The greatest of novelists, and the most perfect delineator of the human heart. Each of her six novels is a gem, witty and dry and tender.

She was not the impoverished country mouse she is sometimes made out as: no artist starving in a garret. Poor, yes; novelists didn't make much from their publishers then. But her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, took the world by storm. She could have done the London circuit if she had wanted: she turned down invitations to literary parties. Although she was credited only as "A Lady", her name was known and respected in literary circles. Four years later her fourth novel, Emma, was dedicated to the Prince of Wales at his request. He kept sets of her novels in all his palaces. Her novels were refreshingly new and unusual, and after her death her fame kept rising, as they were perceived as modern classics.

She was born in Steventon in Hampshire on the 16th December 1775, to a clergyman, George Austen. Her elder sister Cassandra was the recipient of most of her correspondence (and all that that Cassandra destroyed in those crucial years 1801-5 when the most interesting things in her private life happened), and two of her brothers became admirals and one was knighted, and they all lived to a great age. So Jane's death from Addison's disease on 18th July 1817, at the age of 41, was tragically early for that family, and especially for someone who was just beginning to flourish in fame.

The Hampshire years gave her the pleasant, almost idyllic, country house atmosphere of her novels, with small concerns writ large, of the village, of the land, of marriages and successions and the relations of people in their social classes. It was a peaceful, lasting existence, and full of quiet and gentle joys, pains, discoveries, disasters, humour, and honour. This is the heart and essence of Jane Austen's world.

In 1801 the family moved to Bath, the fashionable town. To us these days it's beautifully Georgian and "period": to her of course it was brand new, wide, clean, bustling, hot. She disliked Bath and felt ill at the thought of the move. This is the other element in her novels: the irruption of the city, of the sophisticated, of the rakish, of modern fashions.

It was not modernity she disliked as such, but the raging vanity and frivolity of fashion, and the young women and men who took it up, and even the older people who aped it - this she mocked, in her novelist's person, and I think despaired at it, in her own.

Jane Austen knew love (but he died). She was engaged (but she changed her mind the next day). We don't know exactly what happened because her sister destroyed years of the only records, her minute letters to her, lest later biographers find out private family doings. Cassandra tried to keep in reality what Jane brought out best in fiction.

Her six complete novels were Sense and Sensibility (written simply by 'A Lady') in 1811, Pride and Prejudice (by the Author of "Sense and Sensibility") in 1813, Mansfield Park (by the Author of S&S and P&P) in 1814, Emma (by the Author of P&P etc. etc.) in 1816/late 1815, and Persuasion and Northanger Abbey in 1818, by the Author of "Pride and Prejudice", "Mansfield-Park" etc.

Even in these last two she was anonymous on the title page, but printed with them was a biographical memoir of the author, by her nephew J.E. Austen-Leigh, the Vicar of Bray, in which he reveals her name and that the hand that held the pen now lies mouldering in the grave. His account and her letters are the main source of information for her life.

She had finished Persuasion when she died but had not fully polished it. She had begun Sanditon, which is set not in the quiet eighteenth-century country villages of the others but in a modern nineteenth-century seaside resort where new houses are being put up by speculators for new money. It is fascinating and tragic to wonder what she might have achieved had she lived her natural age and written as a contemporary of Dickens and Thackeray. I find it so sad to think she probably never heard Schubert.

An earlier novel The Watsons, from the early 1800s, was dropped after a few chapters, perhaps because of the death of her father. Many of her novels had their genesis in her youthful writings, and Northanger Abbey was actually sold to a publisher (though called Susan) many years before. There was a long fallow period; then when she finally went into print in maturity she wrote exquisite novels very quickly. She must have been working on highly contrasting styles at the same time.

She was the first writer to make extensive use of free indirect discourse, presenting characters' thoughts vividly and in their own words while maintaining third-person omniscience, and her consummate subtlety and mastery in manipulating the difference between expectations and reality is one of the things that contributes to the irony and gentle mocking she is renowned for. She developed a new way of probing the human heart.

Her juvenilia are absolutely wonderful to read. Very few of them are straight romantic novelettes: most are delightfully comic, many of them quite outrageously so. Her published works were toned down a great deal. She had no such inhibitions in her private works. She collected them together (and polished them a bit) in three volumes. The juvenilia include Lady Susan, Love and Friendship (sic!), The History of England, Catharine, The Beautiful Cassandra, The Visit, "etc. etc."

Her letters too are invaluable for an understanding of Jane Austen's thought and personality. There are only a few allusions to the novels in them. We learn that Anne Elliot was a heroine almost too good; that Emma Woodhouse was a heroine that no-one but she would like; and on a visit to an art exhibition she saw pictures that she could imagine as Jane and Elizabeth Bennet.

Some people find the letters disappointing. There is a lot of this sort of thing, interesting to her own family but no-one else: "A cold day, but bright and clean. I am afraid your planting can hardly have begun. I am sorry to hear that there has been a rise in tea. I do not mean to pay Twining till later in the day, when we may order a fresh supply. I long to know something of the Mead - & how you are off for a Cook."

But she could be mordant and satirical in observation: "Ben & Anna walked here last Sunday to hear Uncle Henry, & she looked so pretty, it was quite a pleasure to see her, so young & blooming & so innocent, as if she had never had a wicked Thought in her Life - which yet one has some reason to suppose she must have had, if we believe the Doctrine of original Sin, or if we remember the events of her girlish days."

Here are the complete works of Jane Austen. In books you'll find them scattered around; the Penguin collection, for example, has most of the juvenilia combined with some of Charlotte Bronte's. I still haven't read Lesley Castle or Evelyn. The six major novels all have complete e-texts here on E2, thanks to TheLady, and I'm working my way through the smaller works, noding about them all, and including the whole text if it's small enough. Her letters are also valuable reading but I have not (yet?) included any.

Mature novels

Early works

Jane Austen is often heralded as the mother of modern Romantic fiction, and on the surface this is a rather viable epithet; her work includes handsome heroes and charming heroines, obstacles blissfully overcome by star crossed lovers, balls, parties, jealousies and secrets, occasionally the aristocracy and inevitably money.

Which is where the comparison ends. While contemporary romantic novels are the products of a desire for escapism, Austen's books are impregnated to the full with social commentary and astute observations of the English middle classes in the Regency era. Money is such a prevailing meta-theme in her work because, to the well educated contemporaries of her own social class, it was an overriding concern more poingnant than Love.

At the time of the writing of her works, England was simultaneously booming and busting - the Empire was in a state of rapid expansion on the one hand, and the Napoleonic Wars were banckrupting the treasury and impeding import and export on the other. It is often remarked that although the Wars were raging at the time of the writing of virtually all of her novels, they are only explicitly mentioned in one. Yet the atmosphere of money easily made and lost, of social relationships having direct influence on people's career advancement, these things breathe the political and social climate of a country at war for its standing as a superpower - brought down to the level of the everyday person.

Jane Austen was an observer of human nature by supreme grace. She could pinpoint and describe the foibles and inadequacies of her fellow human beings in a few sparse yet beautiful words, a quality which is even more striking in her private correspondence, since presumably she did not work quite as hard on that as she did on her published works. Combined with a sense of social justice and reform (she was staunchly anti-slavery) this makes her books much more than romantic fluff in Empire line dresses - it makes them an incomprable, indeed unique, glimpse into the state of mind of a nation.

Despite the value of her work as a historical document, much of it is still relevant to readers today. Austen characterisation has not palled with time, and her obvious pleasure in ridiculing what she considered reprehensible traits in her generation - hypocrisy, avarice, impiety, overindulgence - only serves to enhance the pleasure of the reader in adapting her personalities and applying her aphorisms to modern day acquaintances.

Every one of Austen's novels deals in some way with values which were taken for granted in her time: family honour, personal integrity, education, romantic love, correct manners. Yet in every one she subverts the theme and shows that the real value of these ethics does not lie in the fashionable pretence of upholding them. Mr. Darcy's family conceit gives way to the superior nature of true attachment; Marianne Dashwood's extravagant affections are exposed as inferior to her syster's more steady and reserved conduct; Lady Russel's notions of marriage within a social class are made to give way before personal merit; Sir Thomas's prudential yet indulgent education of his daughters is shown to be an insufficient and hollow basis for true morality and strength of character.

Jane Austen has often been accused of being a people hater, one who delighted in ridiculing and compromising her characters. My belief is that these accusations fail to take into account both Austen's background and the tenor of her body of work as a whole. At the time she was being educated, the novel was a relatively new form of art in the English language, and was widely considered frivolous and inferior to poetry in its aesthetic merit and to moralistic prose in its social and educational value. When she was growing up, she was probably encouraged to read collections of sermons and essays on religion, the great poets and dramatists, accounts of famous travellers, historical texts and philosophical tractates - all materials that her two most well educated heroines, Fanny Price and Anne Elliot, are mentioned as having read at one time or another. She therefore could not have considered her own work as a novelist of much value, and indeed was much surprised and delighted when Pride and Prejudice was accepted for publication.

She could not, therefore, and in fact did not, mean only to entertain. She had a sound educational purpose for writing her novels, and for writing them the way she wrote them - in a multy-layered fashion that will allow her audience to at once enjoy them and learn from them. She was a reforming moralist, probably one of the finest of her age, and this desire to inform came from nothing less than a profound belief in the essentially good nature of Man and a deep affection for those subjects she seemed on the surface to condemn. This is why I never fail to be heartened, uplifted even, by her prose.

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