Jane Austen is known the world over for her novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. She died many years ago yet she remains to be one of the most popular authors to date, and her books are still being studied in literature classes around the world. What is it about her that is so special that not only endeared her to millions of readers across the world? A glimpse into her novels would show how some of the stories resemble her life, making her literature real and relatable. In addition, Jane Austen succeeded in making her novels timeless and universal.
Jane Austen is one of the world’s best loved and most widely read authors. She had contributed to world literature with the likes of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The novels were written in the 19th Century, but these literary works are still relevant at present. The novels derive their relevance from their classic quality and universal appeal. In addition, these novels show readers a glimpse of the author’s life. This research paper aims to discuss how some aspects of Jane Austen’s life were mirrored in her novels, and why today she remains as one of the world’s literary greats.
Jane Austen was born on a Saturday, December 16, 1775 (Cody, 2008; Le Faye, 2003). Her parents were Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Leigh; the former was the rector of Steventon since 1761, while the latter was a daughter of the rector of Harpsden (Le Faye, 2003). Jane was seventh in the family of eight children, and grew up in Steventon in Hampshire (Cody; 2008). The situation of her family life would eventually be reflected in her writings; just like the characters in some of her works, the large Austen family was reputable yet lacking in wealth. Reverend Austen had to stretch his rector’s salary through farming to support his family. He also entertained students in the Austen household for additional income (Le Faye, 2003). The family spent most of their time reading novels or playing charades (Cody; 2008). In the family, Jane was closest to her elder sister Cassandra (Cody; 2008).
Jane’s life had given her enough material to write about in her literary career. During the 1780s, the Austen children had amateur theater to preoccupy them at home (Le Faye, 2003). James led his siblings in this endeavor, due to his literary leanings. He had written most of the plays they performed, and even managed the creation of the props to be used. The performances would be held either in a barn or the dining room in the rectory. These same theatrical displays from Jane’s family life would inspire those in Mansfield Park. From 1785 to 1786, both Jane and Cassandra attended Mrs. La Tournelle’s Ladies’ Boarding School, which was located in Abbey House found in Reading, Berkshire. The school served as a temporary yet cozy home for the Austen girls. Unfortunately, Mr. Austen could no longer afford to send his daughters to an institution which charged £35 per student annually. Though she stayed in the school at Abbey House for only a year, her experience provided helpful information in her writing of Emma (Le Faye, 2003).
It was not until after Jane returned home from school that she began to write (Le Faye, 2003). For the first six years since she started writing, Jane produced essays which were comedic in nature. She also created short stories and skits. Her works varied in length; several pieces were only a page long, while others were longer and were not completed. These stories were eventually written in three books that Jane named Volumes the First, Second and Third. The entire collection was later called Juvenilia; this collection was published posthumously, apart from the novels she has written as an adult (Le Faye, 2003).
By the 1790s, Jane’s literary direction had changed. She continued to write for herself, because she had no plans of having her compositions published (Le Faye, 2003). However, she shared her stories with her family when she read to them by the fireplace at night. The shift in Jane’s literary direction was evident in the maturity of her themes. After completing the comic manuscripts of Volumes the First, Second and Third, Jane began to write novels with adult subject matter. These novels were usually written in the form of letters. The first novel she tried to write was about an insensitive and opportunist widow who derived joy from destroying families through lying and flirting. The villainess also attempted to coerce her young daughter to marry a man she did not love. While Jane left this novel initially untitled, it was known as Lady Susan, which is the name of the female antagonist. It was said that Jane completed Lady Susan from 1793 to 1794. A year later, she tried to write her first full-length novel in the same format of letters. This time, the story was about two sisters entitled Elinor and Marianne. Immediately after this project, Jane proceeded to write First Impressions in 1796; this was the original manuscript of Pride and Prejudice (Le Faye, 2003).
Reverend Austen was so impressed by his daughter’s work that he sought to have the novel published (Le Faye, 2003). After Jane completed First Impressions, he wrote to a publisher in London named Cadell and offered him a copy of the novel. Cadell did not bother to see the copy; he immediately rejected it. Despite this unfortunate development, Jane was unaffected and continued to write. She resumed working on Elinor and Marianne, making it into what is presently identified as Sense and Sensibility (Le Faye, 2003).
The year 1801 marked the Reverend Austen’s unexpected retirement (Le Faye, 2003). The family was forced to transfer from Steventon to Bath, where Jane’s mother and maternal grandmother previously lived (BBC, 2009; Cody, 2008; Le Faye, 2003). The Austens had to sell most of their property for this move (Davidson, 2004). It was believed that Jane had strongly disapproved of her parent’s decision to leave Steventon (Le Faye, 2003). At that point, most of the Austen children have started their own familes; only Jane and Cassandra remained single, and stayed with their parents (Cody, 2008; Le Faye, 2003). The family’s decision to move was said to have been motivated by two reasons. First, Mr. and Mrs. Austen were old and sickly; it was suggested that Bath would help them recover from their failing health (Le Faye, 2003). Second, it was also insinuated that the move to the city was made to improve the chances for both women to find husbands (Cody, 2008; Le Faye, 2003). Though Jane was never married, it must be noted that she did dance and flirt with potential suitors. She flirted with Tom Lefroy, who left for London before the relationship could progress (Le Faye, 2003). Four years after settling in Bath, Revered Austen passed away and the Austen women had to relocate once again (Cody, 2008). They initially moved to Southampton in 1805; four years later, they were permanently settled in Chawton due to the assistance of Jane’s rich brother Edward (BBC, 2009; Cody, 2008).
Due to missing information between July 1809 and April 1811, it was uncertain if and when Jane’s family tried to again encourage her to submit her works for publication (Le Faye, 2003). She tried to regain her copy of Lady Susan from Benjamin Crosby & Co. but the company asked her to buy it from them for ten pounds, a price she found to be too expensive. Jane submitted Sense and Sensibility to another publisher in 1810, this time to Thomas Egerton. While he agreed to publish the novel, he sought to do it at the expense of Jane. She reluctantly accepted this deal and had to save a percentage of her measly salary to cover the loss (Le Faye, 2003).
Sense and Sensibility was released in 1811 and became sold out in 1813 (Le Faye, 2003). Meanwhile, Jane went back to edit and alter First Impressions; she then changed the title to Pride and Prejudice. Egerton published the text in 1813, which proved to be successful like the first one. Despite her literary success, Jane was not mentioned in the books as the author. This was because during Jane’s time, a woman’s reputation would be tarnished if she was involved in literature and publication. Though she remained anonymous, she continued to write two more novels. She started on Mansfield Park in 1812 and Egerton published it two years later. Just like her first two novels, Jane’s third work was well received by the reading public. A year later, she began her work on Emma and completed the novel by 1815. Henry, Jane’s brother, was often in charge of dealing with the publishers. For the publication of Emma, he sent the novel to John Murray of Albemarle Street (Le Faye, 2003).
Jane continued with yet another novel entitled Persuasion, which was to be her last novel (Davidson, 2004). Unfortunately, Henry became sick while she was in the process of writing. Jane went to London to attend to her brother’s condition; soon, she began being ill herself. It was in 1816 when Jane started to experience the symptoms of the disease which would later claim her life (Le Faye, 2003). It was said that Jane suffered from the failure of the kidney that resulted from the infection of the tubercle; it was referred to as Addison’s disease. Due to her condition, she began having difficulty in writing; she had to struggle to finish the last two chapters of Persuasion (Le Faye, 2003).
In an effort to improve Jane’s condition, Cassandra brought her sister to Winchester in May 1817 to bring her closer to her doctor (Davidson, 2004; Le Faye, 2003). Dr. Lyford was a surgeon at the city’s County Hospital, but even he could not help save Jane’s life. Jane passed away on July 18, 1817, and her remains were buried in Winchester Cathedral. It was Henry who had Jane’s unpublished works released after her death (Le Faye, 2003).
Why is Jane Austen a great author? How does she remain a significant writer many years after her death? One reason could be the fact that she was part of a literary revolution during her time. According to Fergus (1997), Austen became an author in a time when women were not allowed to be writers. She was one of the women authors who succeeded in having their novels published despite the social obstructions (Fergus, 1997). In Austen’s time, women were restricted in the domestic sphere; they were supposed to be private individuals. For a woman to break into the public sphere through publication would be detrimental to her reputation. Fathers would often take control of their daughter’s life and discourage them from publishing, as it may greatly affect their chances of getting married. However, Austen stood out as one of the women who took a chance in such a risky endeavor. In contrast to other women, Jane was lucky to have a father who supported her interest in writing and even exerted effort to have her novels published. Jane was a writer who held her own place in the literary world despite social setbacks.
Another reason why Jane Austen is considered a great and timeless writer is because her works mirror real life. Her novels reveal the plight of women during the 1800s, while describing the social situation of England during her time (BBC, 2009). According to Waldron (2001), Jane did not utilize the elements of fiction to obstruct the relationship between the text and its reader. Though she created fiction, she did not create illusions for her readers (Waldron, 2001). She wrote about the realities in 19th Century English society. After all, her own life in English society was partly revealed in her novels. The real nature of her novels allowed more readers to relate to her, giving her the guarantee that her works would stand the test of time.
Lastly, the reason why Jane Austen remains significant in this day and age is because her works are timeless and universal. According to Todd (2006), “no reader and no period exhausts her books” (p. 1). All of her works must be read over and over again, as every reading teaches something new (Todd, 2006). Austen is often compared with William Shakespeare, and such analogy seems appropriate. After all, the English authors were both critically acclaimed and widely popular. The novels of Austen, just like Shakespeare, were crucial inclusions in the study of literature without losing its mass appeal. Hence, Jane Austen is a remarkable author because her novels stand both the tests of time and criticisms and continue to be studied throughout the world by various generations.
Jane Austen had lived a colorful life. She belonged to a large family who encouraged her to pursue what she loved most—writing. She broke boundaries by publishing her novels despite the social implication it had on her standing as a woman. In her career as a novelist, she created literary classics such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. She proved to be very significant in literature for three primary reasons. First, she helped cement a place for women in the publishing realm which was once dominated by men. Second, her works were a reflection of real life, as she captured the 19th Century English social climate in the pages of her books. Some events in her stories were even derived from her own life. Third, she proved to be an author whose works proved to be both timeless and universal. Indeed, Jane Austen was one of the best and most relevant contributors in world literature.
BBC. (2009). Jane Austen (1775-1817). BBC: Historic Figures. Retrieved February 26, 2009, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/austen_jane.shtml
Cody, D. (2008). A brief biography of Jane Austen. The Victorian Web. Retrieved February 26, 2009, from http://www.victorianweb.org/previctorian/austen/bio.html
Davidson, K. (2004). Introduction: the life and work of Jane Austen. In J. Austen, Pride and Prejudice (VIII-IX). New York: Pocket Books.
Fergus, J. (1997). The professional woman writer. In E. Copeland & J. McMaster (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen (pp. 12-31). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Le Faye, D. (2003). Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.
Todd, J. (2006). The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Waldron, M. (2001). Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time. New York: Cambridge University Press.