Jane Austen (1775-1817) was the seventh of the eight children of George Austen, rector of Steventon in Hampshire, and his wife, Cassandra Leigh. This large and lively family provided Austen with her first audience, for, like the Brontë sisters, from childhood onwards she was dedicated to literature and, more specifically, the art of fiction. Her juvenilia, complete with the occasional drunken heroine or light-fingered hero, took on both social and literary conventions and reduced them to nonsense. The mature novels—Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Persuasion (1817), and Northanger Abbey (1817)–with their subtlety, elegance, and accuracy, are more quietly subversive of traditional hierarchies. Elizabeth Bennet, for example, a young woman of no particular wealth or social standing, stands up to a rich and powerful aristocrat, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, insisting on the right to act on her own judgment (Pride and Prejudice), while Fanny Price, the poorest, plainest, and least powerful member of the household, becomes, through unswerving adherence to her own principles and feelings, the emotional and moral heart of the family (Mansfield Park).
The women in Austen’s family—her mother and her much-loved elder sister, her life-long companions—were able and intelligent, and Austen’s own fiction reflects her experience in this respect. Most of her heroines are notably clever women—sometimes witty (Pride and Prejudice, Emma), sometimes intellectual (Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion). The exception is Northanger Abbey, where the comedy springs largely from its heroine’s sheer ordinariness. In the other novels a sharper comedy emerges from the contrast between exceptional women and the commonplace surroundings from which they have little chance of escape given the limited options open to middle-class women
One increasingly available option, however, from which Austen herself profited, was literature. She was well aware that she was one of a growing number of women novelists. Although in her letters she writes caustically about the feebler among them, others she greatly respects, defending in a famous statement about the novel both her gender and her genre. She asserts proudly that the novels of Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth display “the greatest powers of the mind . . . the most thorough knowledge of human nature . . . the liveliest effusions of wit and humour . . . in the best-chosen language” (Northanger Abbey 31).
While insisting on women’s abilities, Austen’s fiction repeatedly indicates the precarious economic position of most middle-class women and its emotional implications. “Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor,” she comments (Letters 332). Her plots involve the poor relation, vulnerable to exploitation and bullying (Mansfield Park), a widow and her daughters who in losing husband and father lose their home and financial security (Sense and Sensibility), sisters who cannot inherit their father’s estate because it is entailed on male heirs (Pride and Prejudice), and a woman turned out of her beloved home because of the folly and extravagance of her father (Persuasion). Yet if the life of a single woman was likely to be financially precarious, the life of married women at that period was physically dangerous. Two of Austen’s sisters-in-law died in childbirth and her letters repeatedly deplore the dangers of repeated pregnancies: “Poor Animal” she writes of a pregnant niece (Letters 336).
Austen was only 41 when she died, leaving Persuasion unrevised, and a strikingly new venture, Sanditon, merely an incomplete draft. As for her after-life, like that of other women writers, it has fluctuated, though ever since the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813 she has had devoted admirers. More recently, perhaps since the 1995 BBC serialization of that novel, she has become something of a cult figure, a phenomenon that does as much to obscure her brilliance as to celebrate it. Certainly her command of the “marriage plot” offers narrative satisfactions that can lead to her fiction being consumed merely as comfort food. Yet these novels, read more carefully, are at least as disconcerting as they are comforting. Austen’s sardonic wit and the unrelenting closeness of her observation of human speech and conduct repeatedly call into question ancient and persistent assumptions about gender, family structure, and social hierarchies.
Austen, Jane. 1997. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: OUP.
—-. 2006. Northanger Abbey. Ed. Barbara Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye. Cambridge: CUP.
—-. 2006. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Edward Copeland. Cambridge: CUP,
—-. 2006. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Ed Pat Rogers. Cambridge: CUP.
—-. 2005. Mansfield Park. Ed. John Wiltshire. Cambridge: CUP.
—-. 2013. Emma. Ed. Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan. . Cambridge: CUP.
—-. 2006. Persuasion. Ed. Janet Todd and Antje Blank. Cambridge: CUP.
—-. 2008.“Sanditon.” Later Manuscripts. Ed. Janet Todd and Linda Bree. Cambridge: CUP. 137-209.
Copeland, Edward. 1995. Women Writing about Money: Women’s Fiction in England, 1790-1820. Cambridge: CUP.
Fergus, Jan. Jane Austen: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan, 1991.
Johnson, Claudia L. 1988. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: U of Chicago P,
—-. 2012. Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures. Chicago: U of Chicago P.