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Selected products from Jane Austen
Jane Austen (1775-1817) is today remembered as one of the principal pillars of English literature. Her novels, such as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, are must-read classics for anyone who wants to study the history and evolution of the English novel. Born on December 16th, 1775, Austen was raised in a family that belonged to the lower ranks of the landed gentry. However, this did not prevent the family from going through hard financial times, mainly after the early death of the family’s father, Reverend George Austen (1731-1805), the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon, Hampshire.
Despite the importance of her oeuvre, biographical information about Jane Austen is very scarce. This is mainly due to the fact that Austen published all her novels anonymously and that it was only after her death that readers learnt about the actual author of these novels. Thus, the main source of information about Austen’s life has been the correspondence between family members, particularly between Jane and her sister Cassandra. The latter is said to have destroyed most of the letters sent by her sister. Only about 150 of the thousands of letters have survived till the present day. Letters were sent between the two sisters on particular occasions when each of them separately visited their brothers and other relatives as well as friends. Other sources of information about the English novelist are the biographical notes and publications written by other members of the family many decades after the death of Jane Austen, but these are often judged by specialists as highly subjective and even unreliable at times.
Generally, most of Jane Austen’s scholars and biographers divide the novelist’s life span of 41 years into different periods of time related to her places of residence, namely Steventon, Bath, Southampton and finally Chawton.
Jane Austen was born and raised at Steventon where her father served as the local rector. She was the seventh child of a large family composed of six boys and two girls, of whom her older sister, named Cassandra after their mother, was her closest friend and confidante. Jane and Cassandra were mainly educated at home. Their
father, who has a respectable income supplemented by some farming and tutoring activities, sent the two girls to Oxford to be educated by one Mrs. Cawley in 1783. After moving with their tutor to Southampton the same year, they caught typhus and were eventually sent back home. Later, in 1785, they were both sent to a boarding school in Reading. They spent two years there before they were brought back home for financial reasons.
Apart from these two brief experiences, Jane Austen was mostly taught by her own father and her elder brothers, mainly James and Henry. At home, she and Cassandra learnt the rules of the English language as well as drawing and music. Jane had also free access to her father’s large library and spent most of her time reading and rereading classic novels such as those of Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. By and large, the family was very supportive of Jane’s thirst for knowledge, learning and writing and played an indispensable role in helping her become a fully-fledged writer and a published novelist. According to many a biographer, the Austen family environment was an environment where political, intellectual and literary debates often took place. In addition, under the leadership of George Austen, the Stenventon rectory hosted theatrical performances between 1782 and 1784, through which very young Jane probably received her first experimentation with humor and comedy.
It was during the Steventon period that Jane Austen started experimenting with writing. Before she made some attempts at the epistolary novel, Austen wrote numerous humorous texts which were later collected in three volumes, now referred to as Juvenilia. Austen used to recite these parodies, short stories and poems in front of her family. One of these writings was the novel Love and Freindship [sic] which criticizes and satirizes contemporary novels of sensibility. In another section of Juvenilia, Austen equally parodies a popular historical reference of the day, Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England (1764). It is noteworthy, however, that Juvenilia was later revisited and finalized by the author between 1809-1811.
In 1793, Austen started writing a short epistolary novel entitled Lady Susan and a short play to parody abridgments of her favorite novel, Samuel Richardson’s The History of Sir Charles Grandison. While the former project was completed two years later, the latter had to wait until 1800 to be finalized. Many consider Lady Susan as the author’s most important achievement where she scrutinizes the behavior of a cunning woman who makes use of her intellectual abilities to manipulate and deceive her lovers and relatives.
Once Lady Susan was completed in 1795, Austen started a longer project entitled Elinor and Marianne, to be later transformed into the famous novel Sense and Sensibility published in 1811. By the end of the year 1795, Austen developed a romantic relationship with the Irish-Huguenot politician, Tom Lefroy, who was then only a jobless new graduate visiting his relatives in Hampshire. Due to the financial dependence of both lovers, Lefroy’s family intervened to end the relationship.
In 1796, twenty-one-year-old Austen started her second most important work, Pride and Prejudice, which was originally entitled First Impressions. When the novel was finished, Austen’s father tried to help his daughter publish the work by sending a letter to a London publisher who immediately declined the proposition. Nonetheless, Austen carried on revising her works and even started a new project. The latter was started in 1798 and took the form of a harsh parody of the Gothic novel and its excessive style. The parody particularly echoed the Gothic writings of one of the genre’s outstanding figures, Ann Radcliffe. Austen’s book was originally entitled Susan before it became Northanger Abbey.
In 1800, Jane Austen had to move with her family to Bath when her father decided to retire from his religious position and leave Steventon. Apparently, Jane did not like the sudden change of residence. The some six years that she spent in Bath were characterized by lack of productivity. Indeed, she only revised her previous novels and started a new one without completing it. The latter was entitled The Watsons and dealt with women’s financial hardships.
It was in Bath that Jane Austen received her only marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither towards the end of 1802. Harris was the son of family friends near Steventon. He was six years younger than Jane and heir to the important family estates. Jane, who did not like Harris’s looks and did not feel any affection towards him, first accepted his proposal for material consideration to decide to withdraw from Steventon the next day, resolving that “anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection”.
In 1803, another attempt at publication was made with the help of her brother Henry who offered the manuscript for Susan (Northanger Abbey) to another London publisher named Benjamin Crosby. The latter purchased the copyright for 10£, but never published the work.
The death of George Austen in 1805 represented a very crucial event in the life the Austen family as it left Austen’s mother along with her two daughters, being the only remaining children at the family’s home, in a precarious financial situation. During this period, they were largely supported by the Austen brothers, and in 1806, they even moved to Southampton to share Frank Austen’s home. Nevertheless, Jane was happy to leave Bath for Southampton to eventually settle in Chawton, Hampshire, in 1809.
In a Chawton cottage provided by her brother Edward, Jane Austen resumed her writing activities and finally began to realize considerable achievements as a professional writer. Thanks to the efforts of her brother Henry, Thomas Egerton first published Sense and Sensibility in 1811. The anonymously-published novel was signed “By a Lady” and procured a number of favorable reviews among leading literary figures of the time. Within two years the first edition was sold out to guarantee the author some financial stability. Such success led the same publisher to publish Pride and Prejudice in 1813, which was also a remarkable success. Mansfield Park followed in 1814 to only outshine the previous novels in terms of sales.
It was in 1815 that Jane Austen received an invitation to meet the Prince Regent in person as the latter expressed his great interest in her novels. This made Austen grudgingly dedicate her novel Emma to the Prince whom she did not really like. Later, she decided to describe the embarrassments and pressures exercised on her to do so in a satirical parody that she entitled Plan of a Novel: According to Hints from Various Quarters.
After the publication of Emma, Austen started writing Persuasion in 1815. Besides, her brother Henry repurchased Susan (Northanger Abbey) from Crosby wishing to finally publish it. However, by the time Jane Austen finished Persuasion, her health started to deteriorate and the family went again through a financial crisis that prevented further publications. Although Austen tried to challenge her declining physical condition at first, starting a new project that she entitled The Brothers (or Sanditon), she eventually surrendered to illness and then to death on July 18th, 1817.
Late in 1817, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published together by Cassandra and Henry Austen. The latter added a “Bibliographical Note” which revealed the author’s real identity to the large public for the first time.
Today, Jane Austen’s works have become part and parcel of the English literary canon. In the late-nineteenth century, the celebrated novelist Henry James compared Austen to Cervantes and even to Shakespeare and believed that the essence of her oeuvre could not be accessible to all readers. Gradually, Jane Austen’s fiction has found its way to academia and has become seriously appraised by renowned scholars and students. This is said to have started with the publication of a seminal essay by the famous Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley in 1911. Numerous publications on Jane Austen and her literary legacy have followed and never stopped till the present day.