austen's father offered "First Impressions" as a novel "comprised in three Vols. about the length of Miss Burney's Evelina" to the prominent London publishers Thomas Cadell and William Davies. He hinted at willingness to pay the expense of printing if the novel were accepted, but it was turned down. In 1798 and 1799 Austen wrote most of a novel that was later revised, bought by the publisher Richard Crosby, and advertised in 1803 as "In the Press, SUSAN; a novel, in 2 vols." It remained unpublished, however, and was later revised again and brought out at the end of 1817, after Austen's death, as Northanger Abbey.
Austen's mother was in poor health, and in 1800 her father suddenly decided to retire, hire his son James as his curate, and settle in Bath. Austen fainted when told of the decision, but when she moved to Bath with her parents in May 1801 she determined to like the place. It was still an important health spa, holiday center, and place of fashionable resort for the gentry and well-to-do middle classes. While the Austens vacationed on the coast at Sidmouth in Devon in summer 1801, Austen seems to have met and fallen in love with a young clergyman. The Austens apparently expected that he would propose marriage and be accepted, but he died suddenly. More than a year later, while visiting her close friends the Bigg sisters, Austen was proposed to by their brother. Because his fortune would insure her against a fate she feared--spending her old age in poverty--she accepted him even though he was younger and temperamentally unsuited to her, but she broke off the engagement the next morning and returned immediately to Bath. It was at this time that Austen began a novel depicting sisters apparently condemned to the fate Austen feared for herself, though in the novel eventually a marriage of true minds and sufficient means would avert this. The novel was never completed and the surviving fragment was published after her death as The Watsons in the second edition of her nephew's Memoir of Jane Austen.
One reason for Austen's failure to push a book through to publication during these years may have been a series of personal losses and the anxiety of living near the edge of socially degrading circumstances. In December 1804 her close friend and early encourager, the lively Madam Lefroy, died from a concussion sustained in a riding accident. In January 1805 Austen's father died. Since his clerical income ended with his death, his widow and daughters were faced with relative penury, but the Austen brothers pooled resources to maintain their mother and sisters, joined by their friend Martha Lloyd, in solid middle-class comfort at Bath. Although Austen had enjoyed the varied social scene at first, she eventually grew to dislike the place and its people. She continued to follow the career, both at sea and ashore, of her brother Frank. In 1805 he just missed participating in the Battle of Trafalgar, an experience he much regretted because he lost not only an opportunity to increase his "professional credit" but also "pecuniary advantage" from the sale of any French ships he might have helped capture. He married in 1806 and invited his mother and sisters to share his house at Southampton. They joined him there after a stay at Clifton near Bristol and a visit to the great country house of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, just inherited by their relation the Reverend Thomas Leigh. When Frank was again away at sea the Austen women were left to a quiet and retired existence, visiting little, using the local circulating library, gardening, visiting Edward Austen and his large family (who took the surname Knight in 1812) in Kent and Henry Austen in London, and following news of the war in Spain. Austen became especially close to Edward's daughter Fanny, then in her teens; it was a lifelong friendship.
When Edward's wife died in late 1808, his mother and sisters comforted the family. Edward offered them the choice of a comfortable house on one of his estates, in Kent and Hampshire, so that they would be closer. They chose a house at Chawton, in Kent, not far from their early home at Steventon. In summer 1809 they moved to Chawton, where Austen would live until her final illness. Life at Chawton was simple and neither mean nor grand. The Austen women and Martha Lloyd kept one indoor and one outdoor servant. Austen and her sister managed the household economy with great efficiency and thoroughness. Since they could not afford to keep a carriage, their local social life was limited to places within walking distance and their larger social life was mainly in their brothers' households. Jane Austen was less interested and involved in general socializing than her mother and sister. Mary Mitford, herself an ardent admirer of Austen's novels, recorded the report of a friend that Austen had "stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of 'single blessedness' that ever existed," and until Pride and Prejudice came out she was "no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen, or any other thin, upright piece of wood or iron that fills the corner in peace and quietness." Cassandra Austen did some philanthropic and educational work among the local poor, but Jane Austen deliberately took second place to her sister, whom she regarded as her superior, and limited herself to affairs in and about Chawton Cottage. She kept up her music, practicing the piano before breakfast so as not to disturb the others. The Austens subscribed to the circulating library in the nearby village of Alton, and Austen also subscribed to a local literary society. This group was a common way of sharing the cost of new books, which would be given to each member of the society for a specified period, after which the book had to be passed to the next member on the list. Austen looked after the household meals and in the evening joined in cards, needlework, games of skill, and conversation. She also read aloud to her companions, an interest and talent she inherited from her father. She interested herself in the doings of the large Austen family, especially her many nieces and nephews. In the morning she read and wrote apart from the others.
This thoroughly feminine, supportive domesticity was not then regarded as degrading, but in fact had gained greatly in prestige in the aftermath of the Revolution debate. Austen's way of life was represented by many writers--and Austen would be prominent among them--as the proper sphere of woman, as repository and reproducer of the "national" culture, not in the sense of high culture but as the moral and ethical practices in local, daily existence that together constituted the nation, especially the political nation. Austen may have been sequestered in a small village and a household of women, but she was well aware of contemporary political and social thinking and would have realized that her life at Chawton in fact resembled the emergent ideal of romantic femininity, rooted in the "domestic affections" and the source of the national character. Not surprisingly, then, she turned once again and with renewed purpose to writing. The novels that she began during this period were developed from the pre-Revolutionary novel of manners, sentiment, and emulation, but they were conceived in the latter part of the Revolutionary decade and rewritten to address the interests and concerns of a post-Revolutionary age, not directly or explicitly but obliquely. Indeed, their obliqueness was essential to their rhetorical effect, for the reading public was disgusted with direct ideological and political warfare in print, perhaps especially in novels.
A further dimension to this obliqueness was Austen's secrecy about her writing as an activity, linked to her profound and genuine aversion to acquiring a public character and life as what would then have been called an "authoress." It does seem likely that, in general, the balance between psychological and social being encourages the development of either a rich domestic life or a dominant social identity. Furthermore, the ideal of domestic woman formulated in the late eighteenth century was accompanied by ambiguity or even hostility toward women appearing in public characters, such as that of a published writer. More particularly, the Revolutionary aftermath saw an aggressive remasculization of literary culture along with an energetic appropriation by male writers of the themes of subjectivity and domesticity that female writers had exploited in order to build professional careers in the decades before 1800. Austen's secrecy about her writing and her rejection of a public character were responses to all these forces rather than what Cecil calls "the nearest thing to an eccentricity in her otherwise well-balanced character."
At Chawton Cottage she wrote away from the others at first, in a chamber that served as both a hallway and a dining room. The room had a squeaky door that Austen prevented from being repaired because it gave warning of anyone approaching. She worked on a writing desk placed on top of a small table and used small slips of paper that could quickly be put out of sight if someone did enter. (Later in her career she would sometimes write in the common sitting room when others were present.) When she wrote to the publisher Crosby in 1809 to ask for the return of the still-unpublished manuscript of "Susan" she used the pseudonym "Mrs Ashton Dennis." The title page of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, states that it was "By A Lady," and such of her relations as knew of her authorship were enjoined to keep the secret. The title page of her next novel, Pride and Prejudice, attributed the work to "The Author of 'Sense and Sensibility,'" and this practice continued with each successive novel.
By the time she returned to novel writing at Chawton, Austen was an experienced novelist, if still an unpublished one, and had strong views on the art of fiction. She expressed these opinions only desultorily, however, in letters to her family. Austen read her niece Anna Austen's manuscript novel "Which Is the Heroine?" and offered detailed comments in letters of May or June, 10 August, 9 and 28 September, and December 1814. Her criticisms were directed to maintaining plausibility in the representation of manners and social conventions and to establishing a clear focus of social relations--"3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on." Cassandra Austen disliked "desultory novels," Jane Austen advised Anna, or ones with "too frequent a change from one set of people to another" and "circumstances" of "apparent consequence" that actually "lead to nothing." Such structure was in fact fairly common in the Burney type of novel that Jane Austen practiced, and she said that she herself allowed "much more Latitude" in this matter than Cassandra; at least she allowed it to other novelists, for her own novels have an economy of elements and tightness of construction that would have pleased Cassandra very much. Austen was also conscious of the way genres and styles were seen as either "masculine" or "feminine." For example, the novel was widely regarded as a "woman's" form of writing though certain kinds of novels were seen as more appropriate for male writers. To her nephew James Edward Austen, who was trying to write a "man's" novel, Jane Austen protested:
What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety and Glow?--How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour? (16 December 1816)
Two years earlier, she had complained, tongue in cheek, against Walter Scott's taking up novel writing after a career as best-selling Romantic poet, because he "should not be taking the bread out of other people's mouths." She also made fun of novelists who padded out their works with extraneous matter, such as sermons, travelogues, and literary criticism.
As for the practicalities of composition, Austen fully realized the conflict between sustained creativity and domestic responsibility. Admiring the productivity of the novelist Jane West, who managed a farm, Austen wrote to her sister on 8 September 1816, "Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb." Nevertheless, in 1809 the promise of domestic security at Chawton seems to have renewed her interest in novel writing and her determination to publish. She began by returning to her earlier work. In April 1809 she asked Crosby to publish "Susan," which he had bought for ten pounds in 1803, or to return it to her. The publisher insisted on retaining his rights, and Austen let the matter drop. Eventually she reacquired the manuscript in 1816 but died before it was published, as Northanger Abbey, in 1817.
Since she probably did little to revise the manuscript during the short time it was back in her hands, Northanger Abbey is generally regarded as her earliest substantially completed novel. Furthermore, since it satirizes the naive reader of popular Gothic "romances" as well as the conventions of that genre, it is usually seen as more closely linked than her later works to her early burlesques and parodies of literary genres and conventions, designed to entertain her family rather than for publication. Nevertheless, as Austen's family would have realized, parody of literary themes, genres, and conventions might be amusing and still have implications of national importance. Northanger Abbey certainly deals with the politics of literary discourse in ways that would have been recognized in the mid 1790s or early 1800s, when it was first designed or written, as issues more vital than ever. Unlike such overtly political novels as William Godwin's Things As They Are (1794) or Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman (1798), Northanger Abbey--like most of its contemporaries--works out issues of immediate political moment at the local level of individual lives; the oblique representation is the more rhetorically effective.
Northanger Abbey is clearly in the line of the Burney novel of a young woman's first entrance into the world--or rather "World," the common self-designation of narrow fashionable society as if it were to be equated with the whole of society. This narrow world is in fact the "political nation"--those of property or incomes sufficient to give them a voice in national affairs, however indirect. This world overlaps with the world of the "reading public"--those who can afford to rent or buy novels. This overlap is what gave novels such as Northanger Abbey their importance. Like a Burney novel, though in much shorter compass, with far fewer characters, incidents, and complications of plot, Northanger Abbey sets a young protagonist in society peopled by both the fashionable and the vulgar. It follows her trials and errors in "reading" this world and negotiating through it to successful "establishment" there, as a woman married or about to be married to a "proper" man and thus with her otherwise hidden intellectual and moral merit recognized by and instrumental in the "World." Though such novels usually have a female protagonist, she serves as a symbolic device rather than a representation of actual women. There is evidence that as many men as women read novels, and the socially inexperienced novel protagonist may stand for either a man or woman of merit faced with a seductive social reality dominated by considerations other than intellectual and moral merit--especially inherited wealth, rank, and power--and operating by courtly intrigue and patronage. Furthermore, this protagonist's situation must have been common to many novel readers at the time; thus such novels spoke to their real material interests and had powerful significance for them.
The protagonist of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, is typical in these respects. Still in her teens and taken from her childhood home to stay with relatives in the fashionable spa of Bath, she and her brother James are taken up by Isabella and John Thorpe, social climbers who affect the fashionable cultures of female sensibility and male gallantry respectively. The Thorpes represent familiar types of upper-middle-class social emulation of their betters, resorting to deception and intrigue to advance their own interests. While Isabella sets her cap at James, John Thorpe hurries Catherine into a semblance of courtship. Catherine's genuine personal merit, despite her lack of worldly experience, is noticed by Henry Tilney, younger son of the socially ambitious General Tilney. John Thorpe's attempt to impress the general by greatly exaggerating Catherine's fortune induces the general to consider her a suitable match for his son and to invite her to his estate, Northanger Abbey. The name is suggestive in several ways. Most obviously it echoes the titles of "Gothic romances." These are novels of description and place, in which residues of medieval culture intrude secretly into the present to exert power over the protagonist. Middle-class readers found these romances intensely interesting. In the imaginary world of Gothic romance such readers could feel, if not consciously perceive, an analogy between the plight of the protagonist and their own situation in a society and culture dominated by what seemed an "alien," semifeudal system of court government, a system operating not through brute force but through the invisible agency of ideology and culture. In the 1790s, "English Jacobin" novelists such as Godwin and Wollstonecraft made the analogy between Gothic romance and the real world more explicit, borrowing elements of such romances to argue that "Gothic" (that is, medieval and feudal) oppression and tyranny were neither in the past nor mere fictional devices, but present political reality.
Austen's novel rejects "English Jacobin" political Gothicism. In the unfamiliar setting of Northanger Abbey, Catherine does make a mistake in interpretation. As often occurs with such protagonists, her inner strength becomes her weakness. Lacking the worldly experience to chasten and direct her subjective power, her "natural" sympathy and imagination, she relies on what she has learned in reading novels and "reads" her present world as if it were that of a Gothic romance. She sees General Tilney as a domestic tyrant and Northanger as a facade for secret horrors. Henry Tilney recognizes her error and reminds her of the present social and political reality:
Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you--Does our education prepare us for such atrocities [as she has imagined]? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open?
This speech asserts a particular view of the present constitution of Britain and thus of British society. It is characteristic of Austen's rejection of novelistic excess of all kinds that Henry's perception of Catherine's error does not diminish the value of her character in his eyes, let alone lead him to reject her as a prospective wife--that would be too characteristic of a mere novel.
As Henry soon discovers, Catherine's imaginings about his father have some truth. If not a Gothic tyrant, General Tilney is a modern equivalent, an ambitious squire aiming to advance his position by courtly intrigue and manipulation of the marriage market. When he learns that Catherine is not the great heiress John Thorpe has led him to believe, he sends her packing. Meanwhile, Catherine's brother has been thrown over by Isabella Thorpe in pursuit of the better material prospects offered by Captain Tilney, the general's older son and heir to Northanger Abbey. Austen retains the reformist criticism of courtliness and emulation as real social evils while rejecting the reformist global condemnation of "things as they are." This double move is characteristic of post-Revolutionary literature. The move is formalized in the novel's plot by Catherine's disillusionment with the Thorpes and dismay at the general's inhumanity, Henry Tilney's confrontation with his father and decision to choose Catherine as a wife, and Catherine's prospective re-creation, with subjective merit intact and even enhanced, as wife of a man able both to school her further in the ways of the "World" and to confer on her, as married woman, social validation of her subjective merit.
Austen's social criticism in Northanger Abbey is executed not only in the novel's "story," or structured sequence of incidents and related characters, but also in its "discourse," or composition and manner of telling. As with her political argument, Austen links critical reflection on the novel as a genre to the development of the individual's critical thought in general and thus to strengthening of domestic relations and society at large. It is no accident that Northanger Abbey includes the best-known comment in English on the novel. Imagining a "miss" apologizing, when caught reading a book, that it is "only a novel," the narrator comments sarcastically that it is "only" Frances Burney's Cecilla (1782) or Camilla (1796) or Maria Edgeworth's Belinda (1801), "or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language." This comment could in fact be a reply to Edgeworth's prefatory remarks in Belinda, notifying the reader that the work is called a "tale" because "novel" has come to be associated with extravagant and seductive forms of fiction. Readers in her day would probably think of two different forms of fiction--on one hand the fashionable novel glamorously depicting courtly decadence and on the other "English Jacobin," especially Revolutionary feminist, novels depicting emotional extravagance and social and political transgression. Both these kinds of fiction, it was increasingly felt, disseminated false ideology and impractical models, undermining individual morality and thus the "domestic affections," the foundation of the state. The fact that these false fictions were associated with either French courtliness or French Revolutionary culture indicates the importance of the novel as an instrument of political communication.
Austen's move to correct the excesses of the 1790s novel is similar to Edgeworth's. Austen reduces the scope and variety of incidents and characters, avoids narratorial expressivity--in fact adopting narratorial irony--eliminates characters that are mere "humors" or caricatures, as well as any hint of melodrama in incident, and in plotting takes a middle course between mere novelistic coincidence and "English Jacobin necessitarianism," that is, the tight connection of "circumstances," individual character, and the character's ethical action. She aims for a plausible though not inevitable outcome, thereby suggesting that "destiny" is a result of free will operating in a particular social and material horizon of possibility. Not surprisingly, such plotting accords with an Anglican theology of salvation through both true faith (or understanding, in secular terms) and good works (or ethical action in accordance with informed and accurate moral judgment). Throughout her career, Austen followed this same pattern of correcting excessive novel conventions, at times alluding to specific bizarrenesses in particular novels of the day but otherwise cutting against generally well known novel devices. In Northanger Abbey this criticism by "rewriting" is especially obvious, as the narrator repeatedly draws the reader's attention to ways in which this novel is not like a common "novel of the day." In her later novels Austen's narrators are less obtrusive in this respect, but the same work is carried on. Rewriting is to effect rereading--not just reading again but reading as a critical and reflective activity. This activity produces true knowledge, a secular version of that "true faith" that is the basis of ethical action necessary to win salvation. As much as her father or her clergymen brothers, Austen addresses a secular life in the light of eternity. Since women in her day could not do this from the pulpit they often chose to do so in the genre assigned to them by social, cultural, and literary convention.
Narrative method plays a central role in this process of reformative reading. The omniscient narrator represents a model consciousness, a figure for the "author," implicitly on the same level as the reader, representing the world of the novel from a superior position, whereas the protagonist is clearly fallible and limited, whether sympathetically or ironically treated by the narrator. As a character in the text, the narrator implicitly arranges all other characters in a hierarchical order over a grid whose coordinates are knowledge and moral judgment. Structurally the narrator represents a level of understanding toward which the protagonist is headed, somewhere beyond the end of the novel. The reader's interest in this progress is underpinned by Austen's use of free indirect discourse, or reported inward thought and feeling. Other novelists who use this device, such as Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and Maria Edgeworth, treat several or many characters this way; Austen focuses almost exclusively on her protagonist, thereby giving a centrality and importance to a character that most other characters regard as unimportant. This device is one of Austen's favorites, used in Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. But Austen also uses free indirect discourse to encourage the reader to sympathize with the protagonist, to accept her interpretations and judgments of the world around her. In this way the reader is often tricked into going along with the protagonist's errors until brought up short by the narrator's irony or revelation of the "truth." This device creates an irony of reading by which the reader identifies with both narrator and protagonist. In experiencing this irony at certain moments of narratorial revelation the reader vicariously experiences the gap between the protagonist's imperfection and fallibility and the narrator's superior understanding. All human understanding, except the godlike narrator's, is conditional and relative. The narrator's irony reminds us of this mortal fallibility. This reading would be serious matter indeed were it not for the fact that it is presented in what is "only a novel." In political terms, the point does implicitly counter "English Jacobin" ideas of the "perfectibility of man."
Northanger Abbey, substantially completed by 1803, is thus very much a novel of its time, of a particular moment in the evolution in the novel as vehicle of ideological and cultural conflict. At the same time it includes the basic elements of the Austen novel, rapidly developed with greater sophistication and subtlety from Austen's settling at Chawton in 1809 to a few months before her death in 1817.
Through 1809 and 1810 Austen worked on revising "Elinor and Marianne," her epistolary novel of 1795, into Sense and Sensibility . When it was complete Henry Austen again served as intermediary between his sister and the publisher, this time Thomas Egerton, who may have been chosen because he had participated in the distribution of James and Henry Austen's Oxford magazine, The Loiterer. Jane Austen offered to pay the costs of printing and, not expecting to break even on the book, had saved some money for that purpose. She was to retain copyright, and the publisher was to get a commission for distributing the book. In April 1810 she went to stay with Henry in London to correct proofs and wrote to her sister, "I am never too busy to think of S. & S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child." It was published in the fall, and the first edition sold out in less than two years, making Austen £140, in those days a sum sufficient to support someone in comfort for a year or more.
Sense and Sensibility: A Novel --the generic designation is important and was in the title of all Austen's novels published in her lifetime--is a more ambitious novel than Northanger Abbey. Austen doubles the plot by representing the courtship of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and by increasing the number of characters and incidents. In scope Sense and Sensibility is more like a full-blown Burney novel. Nevertheless, the narrator-protagonist relationship remains focused for the most part on one character, the unglamorous Elinor. In fact, in Elinor and Marianne, Austen foregrounds in one novel the two character types that she preferred to alternate in the later novels--the quiet but right-thinking heroine such as Fanny Price and Anne Elliot and the more outgoing and somewhat quixotic heroine such as Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse. Sense and Sensibility brings into play another set of issues that were prominent in the Revolution debate and the post-Revolutionary quest for reform with renewed social stability--issues of property, patronage, and gender in the reconstruction of British society.
The widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters are required to leave their home when the new heir, Mrs. Dashwood's stepson, John, assumes his inheritance with his fashionable and selfish wife, Fanny. Such is the lot of wives and daughters under the system of male primogeniture that was common at the time--and much criticized by feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft. The Dashwood women are given a home at Barton Cottage on the Devonshire estate of a distant relation, Sir John Middleton, whose family is unfortunately a disorder of snobbery, vulgarity, and mere sociability. One visitor, Colonel Brandon, is interested in the middle daughter, Marianne, but he does not fit her romantic idea of a hero, constructed from her novel reading. She makes no secret of her preference for the dashing Willoughby, who is also visiting in the neighborhood. The eldest daughter, Elinor, is disappointed, however, that Fanny Dashwood's brother Edward Ferrars, a young clergyman with a good estate in prospect, does not visit, for she has fallen in love with him and the feeling has seemed mutual. Other guests at the Middletons' include Charlotte Palmer and her husband, the one silly and the other aloof, and the obsequious Misses Steele, the younger of whom, Lucy, confidentially divulges to Elinor her secret engagement with Edward Ferrars. The Steeles, like the Dashwood women, are dependent on others to prevent a slide from comfort and gentility to poverty and social insignificance. Unlike her mother, Elinor Dashwood is prepared to deal with her situation with conventional feminine virtues of fortitude and forbearance. Her sister Marianne indulges in romantic fantasy. Lucy Steele has evidently taken the worst course, practicing the courtly arts of coquetry to inveigle Edward Ferrars into an imprudent engagement.
When the scene shifts from the country to London the destinies of the Dashwood sisters seem to take a further turn for the worse. Marianne learns that Willoughby is a fortune hunter and is about to marry for money. Fanny Dashwood's mother, old Mrs. Ferrars, suspects her son Edward of being in love with Elinor and snubs the Dashwood women in favor of the Steeles, until Lucy reveals her secret engagement to Edward, who is then disinherited in favor of his younger brother, Robert, a mere man of fashion. Returning to Barton, the Dashwoods stay with the Palmers, where Marianne falls ill. Alarmed, Willoughby arrives and confesses to Elinor that he did love Marianne and must now live out an unhappy marriage. Back at Barton the last movement of the plot unfolds. Marianne recovers, but Elinor is further distressed when told that a Mr. Ferrars, whom she takes to be Edward, has recently married Lucy Steele. But the new husband turns out to be Edward's brother, whom Lucy has turned to as now the better prospect. Edward is freed from his engagement and proposes to Elinor; Colonel Brandon has offered the young clergyman a living in his gift; eventually Marianne comes to see the colonel's quiet domestic and social virtues and marries him.
There is an obvious post-Revolutionary argument in Sense and Sensibility, indicated in its title. "Sensibility" as indulgence of personal absolutes, such as romantic love, regardless of social conventions and even laws, was widely seen as a major ideological source of Revolutionary transgression. In the Revolution debate "sense," or "common sense," was often opposed to Revolutionary theory, speculation, and enthusiasm. In Austen's novel the evident triumph of sense over sensibility, and the confinement of sensibility, as domestic and social sympathy, though enacted on the level of common life, would have had political and public implications for readers at the time the novel was published, in part because moral, religious, and educational writers insisted that there was a close connection between small, apparently insignificant transgressions and more serious ones. Furthermore, Sense and Sensibility clearly establishes the value of "feminine" passive virtues of the kind possessed from the outset by Elinor and acquired through error and suffering by Marianne. These virtues were proclaimed by numerous writers of the Revolutionary aftermath, beginning at least as early as Hannah More's Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), as central to social order and even to national survival.
At the same time it is clear that Sense and Sensibility registers the desperate situation of genteel women deprived of the wherewithal to sustain social dignity or even nobility of mind and feeling. Mary Wollstonecraft argued in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that this plight drove many women of the middle and upper class to coquetry and courtly intrigue, to the ruin of the domestic affections and thus the corruption of society as a whole. Austen does not explicitly make this kind of protest in Sense and Sensibility or elsewhere, but her reticence accords with a post-Revolutionary program of avoiding the explicitnesses that many thought had threatened to tear the country apart in the 1790s. Furthermore, the fact that her novel has a happy ending reflects her Anglican faith in a just and benevolent deity presiding over a universe that is comic in the sense that suffering and injustice have, finally, a beneficial effect. "Wise passiveness" is better in the long run than rebellion. If Austen was a feminist, she was a post-Revolutionary one. Certainly the social criticism of Sense and Sensibility takes in a broad sweep of foolish and even vulgar emulation, by gentry and professional middle class alike, of a court culture increasingly seen as threatening ruin to the nation.
With Sense and Sensibility published, Austen turned again to "First Impressions," the novel she had completed in 1797 and tried to sell to Cadell. She revised it, gave it the title Pride and Prejudice: A Novel , and sold the copyright to Egerton for £110 late in 1812, having asked for £150. It was published early in 1813, anonymously, though Austen's authorship soon became known beyond the family circle. It was very well received; for example, Byron's future wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, considered it to be "the fashionable novel" of the season. It seems to have been widely read and discussed in fashionable and literary society.
Pride and Prejudice takes another pair of sisters but puts the outgoing one, Elizabeth Bennet, more into the foreground, while keeping the silent suffering one, Jane, much more in the background. Property inheritance again becomes a major factor in the destiny of these two--along with their three younger sisters Mary, Kitty, and Lydia--for their father's small estate is entailed to the nearest male relative, the Reverend William Collins. Entailment was the kind of injustice against women that Wollstonecraft and other Revolutionary feminists had criticized sharply, for it forced women to make their fortune the only way open to them--by speculating on the marriage market. Mr. Bennet has also committed an error attacked by feminists of the time--giving in to the influence of courtly erotic culture and marrying a woman who was merely beautiful and lacking in the intellectual and moral resources necessary to support her own social position with dignity and discretion, to be a true friend and companion to her husband, and to raise children--especially children themselves utterly dependent on such inner resources. Closed up in his gentleman's library for much of the time, Mr. Bennet does not even pass on his own knowledge and discrimination to his children, except to his favorite, Elizabeth. Fortunately, Elizabeth and Jane have also spent time with some cultivated relations, the Gardiners, who were formerly in the ungenteel mercantile middle class. Of the other sisters, Mary is a junior pedant, Kitty is impressionable, and Lydia is a mere ambitious coquette.
When Mr. Bingley, a wealthy young man also from an ungenteel background, rents a nearby manor and arrives with his sister and a friend, Mrs. Bennet's notion that well-managed intrigue will get her daughters husbands seems to have promise. Bingley seems to be falling in love with Jane, despite the condescending discouragement of his sister and the aloof disapproval of his friend, Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth resents their intrusion, especially Mr. Darcy's. The Reverend Mr. Collins shows up determined to marry one of the Bennet girls and thereby make some recompense for the harsh terms of the entail. For their part, Lydia and Kitty are delighted with the prospects offered by some officers quartered nearby. A young militia officer, Mr. Wickham, seems especially attracted to Elizabeth, and she is more disposed to return his regard after he tells her Darcy has treated him unjustly. When the recently arrived Mr. Collins learns Jane is already in love he proposes immediately to Elizabeth, who refuses his offer because she cannot love him. Shortly thereafter, however, he is accepted by Elizabeth's friend Charlotte Lucas, whom Elizabeth knows to have too much sense not to see that Collins is a fool. Disillusioned, Elizabeth decides that Charlotte has merely sold herself on the marriage market. When Bingley and his party leave suddenly for London, she concludes that Darcy has talked Bingley out of proposing to Jane. Jane visits the Gardiners in London, where she is treated with mere formal politeness by Miss Bingley, who suggests that her brother is to marry Darcy's sister. Learning that Wickham is courting an heiress merely for her money, Elizabeth is completely disillusioned: all except her sister Jane seem mere courtly and self-interested intriguers, and she can only congratulate herself on not being taken in.
Elizabeth meets Darcy by accident, however, while visiting Charlotte and Mr. Collins, who has a living on the estate of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a haughty snob and Darcy's aunt. Elizabeth is dumbfounded when Darcy suddenly proposes to her, and angrily rejects him, accusing him of separating Bingley and Jane and of being unjust to Wickham. The next day he gives her a letter explaining and justifying his conduct; at first Elizabeth believes it must be false, but gradually she comes to accept the truth of everything Darcy says. Ashamed, she admits that until this moment she never knew herself, and she now sees all the characters and incidents to this point in the story in a new light. Structurally, this scene is the center of the novel. It is clear to the reader, if not entirely clear to Elizabeth, that she and Darcy would be a match, and the plot now turns to repairing the breach between them.
Against Elizabeth's advice, Mr. Bennet allows Lydia to visit the family of one of the officers, who are at the fashionable resort of Brighton, somewhat notorious at that time as the preferred haunt of the Prince of Wales. Elizabeth herself goes on a tour with the Gardiners through scenic Derbyshire. The Gardiners want to visit Darcy's estate of Pemberley, and when they learn that he is absent, Elizabeth agrees. They are shown over the house, and the house-keeper gives them a glowing report of its master's character and conduct. The Gardiners are surprised, but Elizabeth has more reason than ever to regret her prejudice against the man. When Darcy returns unexpectedly he is all hospitality, and prospects for a new understanding seem to be opening. But these possibilities seem dashed when Elizabeth hears that her sister Lydia has eloped from Brighton with Wickham, who is unlikely to marry someone with little money. By the social conventions of the time the "ruin" of Lydia will affect the marriageability of all her sisters. Distressed at this news, Elizabeth blurts it out to Darcy, and Mr. Gardiner leaves to help Mr. Bennet track down the couple. Later the Bennets learn that Wickham has agreed to marry Lydia and surmise that he has been bribed to do so by Mr. Gardiner. But Elizabeth learns that Darcy arranged everything. When the Bingleys and Darcy return to the neighborhood, Bingley and Jane quickly resume their love for one another and become engaged. To Elizabeth's surprise, however, Lady Catherine de Bourgh arrives and haughtily tries to extract a promise from Elizabeth that she will not marry Darcy. As happens to such domineering intriguers, her aim is undermined by her own actions: Darcy learns of Elizabeth's standing up to his aunt, and to Elizabeth's further surprise--though not the reader's--he comes to propose again. This time he is accepted. In a characteristic final comic touch, Mrs. Bennet is ecstatic at the accomplishment of more than she could have imagined in her plans to marry off her daughters.
In its plot, incidents, and characters Pride and Prejudice is an interesting variation on the novel of manners and sentiment. But its originality--more obviously than in Sense and Sensibility or Northanger Abbey--is in its manipulation of the triangular relationship between narrator, protagonist, and reader. As in the earlier novels, the omniscient narrator retains the power to withhold information from the reader and restrict access to the consciousness of characters other than the protagonist. By being let fully into Elizabeth's mind but virtually excluded from all others, the reader is meant to develop a sympathetic identification with Elizabeth's character and judgments. Thus when Elizabeth realizes in the middle of the novel that she, who prided herself on her perspicacity, has been mistaken about all the main points, her confidence in her ability to "read" her world is seriously shaken. Similarly, the reader, who might feel confidently able to decode the story correctly but who has fallen in with Elizabeth's reading, will feel an analogous humiliation. Chastened, though in different ways, Elizabeth and the reader continue their adventures in the text, but it becomes increasingly apparent to the reader that Elizabeth's abandonment of any hope for a return from Darcy is yet another mistake in her "reading" of him and herself. The narrator, too, who has been fairly non-committal about Elizabeth's "readings" in the early part of the novel, becomes more ironic in the later part. In short, the novel constructs an exercise in reading for both protagonist and reader, and manipulates narrative so as to make the reader conscious of the fallibility and precariousness of reading of any kind. Again, it would not be going too far to see this exercise in terms of Austen's deeply held Anglican faith and its theology of the imperfection yet improvability--though not perfectibility--of humankind.
In June 1813, five months after Pride and Prejudice was published, Austen completed a new novel, begun in February 1811. Mansfield Park: A Novel , which some scholars feel also had an earlier version, was published by Egerton, though Austen kept the copyright this time and made more than three hundred pounds by the first edition. In Mansfield Park Austen returns to a heroine who, like Elinor Dashwood, is right-thinking but socially disregarded from the outset. Fanny Price is one of a large and impecunious family at Portsmouth. Her mother is one of three once-famous beauties, though her sisters married better than she--one, Mrs. Norris, to a country clergyman and the other, Lady Bertram, to a baronet, the owner of the large estate of Mansfield Park. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Norris, who resides near the Bertrams, persuades Sir Thomas Bertram to take in their niece Fanny. Separated from her family and especially her beloved brother William, Fanny remains an outcast at Mansfield, condescended to by her cousins Tom, Maria, and Julia, though her kind cousin Edmund protects her and guides her education. Not surprisingly, she comes to love him for it. Her uncle Sir Thomas leaves to attend to his plantations in Antigua. In the absence of the father the others in the family soon drift into one folly or another, abetted by Mrs. Norris, who dotes on her wealthy nieces and nephews while treating Fanny like a servant.
Maria becomes engaged to Mr. Rushworth, a wealthy neighboring gentleman whose name accurately represents his moral and intellectual value. All the Bertrams become intrigued by Henry and Mary Crawford, a fashionable brother and sister who are visiting their half sister Mrs. Grant, wife of the local vicar, himself an old-style clergyman more interested in the pleasures of the table than in the cure of souls. Together the young people visit Rushworth's estate of Sotherton Court, the name of which suggests the decadent, courtly, more "southern" or Mediterranean than English fashionableness (or ton) pervading the values of all but Fanny and Edmund. The outing is ostensibly to discuss Rushworth's planned "improvements," or ornamental additions to his estate, but new love interests and flirtations develop quickly in the symbolically sultry weather. While the Bertram sisters become rivals in flirting with Henry, Edmund becomes fascinated by Mary, who is, however, dismayed to learn that as the second son he intends to take up a profession in the church. Fanny remains a silently suffering spectator. When Tom brings to Mansfield his vacuous friend Yates, the young people catch the contemporary fad for amateur theatricals and plan to perform Lovers' Vows, a translation of August von Kotzebue's Das Kind der Liebe (1791, The Love Child). The play is a dubious choice for several reasons. It represents illicit love; it celebrates romantic subjectivity in the face of social convention, in a way that had already given such "German plays" a bad reputation in respectable English society; and it will enable the young people at Mansfield to make love speeches to each other that social convention would prohibit them from making in their real characters. Fanny, significantly, wishes to decline any part in it.
Sir Thomas's sudden return from the West Indies puts a stop to these follies, though he allows Maria to marry Rushworth. The next movement of the story focuses on Fanny, who begins to be more noticed by everyone. Mary Crawford tries to make her a confidante regarding Mary's infatuation for Edmund, which she feels is impeded by Edmund's determination to become a "mere" country clergyman. Fanny is treated with consideration by Sir Thomas and with friendly solicitude by Edmund, all to Mrs. Norris's disgust. Even Henry Crawford now finds her interesting enough to wish that he could make her fall in love with him. Fanny's only real delight, however, is in a visit from her beloved sailor brother, whose career is being promoted by Sir Thomas. To Henry's surprise, he finds himself actually falling in love with Fanny, and persuades his uncle, an admiral, to arrange William's promotion to lieutenant. Henry then proposes to Fanny, and the connection between the two actions suggests the kind of leverage used in the patronage system rather than a disinterested courtship. To Sir Thomas's anger and Mary's surprise, Fanny rejects Henry, whom she sees as merely a courtly seducer. To remind Fanny of the degrading life that awaits her if she does not change her mind and accept Henry, Sir Thomas sends her to her vulgar parents' home in Portsmouth. Henry visits her there, and despite his apparent sincerity she finds she still cannot love him, or will not.
The denouement now unfolds, as the Bertram family seems to disintegrate. When Tom Bertram falls seriously ill, Mary writes to Fanny and reveals her true character by expressing the hope that Tom's death will clear the way for Edmund to become heir to Mansfield, and thus the kind of catch Mary wants. The recent bride Maria runs off with Henry, and Julia elopes with Yates. Mary's inability to see Maria and Henry's adultery as morally serious, rather than just socially damaging, shocks Edmund out of his fascination for her. When Fanny returns to Mansfield to lend what comfort she can, even the indolent Lady Bertram is relieved by her presence. Fanny is still the shyly feminine person she has always been, but now, amid so many crises, her steadiness of character and moral authority begin to be recognized by all--she is indeed a woman of "price," in the sense of intrinsic value. Tom's brush with death sobers him into a greater sense of moral and social responsibility, and Fanny marries Edmund. They will continue to sustain Mansfield Park and will spread their wedded virtues through-local society from the nearby, and again aptly named, vicarage of Thornton Lacey--uniting the symbol of Christ's sacrifice with an ornament of upper-class dress.
Mansfield Park embodies the timeliest possible message for the novel-reading public of the early Regency and the late stages of the long struggle with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Mansfield Park is a figure for England or Britain as rural, leisured, and cultivated but with heavy social, economic, and imperial responsibilities that must be carefully tended and reinvigorated in each generation. It is also a "mansefield," a field for the inspiriting influence of the manse of domestic home of the established church and its theology of true faith, or ideological correctness, and good works, or social responsibility and leadership. This home is of course presided over by a woman, the heart of the nation according to an increasingly powerful ideology of domestic woman as repository and nurturer of the national soul, conscience, culture, and destiny.
Late in January 1814, four months before Mansfield Park came out, Austen began work on Emma , and she completed it fourteen months later, in March 1815. Here Austen again reverses the character of her heroine, for Emma Woodhouse is quite unlike Fanny Price, subjectively and socially. Emma is the belle of her neighborhood--beautiful, young, and wealthy, the younger and unmarried daughter of a querulous hypochondriac widower. Emma's education was supervised by a kindly governess, Miss Taylor, now married to a neighboring gentleman, Mr. Weston. Miss Taylor was more of a friend than a preceptor, and Emma's mind is neither well stocked nor well trained. She has therefore become an "imaginist," a fictionist or romancer of real life, speculating incorrectly on the characters and intentions of others while presuming on her native talents and her social power to arrange their lives. She prides herself, for example, on having brought about the marriage of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston. Emma has been freer than ever to indulge in her brand of local patronage since the marriage of her older sister, Isabella, to John Knightley, a London lawyer and younger brother of a local landed gentleman. This gentleman, as his name suggests--Knightley is the knight's ley, or field--epitomizes the best of the rural landed class and its modern chivalric, moral-and-ethical culture. Not surprisingly, he is the only person who dares try to correct Emma's character and point out her errors.
He has his work cut out for him. Soon after the novel opens Emma is already planning another match, between the local clergyman Mr. Elton and Emma's new protégée, Harriet Smith. An impressionable boarding-school girl, Harriet is an illegitimate child of unknown parentage, and Emma imagines she must be the love child of some nobleman. Harriet is attracted to Mr. Martin, a yeoman farmer and tenant of Mr. Knightley's. Knightley thinks Harriet and Martin would make a good couple, but Emma insists on a higher destiny for her client and discourages the match, to Knightley's chagrin. (Yet he and Emma do work well together in smoothing relations between her father and Knightley's brother.) Emma's plans for Harriet and Elton are disastrously--though comically--overset, however, when Elton mistakes Emma's interest as a sign of love for him. Emboldened by too much wine, he proposes. After Emma explains that she has intended him for the lowly Harriet, Elton is offended and goes off to Bath. Chastened, Emma resolves to give up matchmaking.
Yet her imagination is already at work on Frank Churchill, Weston's son by his previous marriage, long ago adopted by a wealthy, childless uncle and aunt. He is soon expected to pay a courtesy call to his father and new stepmother. Frank does not appear on schedule, apparently detained by his imperious aunt. Another visitor arrives, however--the beautiful and talented, but impecunious, Jane Fairfax, orphan granddaughter of a clergyman's widow, Mrs. Bates, who lives in straitened circumstances with her unmarried daughter. While she recognizes her social and material superiority to Jane, Emma feels shamed by Jane's superiority of mind and evident discipline of character. When Frank arrives, Emma is attracted to him and realizes that the Westons hope she can be drawn into marriage with him, but Knightley finds Frank to be an extravagant and self-willed flirt. Emma is further chagrined when Elton returns with a bride who, as a married woman, takes social precedence over Emma. When Elton rudely snubs Harriet at a ball, Knightley comes to the rescue, and when Harriet is later harassed by some gypsies she is rescued by Frank. Emma now projects a match between Frank and Harriet and encourages her young friend not to be deterred from falling in love with a man above her socially, but Knightley suspects some secret between Frank and Jane. Meanwhile, Mrs. Elton, a snobbish busybody, finds a situation as governess for Jane. When the company goes on an outing to Box Hill Frank flirts with Emma and, made careless by his attention, she insults Miss Bates, who dares not stand up to her. Knightley is shocked, and his reproof gives Emma real pain. She realizes she has abused her social position and responsibility, and in a characteristic act of self-abnegation calls on Miss Bates by way of apology.
The death of the dictatorial Mrs. Churchill seems to free her nephew to follow his own wishes in marriage. Emma now expects Frank may propose to Harriet, but a few weeks later she is amazed to learn that he and Jane have been secretly engaged for some time. Emma now fears the ill consequences of having again encouraged Harriet to love a man beyond her reach, but she is stunned to learn that Harriet thought Emma was encouraging her to think of Knightley, not Frank, and she has taken Knightley's kindness to her as a sign of love. With a sickening shock, Emma realizes that she herself loves Knightley and fears that Harriet's surmise may be right. When Knightley calls to console Emma, in case she has allowed herself to be taken in by Frank's flirtation, she at first prevents him from speaking because she thinks he is about to confess his love for Harriet. Then, in another act of self-sacrifice, she invites him to say what he had intended. With a third and even greater shock--Austen was playfully fond of the fairy-tale pattern of threes--Knightley confesses his love for Emma and hopes she can return his feeling. Characteristically, the narrator draws away from Emma's joy with a sudden turn of amused irony. Emma now has the unpleasant duty of telling Harriet, but it soon transpires that Harriet has been seeing Martin, with Knightley's encouragement, and is to marry him. It later turns out that Harriet's father is not a dashing aristocrat but a solid and unromantic tradesman. Emma's "novelizing" of those around her is completely exposed. If this book were a sentimental tale or a Gothic novel the consequences would be tragic; but in Austen's comic novel no real harm has been done. In fact, Emma's errors have helped to educate others, as well as herself, to their human fallibility, as one might expect in a novelistic universe ruled by a benevolent deity much like the one supposed by Austen's Anglican theology to preside over the natural universe.
Like its predecessor, Emma shows the centrality of domestic woman to a renewed nation led by a reformed professionalized gentry. Emma resembles heroines in other novels of the time, representing the socially divisive and destabilizing effect of a woman who lacks intellectual resources and moral discipline appropriate to her station and thus misuses her social power. Yet Austen characteristically gives a comic rather than pathetic or tragic cast to this story and greatly diminishes what is too commonly treated melodramatically by other writers. She also denies that extensive social reform is necessary to end the social evil caused by such vitiated female characters. In Austen's benign novelistic universe reform on the individual level is enough to effect social change, provided that a character can practice, in however small and local a way, the virtues of self-correction and self-abnegation, which are in fact, for Austen, Christian and Anglican virtues. Further, the value of marriage, which is a sacrament as well as a property arrangement and legal contract, is shown in the fact that Knightley's more practiced ethical character will support Emma's continued spiritual growth and consequent social usefulness--a much subtler echo of the conclusion to Eaton Stannard Barrett's spoof The Heroine; or, Adventures of a Fair Romance Reader (1813), which Austen had read in March 1814.
When she was ready to publish Emma, Austen decided to change publishers and offered the work to Byron's publisher, John Murray. He referred it to a leading man of letters, William Gifford, editor of the Tory Quarterly Review. Gifford had published two verse satires, the Baviad (1791) and Maeviad (1795), attacking what he saw as signs of moral and cultural decline, including women authors. He thought very highly of Austen's novel, however, and Murray offered her £450 for the copyright, along with those of Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility. Austen preferred to retain property in her work, however, and Murray published Emma: A Novel on commission, in December 1815. Following a suggestion from the Prince Regent's librarian, the Reverend James Stanier Clarke, Austen dedicated the novel, though with no enthusiasm, to the prince.
She had met Clarke in autumn 1815 when he had been sent by the prince to invite Austen, then in London, to see Carlton House, his London residence. Clarke told her that the prince admired her novels and kept a set in each of his residences. Austen was not overawed. Though she accepted Clarke's suggestion that she dedicate her next novel to the prince, she rejected Clarke's suggestion that she write a novel about a clergyman, evidently somewhat like Clarke himself, and declared:
The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary. Such a man's conversation must at times be upon subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman who, like me, knows only her own mother tongue, and has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress. (11 December 1815)
Obviously if Austen desired, she could use to her own advantage the conventional distinctions between "masculine" and "feminine" genres and styles.
Undeterred, Clarke then hinted that it might be in Austen's interest to write some "historical romance, illustrative of the history of the august House of Cobourg," in view of the impending marriage of the princess Charlotte, heir presumptive to the throne. Austen replied even more emphatically that she realized such a work "might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in." Then she added,
But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other. (1 April 1816)
The reply is less interesting for its apparent modesty than for its clear sense of generic distinctions and the commercialized nature of the literary marketplace.
A few months after she finished Emma, Austen did "go on in [her] own way," with Persuasion , begun in August 1815 and completed, though not finally polished, a year later. In this novel Austen returns to the silently suffering, stoical heroine disregarded by everyone who applies merely social criteria in judging others. Austen also presents more directly than before the problem, underlying Mansfield Park, of reconstructing Britain and its social leadership in the Revolutionary aftermath. Austen and a host of other writers were representing this reconstruction as a progressive dialectic of gentry and professionals, especially the elite professions to which Austen's brothers belonged. In Mansfield Park the estate (and state) dangerously divided within is purged of courtly and vulgar elements--or at least such elements are put in their place--and reinvigorated with merit "from below." In Persuasion an estate dangerously overextended morally, socially, and financially is not so much reinvigorated as superseded by an estate acquired entirely on merit and able to take into itself the neglected best of the older estate (or state). Not surprisingly, the representatives of merit are, like two of Austen's brothers, navy men.
The novel opens with the vain and vacuous widower, Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall, contemplating retrenchment of his estate, which his proud extravagance has run into debt. Moreover the estate, like that of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, is entailed on the nearest male relative. It will not go to any of Sir Walter's three daughters unless one of them marries the heir at law. Sir Walter's youngest daughter, Mary, who has inherited his merely social values, has married a neighboring gentleman, Charles Musgrove, son and heir of a wealthy squire. Sir Walter's other two daughters remain unmarried, but Sir Walter's projects are only for the elder, Elizabeth, who is as vain and superficial as her father. The middle daughter, Anne, is taken for granted by everyone, though the narrator lets the reader see that she is the only one with real inner resources and character, partly thanks to her older friend and adviser, Lady Russell. Reluctantly accepting the advice of his estate agent, Sir Walter agrees to let Kellynch to Admiral Croft and his wife, who are looking for a home now that war with France is over. Sir Walter looks down on such mere men of merit, rushed to prominence and even wealth by the vicissitudes of war. In fact eight years earlier he had, with the help of Lady Russell, persuaded Anne not to marry Mrs. Croft's brother, Frederick Wentworth, a man unsuitable in rank and prospects for a daughter of a baronet. Fortunately the matter was kept secret from other members of both families at the time.
Sir Walter plans to take his family to Bath, where he can maintain his social standing without great expense and where his daughters will have enhanced prospects of finding husbands. He and Elizabeth leave for Bath first, while Anne spends time with her sister Mary's family, the Musgroves, mediating the differences and difficulties of various family members. When Wentworth, now a successful and wealthy man thanks to the fortunes of war, arrives to see the Crofts he evidently harbors resentment against Anne and gaily joins the circle of the sociable flirts Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove as Anne suffers in silence. Wentworth does her several small kindnesses, but he seems determined to value in a woman what he thinks Anne lacked by rejecting him, namely firmness of purpose. The party visits the seacoast town of Lyme Regis, where they meet Wentworth's friends Captains Harville and Benwick. Benwick, who is staying with Harville and his family, is despondent over the death of his fiancée, Harville's sister. Anne continues to act as healer and counselor of other characters' upsets, such as Benwick's romantic grief, and while at Lyme Regis she finds herself being admired by a stranger, who turns out to be the heir to Kellynch, William Walter Elliot. After the impetuous Louisa Musgrove, to whom Wentworth seems drawn, suffers a serious accident because of her own careless folly, it is Anne who takes charge of the situation.
The next movement of the novel opens with Anne's arrival in Bath with Lady Russell to join her father and sister. There she finds William Walter Elliot paying court to her father, who still hopes a marriage between the heir and Elizabeth will keep Kellynch in his line. Anne also finds the insinuating Mrs. Clay, a vulgar older woman who seems determined to marry Sir Walter. Anne visits an old friend, Mrs. Smith, now ill and living at Bath in straitened circumstances. Mrs. Smith seems to know a good deal about William Walter Elliot, whom Anne finds hard to read and suspects of having a double character. Then the Crofts and Wentworth arrive at Bath, and Anne hears with surprise that the apparently heartbroken Benwick has become engaged to Louisa Musgrove. In the great set piece of the novel the various principal characters encounter each other at a concert, where Anne as usual devotes herself to the comfort of others. Later she learns from Mrs. Smith that William Walter Elliot has a vicious character. He has come to Bath to head off Mrs. Clay's designs on Sir Walter because he fears that a marriage between them might result in the male heir needed to keep Kellynch in Sir Walter's line. The Bath party is enlarged when the Musgroves and Harvilles arrive. During one meeting Wentworth appears to be writing a letter for Harville while Harville discusses with Anne the differing perseverance of men and women in loving someone who has been lost to them. Against Harville's claim that women easily turn to new love, Anne protests that men--with their public duties and professional interests--have greater aid in overcoming loss, while women can only silently suffer and endure. When the party leaves, Wentworth comes back and puts a letter in Anne's hand; overhearing her talk with Harville he has realized that he has to ask once more for her love. Anne is afraid she will find no chance to reassure him, but a chance meeting in the street affords the opportunity. This time Sir Walter and Lady Russell approve of the match; William Walter Elliot and Mrs. Clay leave Bath together. The novel closes not on a note of narratorial irony and detachment but with a sense that despite present happiness, with Anne having to fear only some future outbreak of war, some years of conjugal joy and social usefulness have already been needlessly lost because of social prejudice and a feminine weakness in face of merely social persuasion.
As Jane Austen was writing Persuasion her brother Henry and his partners found their bank threatened by their overoptimistic speculation and some rather questionable business practices. The postwar economic slump soon brought the bank down, and in March 1816 Henry was bankrupt; worse still, his speculations had involved large sums of his brothers' money. He decided to become a clergyman and became assistant at Chawton. At this time he regained the manuscript for Austen's unpublished novel "Susan" from Crosby, who had held it since 1803. Austen first wanted to publish immediately, but then decided to put it aside. Early in 1816 she began to show symptoms of what was probably Addison's disease, a malfunction of the adrenal cortex resulting in imbalance of the body's mineral metabolism, with symptoms such as physical weakness, skin discoloration, as well as abdominal and back pain. Though the disease progressed steadily, Austen enjoyed increased contact with her family, including her young nieces and nephews, especially her brother James's son Edward, who, like his sister Anna, had aspirations to be a novel writer. Austen's brothers Francis and Charles, freed from constant naval duty with the ending of war, came with their families to Chawton.
In January 1817 Austen began drafting a new novel and worked at it until March, when she was too ill to continue; extracts were published in 1871 by her favorite nephew Edward in the second edition of his Memoir of Jane Austen. He called it Sanditon, though a family tradition held that Austen herself intended it to be called "The Brothers." It opens as Mr. Parker, an entrepreneur developing a seaside health spa named Sanditon, is seeking a physician to serve his new resort. When Parker's coach is overturned on a country road, he is looked after by a local family, the Heywoods. He takes young Charlotte Heywood as his guest to Sanditon, where she meets a variety of individualists seemingly tainted by the new culture of Romanticism, including Parker's brothers and sisters and the literary man of feeling, Sir Edward Denham. Another visitor to Sanditon is the rich West Indian, Miss Lambe. Austen did not get much farther than setting the scene and cast of characters, but her intention was clearly to continue her exploration of class, gender, and culture in post-Revolutionary Britain.
Austen became seriously ill in March 1817, and in May she was taken to consult a surgeon in Winchester, where she stayed in lodgings in College Street. Attended by her faithful sister, Cassandra, she rallied from time to time, and even wrote a comic poem to mark St. Swithin's Day, 15 July, but she died three days later, early in the morning. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral on 24 July. In her will Austen left the remainder of her estate after funeral expenses, £561 and two shillings, to Cassandra.
"Susan" was published as Northanger Abbey with Persuasion and a "Biographical Notice" of Austen by her brother Henry, at the end of 1817, though it is dated 1818. She was much missed in her family, but her passing caused little stir in the literary world, and her novels were soon virtually forgotten by the reading public. It was not until 1833, when they were republished in the Bentley's Standard Novels series, that her novels began a steady rise in their status to become both commercially successful and recognized as "classics." Of the thousands of novels published in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they are among the few to survive their own time. Bentley reprinted the Standard Novels editions into the 1880s; other publishers started putting out their own editions soon after the copyrights began to expire in 1839. By the late nineteenth century, in response to Austen's emergent status as a "popular classic," editions were appearing with introductions by leading men of letters and illustrations by fashionable artists. In 1906 Austen's novels began to be published in the Everyman Library; in 1907 they began to appear in the Oxford World's Classics series; and in 1938 Penguin books began publishing them. In addition to these various popular editions, R. W. Chapman's critical edition was published by the Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press in 1923; in the 1970s Oxford University Press had this edition reedited for the Oxford English Novels series and later republished them in the new Oxford World's Classics series. Other editions are legion, and there are numerous film and television adaptations. Studied in English classes around the world, yet still read by thousands just for pleasure, Austen is now one of the world's most widely read authors.
In Austen's own time her works were praised by the few critics to review them, but not so as to distinguish them in any extraordinary way from other novels of that time. Yet Walter Scott recognized Austen's achievement. He wrote approvingly of her novels in the Quarterly Review (October 1815), and ten years later he reread Pride and Prejudice "for the third time at least" and confided to his journal:
That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow wow strain I can do myself like any now going but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early. (14 March 1826)
Mary Mitford at first found Austen's novels lacking in "elegance" and "taste," but by the early 1820s she enlisted them, along with Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne (1789), for her book Our Village (1824-1832), her own middleclass appropriation of rural England--one of the most powerful influences on the cultural imagination of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, for much of the nineteenth century Austen remained, in Brian C. Southam's words, "a critic's novelist." The modern construction of Austen as a literary and popular classic--popular with the educated middle-class reading public--was spurred by the publication in 1870 of James Edward Austen-Leigh's Memoir of Jane Austen. Its portrayal of Austen as a feminine and domestic sage simply recording a real world of rural felicity clearly had considerable cultural and political use in an age of ever deeper social, national, and imperial conflicts, of horrific industrial blight and social problems that seemed or were made out to be beyond the power of the state to remedy. Austen, like Mary Mitford, Gilbert White, and many other earlier writers, was brought to serve what Martin Wiener has described as the attack of an upper-middle-class English culture against the industrial spirit, an attack only decisively rebutted, according to Wiener, by Margaret Thatcher.
The late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century "Janeites," the uncritical devotees of Austen and the world she was thought to represent, saw Austen's supposed limitations of social scope and psychological depth to be strengths, something peculiarly "English." More important, such devotees often held important positions in governmental, cultural, and educational institutions. They found in Austen a vision of "Englishness" they were looking for and applied to Britain and its empire. Reaction against this complacent late-imperial, anti-industrial culture generated new approaches to and understanding of Austen, especially after the unprecedented horror of World War I and with the rise of professionalized, university-based criticism. In broad terms social historians were exploding the popular myth of an idyllic, preindustrial, Austenian world. R. W. Chapman's critical editions of Austen's novels, early writings, and letters made available materials for better understanding Austen in her own time as well as critical analysis that was more searching than the "appreciations" characteristic of earlier, "Janeite" criticism. J. David Grey and Deirdre La Faye's forthcoming, revised and expanded edition of Austen's letters will make still more information available. Mary Lascelles, Q. D. Leavis, D. W. Harding, and others showed Austen as a determined, conscious artist and social critic.
After World War II and the further democratization of education, especially at the higher levels, Austen and her work were interpreted in the light of new social issues, including class conflict, feminism, and anti-imperialism. Austen has even become one of the few novelists to have a concordance to her works. Meanwhile, Austen's fiction had served for some time as one model for an emergent form of popular novel known as the "Regency romance." Enterprising writers undertook to "complete" Austen's unfinished works such as The Watsons and Sanditon. It is true that Austen has not yet been fully accepted as a "Romantic" writer, and as recently as 1975 Alistair M. Duckworth could write, "In spite of a staggering amount of critical attention Jane Austen can hardly be said, in her bicentennial year, to be understood better than she understood herself" ("Prospects and Retrospects," in Jane Austen Today). At the same time, as Duckworth goes on to illustrate, Austen's work has been profitably explored in light of recent critical and literary theory, and determined exploration of Austen's relation to her contemporary novelists and contemporary issues is making possible new understandings of her and her work in her time, thus providing new ways of understanding her importance in the present.
From: Kelly, Gary. "Jane Austen." British Romantic Novelists, 1789-1832, edited by Bradford Keyes Mudge, Gale, 1992. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 116.