Austen is best known as a consummate novelist of manners. The author of six novels, Austen depicted a small slice of English life during the Regency period, a time marked by the Napoleonic Wars, the early growth of the English Empire, and an economic and industrial revolution that was countered by a cultural emphasis on all things proper, elegant, genteel, and truly "English." Austen captured this moment in great detail, focusing narrowly on the lives of the landed gentry in rural England and—more particularly—the little triumphs and defeats faced by the young women attempting to secure their future survival through respectable marriage. In such works as Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1816), and Mansfield Park (1814), Austen employed wit, irony, and shrewd observation to advance the literary status of the women's novel and to address the social and political concerns of nineteenth-century men and women.
The daughter of the Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Leigh Austen, Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775. She was the seventh of eight children and the youngest of two daughters in the middle-class family, then living at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, England. As the parson's daughter, Austen mixed frequently and easily with the landed gentry of rural England. Among the Austens's neighbors was Madam Lefroy, wife to a parson and sister to an aristocratic squire fond of books. Lefroy, who wrote and published poetry, took a special interest in Austen's education, and encouraged her intellectual development. At home, Reverend Austen entertained the family by reading literature aloud and guided Austen in choosing books from his large library and local circulating libraries, while James Austen, Austen's eldest brother, directed the family in amateur theatricals. Between 1783 and 1786, Austen received formal schooling, first at a boarding school at Oxford, then at the Abbey School in Reading. Around the age of twelve, Austen began writing children's stories. She stayed at Steventon until 1801, reading, writing, and participating in the Hampshire social rounds of balls, visits, and trips to Bath. Austen never married, but in 1795 fell in love with Thomas Langlois Lefroy, the nephew of her mentor Madam Lefroy. Madam Lefroy, however, disapproved of the match, thinking Thomas would lose his inheritance if he married the penniless daughter of a clergyman, and sent her nephew away. During these last years at Steventon, Austen began several early drafts of her mature works. She wrote her first novel in 1796 and 1797; "First Impressions" was sufficiently polished that her father attempted to publish it, but it was turned down. She would eventually revise it as Pride and Prejudice. Her next attempt was a novel she titled "Susan," and though she was able to sell it to a publisher in 1803, it was never published in its initial form. She eventually revised it further, and the book was published posthumously as Northanger Abbey (1818). Austen's authorial efforts were interrupted by a series of tragedies: in 1804 Madam Lefroy, who had remained her close friend, died in a riding accident, and in 1805 her father died, leaving Austen, her sister, and her mother with no means of support. They became dependent on her brothers, who jointly maintained the women in Bath until 1806, when Frank, a naval officer, invited them to live at his home in Southampton. In 1809, they moved to Chawton Cottage, on her brother Edward's estate in Kent. There, Austen worked on Sense and Sensibility, finally succeeding in getting her first novel published in 1811. As with all her works, Sense and Sensibility was published anonymously, "By a Lady." That year, she also worked on the final version of Pride and Prejudice and began Mansfield Park. She was unusually secretive about her writing for some time, even insisting that the door to the chamber she used for writing not be repaired, so that the squeak of the hinges would alert her to intruders. Sense and...
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