Jane Austen was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony and social commentary have gained her historical importance among the reading public, scholars and critics alike.
Austen was born on 16th December 1775, and lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. Biographical information on Jane Austen is incredibly scarce however, as only some personal and family letters remain. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. Jane spent most of her early years being schooled at home, until leaving for boarding school at the age of ten, alongside her elder sister Cassandra. They left one year later though (1786) as the family could not afford to send both of their daughters to school. According to Park Honan, a biographer of Austen, life in the Austen home was lived in ‘an open, amused, easy intellectual atmosphere’ where the ideas of those with whom the Austens might disagree politically or socially were ‘considered and discussed.’ After returning from school in 1786, Austen ‘never again lived anywhere beyond the bounds of her immediate family environment.’
Her artistic apprenticeship lasted from her teenage years into her thirties. As Austen grew into adulthood, she continued to live at her parents’ home, carrying out those activities normal for women of her age and social standing: she practised the fortepiano, assisted her sister and mother with supervising servants, and attended female relatives during childbirth and older relatives on their deathbeds. During this period, she experimented with various literary forms, including the epistolary novel (a novel written as a series of documents) which she then abandoned, and wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. Lady Susan, written between 1793 and 1795 was an experiment of this kind; taking the form of a series of letters, it is described as Austen’s most ambitious and sophisticated early work. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin describes the heroine of the novella as a ‘sexual predator who uses her intelligence and charm to manipulate, betray, and abuse her victims, whether lovers, friends or family.’
In 1800, George Austen (Jane’s father), announced his decision to retire from his post in the ministry and move the family to Bath. Jane Austen was incredibly unsettled and unhappy in Bath, and sadly her father passed away during this period. This left the family in a precarious financial position and in 1805 Jane, her sisters and her mother lived in rented quarters. They moved to ‘Chawton Cottage’ in Hampshire in 1809. A gift from Austen’s brother Edward, this cottage allowed the family a more settled life and in a quieter, more tranquil setting. Austen was thus able to concentrate on her writing. From 1811 until 1816, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer.
Through her brother Henry, the publisher Thomas Egerton agreed to issue Sense and Sensibility, and the earnings from the novel provided Austen with some much needed financial and psychological independence. Egerton then published Pride and Prejudice, a revision of First Impressions, in January 1813. He advertised the book widely and it was an immediate success, garnering three favourable reviews and selling well. Mansfield Park followed, but was not popular, and the failure of this title offset most of the profits Austen earned on Emma. These were the last of Austen’s novels to be published during her lifetime. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon, but died before completing it.
Early in 1816, Jane Austen began to feel unwell. She ignored her illness at first and continued to work and to participate in the usual round of family activities. By the middle of that year, her decline was unmistakable to Austen and to her family, and Austen’s physical condition began a long, slow deterioration, culminating in her death the following year. Some biographers assign her symptoms to Addison’s disease, and others to Hodgkin’s lymphoma or even bovine tuberculosis from drinking unpasteurised milk; she was weak and couldn’t walk from stiff joints. Austen died in Winchester, whilst seeking medical treatment, on 18th July 1817, at the age of forty-one. She is buried in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral.
Austen’s works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the eighteenth century and are part of the transition to nineteenth century realism. Her plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. Her works though usually popular, were first published anonymously and brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews during her lifetime. It was the publication in 1869 of her nephew’s A Memoir of Jane Austen that introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer. The second half of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of Austen scholarship and the emergence of a Janeite fan culture. Her novels are still well-read, studied and loved right up to the present day.
The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his home; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it. In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman's days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased. The constant attention of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of heart, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive; and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence.
By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son: by his present lady, three daughters. The son, a steady respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large, and half of which devolved on him on his coming of age. By his own marriage, likewise, which happened soon afterwards, he added to his wealth. To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune, independent of what might arise to them from their father's inheriting that property, could be but small. Their mother had nothing, and their father only seven thousand pounds in his own disposal; for the remaining moiety of his first wife's fortune was also secured to her child, and he had only a life-interest in it.
The old gentleman died: his will was read, and like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure. He was neither so unjust, nor so ungrateful, as to leave his estate from his nephew;—but he left it to him on such terms as destroyed half the value of the bequest. Mr. Dashwood had wished for it more for the sake of his wife and daughters than for himself or his son;—but to his son, and his son's son, a child of four years old, it was secured, in such a way, as to leave to himself no power of providing for those who were most dear to him, and who most needed a provision by any charge on the estate, or by any sale of its valuable woods. The whole was tied up for the benefit of this child, who, in occasional visits with his father and mother at Norland, had so far gained on the affections of his uncle, by such attractions as are by no means unusual in children of two or three years old; an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise, as to outweigh all the value of all the attention which, for years, he had received from his niece and her daughters. He meant not to be unkind, however, and, as a mark of his affection for the three girls, he left them a thousand pounds a-piece.
Mr. Dashwood's disappointment was, at first, severe; but his temper was cheerful and sanguine; and he might reasonably hope to live many years, and by living eco...