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Jane Austen

From Academic Kids

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Jane Austen, in a portrait based on one drawn by her sister Cassandra
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House of Jane Austen (today it is a museum)

Jane Austen (December 16, 1775July 18, 1817) was a prominent English novelist whose work is considered part of the Western canon. She stands as a model of the writer whose apparently sheltered life did nothing to reduce the stature and drama of her fiction.

She was born at the rectory in Steventon, Hampshire, to the Rev George Austen (1731-1805) and Cassandra (nėe Leigh) (1739-1827). She lived for most of her life in the area and had six brothers, and an elder sister, Cassandra, to whom she was very close. The only undisputed portrait of Jane Austen is a coloured sketch done by Cassandra which resides in the National Portrait Gallery in London. However, a full-length painting owned by a family member, traditionally held to be of Jane as a teenager, is now increasingly considered authentic by authorities. Her brothers Frank and Charles went to sea, eventually becoming admirals. In 1783, she was educated briefly by a relative in Oxford then Southampton. In 1785-1786, she was educated at the Reading Ladies boarding school in the Abbey gatehouse in Reading, Berkshire. In general, she received an education superior to that generally given to girls of her time, and took early to writing, her first tale being begun in 1798. Her life was a singularly uneventful one, and, but for a disappointment in love, tranquil and happy. In 1801 the family moved to Bath, the scene of many episodes in her writings; after the death of her father in 1805, Jane, her sister and her mother lived with Frank and his family for several years until they moved in 1809 to Chawton. Here her wealthy brother Edward had an estate with a cottage, which he turned over to his mother and sisters. (Their house today is open to the public.) Jane never married; she was once engaged to a younger man, Harris Bigg-Wither, but changed her mind overnight. Having established herself as a novelist, she continued to live in relative seclusion, and began to suffer ill-health. It is now thought she may have suffered from Addison's disease, the cause of which was then unknown. She travelled to Winchester to seek medical attendance, but so rapid was the progress of her malady that she died there two months later and was buried in the cathedral.

While her first novel, the posthumously published Northanger Abbey, pokes fun at the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, Austen is most famous for her later works, which took the form of socially conscious comedies of errors. These, especially Emma, are often cited for their perfection of form, while modern critics continue to unearth new perspectives on Austen's keen commentary regarding the predicament of young, unmarried, upper-class English women in the early 1800s.

Her novels were fairly well received when they were published, with Sir Walter Scott in particular praising her work:

That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements of feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.

She was also admired by Macaulay (who thought that in the world there were no compositions which approached nearer to perfection), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Southey, Sydney Smith, and Edward FitzGerald. Her reputation has only increased since, and she is now considered one of the greatest English novelists. Her strength lies in the delineation of character, especially of persons of her own sex, by delicate touches arising out of the most natural and everyday incidents in the life of the middle and upper classes, from which her subjects are generally taken. Her characters, though of quite ordinary types, are drawn with such firmness and precision, and with such significant detail as to retain their individuality intact through their entire development, and they are uncoloured by her own personality. Her view of life seems largely genial, with a strong dash of gentle but keen satire: she appeals rarely and slightly to the deeper feelings; and the enforcement of the lessons she teaches is left altogether to the story, without a word of formal moralising. Almost every scene in her novels features women, purportedly because she did not know how men spoke when not in the presence of women. Some contemporary readers may find the world she describes, in which people's chief concern is obtaining socially prominent marriages, to be unliberated and disquieting; however one should bear in mind that a "good marriage" was then the only available form of social security other than degrading work as governess, or living as hanger-on in a relative's household.

The order in which she began and completed her novels is different from that of their publication. They are:

She also wrote three shorter pieces:

Her early works include:

  • Henry and Eliza
  • The Three Sisters
  • Love and Freindship [sic]
  • The History of England
  • Catharine, or the Bower
  • The Beautifull Cassandra

&c, &c...

Reference: David Cecil, A portrait of Jane Austen (1978)

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