Special Commissioned Essay on Jane Austen, Julia Epstein
Special Commissioned Essay on Jane Austen Julia Epstein
One of England's most celebrated authors, Austen ranks among the most widely studied and read authors in the English language, as well as in translations in thirty-five other languages. Though Austen is sometimes criticized by modern scholars as lacking innovation, her novels offered an often humorous and subtle critique of English society. Austen has been lauded for her intricate plots and dynamic characters, and noted for the sense of morality with which she infuses the aristocratic settings of her work.
The following chronology offers an overview of Austen's life and career. The topics presented here are discussed in greater detail in the critical essay that follows.
1775: Jane Austen is born on 16 December at Steventon, Hampshire, near Basingstoke, to the Reverend George Austen, Rector of Steventon (1731‐1805) and Cassandra Leigh Austen (1739‐1827), who had married in 1764. The Austens lived in Deane, Hampshire, where their first three children were born, then moved to Steventon and had five more children. Jane is the seventh of eight children: James (1765‐1819), George (1766‐1838), Edward (1768‐1852), Henry (1771‐1850), Cassandra Elizabeth (1773‐1845), Francis [Frank] (1774‐1865), and Charles John (1779‐1852). The Austens were Tories in the country village of Steventon, and associated with the local gentry. George Austen earned a respectable but not large income of £600 a year from the Deane and Steventon livings, which he supplemented by taking in boarding pupils from neighboring families from 1773 until 1796. Before 1773, the family experienced financial problems that were eased by a loan from Mrs. Austen's wealthy brother, James Leigh Perrot (1735‐1817).
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play, The Rivals, one of the most enduring late eighteenth‐century comic dramas, and one that Jane Austen came to know well, is performed in London. The actress Sarah Siddons (1755‐1831)...
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About Jane Austen
Julia Epstein (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Epstein, Julia. “An Overview of the Life and Career of Jane Austen.” In Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, vol. 119, edited by Jessica Bomarito, Edna Hedblad, and Russel Whitaker. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2003.
[In the following essay, Epstein discusses the major aspects of Austen's life and career, focusing on biographical, textual, and critical avenues of exploration into the author's enduring popularity.]
Born: 16 December 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire, England.
Marital Status: Single
Education: Jane Austen's only formal schooling consisted of a year in 1783 with Mrs. Cawley at Oxford and Southampton, and two years in 1785‐87 at the Abbey School in Reading.
Died: 18 July 1817 in Winchester, Kent, England, at age forty‐two.
Jane Austen has been described in multiple ways: as a spinster recluse; as a satirical and biting wit; as a shy and retiring woman of prim moral views; and as a paragon of femininity who never complained and had a kind word for everyone. Yet after her death, a kind of beatification process took place, and over time Jane Austen has become a cultural icon and the patroness of English fiction. The Austen family zealously guarded her memory and her image. Her sister Cassandra and niece Fanny...
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Jane Austen At Work
As a child, Jane Austen seems to have been relatively unsentimental, humorous, and teasing, perhaps because the boys' school run by her father provided an environment of rowdiness and high jinks. She began writing down her ideas on scraps of paper almost as soon as she could write, and she wrote sketches for her own amusement, and soon for the amusement of her parents, siblings, and extended family members. The first pieces we have were probably composed between 1787 and 1793, when she was twelve to eighteen. Few of the juvenile writings are dated, so the dates scholars have assigned are derived from the little evidence that exists and the recollections of family members.
Austen fair copied her juvenile writings into three carefully tended notebooks consisting of twenty‐seven pieces of varying lengths and levels of polish. These quarto notebooks were likely gifts; we know that her father gave her the one she used for Volume the Second. She took these productions seriously, including tables of contents, page numbers, and dedications—all the details of a published book. She transcribed these pieces over fifteen or twenty years, and continued to make revisions as late as 1809. But because the original manuscripts from which she made the copies have not survived, we cannot follow the evolution of her craft. Clearly, however, these early pieces were important to her.
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Jane Austen's Era
JANE AUSTEN'S ENGLAND
In the late eighteenth century, England and Wales comprised fifty‐two counties, called shires until the time of William the Conqueror. Jane Austen's novels, as her life, took place in the counties north and south of London. She came from Hampshire, abbreviated as Hants., southwest of London. Industrial development centered in the north, with heavy manufacturing beginning to grow in Birmingham, cotton factories in Manchester, and coal mining in Newcastle. Bath, west of London, was the social center of fashionable England, and figures prominently in Austen's life and art. Portsmouth, a featured location in Mansfield Park and the place where Austen's naval brothers received their early training, was a naval base on the southern coast of England. And London, on the river Thames, was the metropolis.
Change was the predominant characteristic of England during Jane Austen's brief life. Austen was a paramount chronicler of that change in its social manifestations for a particular class: country landowners who were being displaced by the rising mercantile classes. While Austen was discreet about the difficult subject of money, in her life as in her novels, she was acutely aware of wealth: who had it, how it was earned, and what happened when there was not enough of it. The relationship between people whose wealth derived from land ownership and those whose wealth derived from...
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Jane Austen's Works
VOLUME THE FIRST, VOLUME THE SECOND, VOLUME THE THIRD
Jane Austen's first literary efforts date from 1787, when she was almost twelve years old, and continue until 1793 or so, when she was nearly eighteen. Two of the juvenile works that bear commentary in their own right—Love and Freindship [sic] and Sir Charles Grandison—are discussed below. One other, The History of England, is a minor masterpiece of a sort, compressing centuries of English history into an uproarious synopsis of monarchs and their foibles. Other early writings, such as Lady Susan and The Watsons, more properly belong to Austen's minor works and are discussed in that section.
Austen divided her earliest works into three volumes and made fair copies of them. She continued to correct and revise these volumes until 1809. She never intended to publish them—they were strictly written for family and private amusement—but she kept them in good order. As Austen's extant letters date only from 1796, these volumes are the earliest surviving Austen writings, and they contain twenty‐seven separate items.
In themselves, most of Austen's juvenile writings are slight literary games, fascinating for their window into her stylistic and thematic development and often quite funny, but certainly not masterpieces. For Austen students, however, this work...
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Jane Austen As Studied
Jane Austen's works made a small splash when they were published, fell into relative neglect for a time, were revived in the later part of the nineteenth century, and have become increasingly popular. The novels enjoyed fair success during Austen's lifetime, and received relatively positive critical reviews. But the books were published anonymously, and nothing was known about the novels' author outside her immediate circle.
Following Jane Austen's death, her brother Henry Austen published a “Biographical Notice” in the 1818 posthumous printing of Northanger Abbey with Persuasion. Henry Austen's “Biographical Notice” painted a portrait of a traditional, devout spinster who existed solely in the bosom of her family. The “Notice” included some details about profits from the novels, presented Austen as having read extensively in history and literature (with a special fondness for Samuel Johnson's prose, Samuel Richardson's novels, and William Cowper's poetry), and extolled her quiet kindness to others, her wit, her “placidity of temper” and lack of affectation, and her piety (saying that “her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church”).1 Henry Austen also cited the famous passage in which she describes her novelistic technique as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour”2; he...
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