Jane Austen Austen, Jane - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

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 Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice both sold out their first printings and went into second editions and Mansfield Park sold out its first printing as well. Now a literary success, Austen began work on Emma in 1814. The Prince Regent (later George IV) invited Austen to meet with him in November 1815, expressing his admiration for her work and asking her to dedicate her next novel to him. She reluctantly agreed, and Emma was released with a dedication to the prince just over a month later. During that year, Austen also began work on Persuasion (1818), the last novel she would complete. She began the novel Sanditon in 1817 but was forced to leave it unfinished due to illness. In May of that year, she moved with her sister Cassandra to Winchester to obtain medical care but died on July 18. The obituary in the Hampshire newspaper contained one of the first public acknowledgements of her authorship.


Austen's novels are peopled with characters drawn from her sphere of life: ladies and gentlemen of the landed gentry. The plots of her novels revolve around the intricacies of courtship and marriage between members of the upper class. Austen's novels consider a narrow scope, using wit and irony to develop and further her plots. In many of her novels, women suffer, at least temporarily, for the joint distinctions of sex and class. Jane and Elizabeth Bennett, in Pride and Prejudice, are nearly prevented from marrying their wealthy suitors because of social codes forbidding it. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, similarly find themselves prohibited from marrying men for lack of adequate resources and social standing to make the connections respectable. As Austen's heroines painfully recognize, being female puts them in a precarious position: the Bennett family's estate will pass into the possession of a male cousin, and the Dashwood sisters and their mother are at the mercy of a half-brother's beneficence after the death of Mr. Dashwood. Mansfield Park and Persuasion are more complex works and have been considered less accessible to readers. The satirical aspect of Mansfield Park is less clear than in other novels; in particular, critics have found the heroine Fanny difficult to sympathize with, and it is not clear if her unusually moralistic thought and behavior is meant as a model to be emulated or one to be avoided. The heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliot, has been characterized as a departure from Austen's usual characters. Persuasion's tone is more subdued and poetic than Austen's earlier work, possibly a reflection of the author's increasing interest in Romanticism and an indication of her greater attention to the pain inflicted by the social mores she examined in her earlier works.


During the first several decades after Austen published her novels, her work received little commentary. After the 1870 publication of her nephew's Memoir of Jane Austen, however, interest in her works increased. James Austen-Leigh's Memoir inaugurated a worshipful, nostalgic brand of Austen criticism. Adoring critics praised Austen's characteristic authorial traits, especially the elegance of her prose, but offered no thorough critical analysis of her works. Subsequent studies of Austen therefore reacted strongly to counter this tendency, emphasizing the technical flaws in the novels and dismissing what scholars considered the narrow, trivial world about which she wrote. A pronounced move toward a more balanced, objective mode of criticism came in 1939 with Mary Lascelles's focused attention on the technical and thematic aspects of Austen's work. With the advent of feminist criticism, critics again reexamined Austen's novels. Margaret Kirkham portrays Austen as a proto-feminist who purposefully argued in her novels against the social, political, and economic limitations placed on women by patriarchal English society. Susan Fraiman differs in her assessment of Austen's treatment of women's issues. She notes that although Austen's heroines are often witty and independent, offering an observer's perspective on women's inferior position in society, by the end of the works the heroines are reincorporated back into patriarchal society, no longer free agents and independent thinkers but wives subsumed by their husbands' households. Political and feminist scholarship on Austen's novels was further invigorated by the rise of postcolonial criticism. Moira Ferguson contends that Austen's novels offer a reformist critique of imperialism and finds a close link between the reformist impulse and women's status in English society.

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

Sense and Sensibility (novel) 1811

Pride and Prejudice (novel) 1813

Mansfield Park (novel) 1814

Emma (novel) 1816

Northanger Abbey: And Persuasion (novels) 1818

Lady Susan (novel) 1871

The Watsons (unfinished novel) 1871

Love & Freindship, and Other Early Works (juvenilia) 1922

The Novels of Jane Austen. 5 vols. (novels) 1923; republished with revisions to notes and appendices, 1965-66

[Sanditon] Fragments of a Novel (unfinished novel) 1925

Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others (letters) 1932

Volume the First (juvenilia) 1933

Volume the Third (juvenilia) 1951

Volume the Second (juvenilia) 1963

Jane Austen (Letter Date 18 November 1814)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Austen, Jane. "Letter to Fanny Knight, November 18, 1814." In Jane Austen's Letters, 2nd ed., edited by R. W. Chapman, pp. 407-12. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.

In the following excerpt from a letter to her niece dated November 18, 1814, Austen expresses in detail her opinions on love and marriage.

I feel quite as doubtful as you could be my dearest Fanny as to when my Letter may be finished, for I can command very little quiet time at present, but yet I must begin, for I know you will be glad to hear as soon as possible, & I really am impatient myself to be writing something on so very interesting...

(The entire section is 1670 words.)

Jane Austen (Novel Date 1817)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Austen, Jane. "Chapter 8." In Fragment of a Novel, pp. 102-112. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925.

In the following excerpt from her unfinished novel Sanditon, written in 1817, Austen directs her satire towards the type of novel popularized by Samuel Richardson—who was nonetheless among her stylistic influences.

The two Ladies continued walking together till rejoined by the others, who as they issued from the Library were followed by a young Whitby running off with 5 vols. under his arm to Sir Edward's Gig—and Sir Edw: approaching Charlotte, said "You may perceive what has been our Occupation. My Sister wanted...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Mary Lascelles (Essay Date 1939)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Lascelles, Mary. "Style." In Jane Austen and Her Art, pp. 87-116. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939.

In the following excerpt, Lascelles discusses the origins and development of Austen's style.

[Austen] did not look to the novelists for direction as to style; and this was well, for the great novels of the mid-eighteenth century had too strong individuality, and their successor, the novel of sentiment, did not know its own business. It wanted, not merely a grand style for its more ambitious passages, but also an unaffected, level style for plain relation of fact and circumstance. This is Fanny Burney's notion of a...

(The entire section is 5509 words.)

Margaret Kirkham (Essay Date 1983)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Kirkham, Margaret. “Allusion, Irony and Feminism in the Austen Novel.” In Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction, pp. 81-98. Brighton, England: Harvester Press Limited, 1983.

In the following essay, Kirkham asserts that Austen’s novels are both comic and feminist.

Comedy and the Austen Heroines: The Early Novels

F. R. Leavis placed Jane Austen as the inaugurator of the ‘great tradition’ of English nineteenth-century fiction. But she is unlike the later novelists of this tradition in that she writes comedies, that is, her novels preserve, and call attention to, certain formal features proper to...

(The entire section is 7286 words.)


(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Trilling, Lionel. "Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen." In Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning, pp. 28-49. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965.

In the following essay, Trilling argues that Emma is the greatest of Austen's novels.


It is possible to say of Jane Austen, as perhaps we can say of no other writer, that the opinions which are held of her work are almost as interesting, and almost as important to think about, as the work itself. This statement, even with the qualifying "almost," ought to be,...

(The entire section is 8388 words.)

Pride and Prejudice

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Fraiman, Susan. "The Humiliation of Elizabeth Bennett." In Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy, edited by Patricia Yaeger and Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, pp. 168-87. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

In the following essay, Fraiman views Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice as a father figure for Elizabeth Bennett and therefore reads the novel as transferring patriarchal power from one generation to the next as Elizabeth passes from her father's care to Darcy's.

I belong to a generation of American feminist critics taught...

(The entire section is 7609 words.)

Mansfield Park

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Ferguson, Moira. "Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender." Oxford Literary Review 13, nos. 1-2 (1991): 118-39.

In the following essay, Ferguson explores the connection between the restrictions on Mansfield Park 's Fanny Price and the slave trade also discussed in the novel.

Mansfield Park (1814) is a eurocentric, post-abolition narrative that intertwines with a critique of gender relations and posits a world of humanitarian interactions between slave-owners and slaves. As such, following the successful passage of the Abolition Bill...

(The entire section is 8136 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Handley, Graham. Jane Austen: A Guide Through the Critical Maze. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, 139 p.

Provides a guide to Austen criticism from early reviews through the 1980s.

Roth, Barry. An Annotated Bibliography of Jane Austen Studies, 1984-94, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996, 438 p.

Offers a bibliography of studies on Jane Austen.


Austen-Leigh, James. A Memoir of Jane Austen. London: R. Bentley, 1870, 364 p.


(The entire section is 1119 words.)