AUSTEN, JANE (1775-1817),
English novelist, was born on the 16th of December 1775 at the parsonage of Steventon, in Hampshire, a village of which her father, the Rev. George Austen, was rector. She was the youngest of seven children. Her mother was Cassandra Leigh, niece of Theophilus Leigh, a dry humorist, and for fifty years master of Balliol, Oxford. The life of no woman of genius could have been more uneventful than Miss Austen's. She did not marry, and she never left home except on short visits, chiefly to Bath. Her first sixteen years were spent in the rectory at Steventon, where she began early to trifle with her pen, always jestingly, for family entertainment. In 1801 the Austens moved to Bath, where Mr Austen died in 1805, leaving only Mrs Austen, Jane and her sister Cassandra, to whom she was always deeply attached, to keep up the home; his sons were out in the world, the two in the navy, Francis William and Charles, subsequently rising to admiral's rank. In 1805 the Austen ladies moved to Southampton, and in 1809 to Chawton, near Alton, in Hampshire, and there Jane Austen remained till 1817, the year of her death, which occurred at Winchester, on July 18th, as a memorial window in the cathedral testifies.
During her placid life Miss Austen never allowed her literary work to interfere with her domestic duties: sewing much and admirably, keeping house, writing many letters and reading aloud. Though, however, her days were quiet and her area circumscribed, she saw enough of middle-class provincial society to find a basis on which her dramatic and humorous faculties might build, and such was her power of searching observation and her sympathetic imagination that there are not in English fiction more faithful representations of the life she knew than we possess in her novels. She had no predecessors in this genre. Miss Austen's "little bit (two inches wide) of ivory" on which she worked "with so fine a brush"--her own phrases--was her own invention.
Her best-known, if not her best work, Pride and Prejudice, was also her first. It was written between October 1796 and August 1797, although, such was the blindness of publishers, not issued until 1813, two years after Sense and Sensibility, which was written, on an old scenario called "Eleanor and Marianne," in 1797 and 1798. Miss Austen's inability to find a publisher for these stories, and for Northanger Abbey, written in 1798 (although it is true that she sold that MS. in 1803 for £10 to a Bath bookseller, only, however, to see it locked away in a safe for some years, to be gladly resold to her later), seems to have damped her ardour; for there is no evidence that between 1798 and 1809 she wrote anything but the fragment called "The Watsons," after which year she began to revise her early work for the press. Her other three books belong to a later date--Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion being written between 1811 and 1816. The years of publication were Sense and Sensibility, 1811; Pride and Prejudice, 1813; Mansfield Park, 1814; and Emma, 1816--all in their author's lifetime. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously in 1818. All were anonymous, agreeably to their author's retiring disposition.
Although Northanger Abbey was drafted in 1798-99, after the first versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice had been written, it received less radical revision than those works and consequently represents an early phase of Jane Austen's art, when high-spirited social and literary satire was mixed with a growing sense of more mature themes. Jane Austen sold the manuscript to a publisher in 1803, but it was never printed, perhaps because the fashion for gothic fiction was already declining. When Jane Austen prepared an "Advertisement" for the novel in 1816, shortly before her death, she asked the public "to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes" (NA, p. 10). Time has proved this apology unnecessary. Although the books that she mocks and the manners she satirizes now seem remote and quaint, her basic themes--the constant desire to substitute illusion for reality, the interdependence of spiritual and material values--remain fresh and compelling. It is one of the deeper ironies of Northanger Abbey that the gothic violence that Catherine imagines is dispelled, only to be replaced by a more rational view of the world that is almost as dark.
From the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition and the Jane Austen Information Page
Back to top