The greatest of novelist
s, and the most perfect delineator
of the human heart
. Each of her six novel
s 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
. The six major novels all have complete e-text
s 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.
Volume the First
Volume the Second
Volume the Third