illustrated portrait of English novelist Jane Austen

Jane Austen

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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.


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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) makes her theatrical debut at the Drury Lane Theatre.

1777: Philadelphia Austen Hancock (George Austen's sister) and her daughter Eliza travel on the European continent, then settle in Paris in 1779.

1778: The Franco‐American Alliance is formed. Britain declares war on France.

Frances Burney's Evelina is published, as well as Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Lessons for Children. Two key Enlightenment thinkers and writers in Europe—Jean‐Jacques Rousseau, Swiss philosopher and political theorist, and François Arouet (Voltaire), French philosopher and polymath—die.

1779: James Austen (age fourteen), the eldest Austen child, enters St. John's College, Oxford, on a “Founder's Kin” scholarship, as his father had done before him.

1780: The Gordon Riots occur in London in June. This action begins as an anti‐Catholic demonstration and develops into ten days of rioting; 700 people die; 450 arrests are made, which result in twenty‐five executions.

1781: Austen cousin Eliza Hancock marries Jean‐François Capot de Feuillide (1750‐1794) in France. Her husband is a captain in the Queen's Regiment of Dragoons and calls himself the Comte de Feuillide.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Jean‐Jacques Rousseau's Confessions are published. Friedrich Schiller's play The Robbers is performed.

1782: The Austens perform the first of their home theatricals, encouraged by James Austen. Amateur theatricals at Steventon became a tradition and were performed in the dining room or the nearby barn. Eliza de Feuillide influenced these activities.

1783 : Jane and Cassandra Austen are sent to school with their cousin Jane Cooper (age twelve), to be taught by Ann Cawley (Mrs. Cooper's aunt) at a boarding school at Oxford in the spring. In the summer the school moves to Southampton. The girls are brought home after an infectious disease (probably typhus) breaks out. After the girls return home, Jane Cooper's mother contracts the...

(This entire section contains 5453 words.)

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illness and dies in October.

Edward Austen, the third son, is adopted by Thomas Knight II (1735‐1794) and his wife Catherine, née Knatchbull, (1753‐1812) of Godsmersham, Kent, about eight miles southwest of Canterbury.

The Reverend George Lefroy (1745‐1806) and his wife Anne, née Brydges, (1749‐1804) take up residence at Ashe, next to Steventon, when Lefroy becomes rector, and the Lefroys become close friends of the Austens. “Madam Lefroy” becomes a trusted advisor to Jane Austen.

William Pitt (1759‐1806) becomes Prime Minister.

Britain recognizes American independence when the Peace of Versailles ends the war.

1784: Eliza de Feuillide accompanies her husband to France.

William Pitt is reelected Prime Minister and passes the India Act, establishing political control over British territories in India.

Samuel Johnson, English essayist, dictionary‐maker, poet, and playwright, and Denis Diderot, a leader of the French Enlightenment philosophes, die.

1785‐87: Jane and Cassandra Austen and Jane Cooper attend the Abbey House School in Reading, Berkshire, where they board.

1786: Austen probably begins to write her juvenilia sometime in 1786 or 1787.

Edward Austen goes on the Grand Tour to Switzerland and Italy, then spends a year in Dresden financed by his adoptive parents, the Knights. He returns in 1788.

Frank Austen (almost twelve) enters the Royal Naval Academy, Portsmouth. His experience figures prominently in the portrayal of Fanny Price's naval brother in Mansfield Park.

James Austen (age twenty‐one) leaves to spend a year in France and may also have traveled to Spain and Holland.

Jane and Cassandra Austen leave the Abbey School in Reading and return home to Steventon in December.

Eliza de Feuillide returns from France to London where her son, Hastings, is born. He is named for Warren Hastings.

1787: James Austen returns from Europe and is ordained deacon at Oxford.

A major public campaign to abolish the slave trade begins in Britain. The Somerset case in 1772 had effectively outlawed slavery in England when Lord Mansfield (1705‐1793), lord chief justice, ruled that slaves could not be sold abroad by their masters.

1787‐90: These dates are speculative, but the following juvenile writings from Volume the First probably date from this period: “Frederic and Elfrida,” “Jack and Alice,” “Edgar and Emma,” “Henry and Eliza,” “Mr. Harley,” “Sir William Mountague,” “Mr. Clifford,” “The Beautifull Cassandra,” “Amelia Webster,” “The Visit,” and “The Mystery.”

1788: Henry Austen (age seventeen) enters St. John's College, Oxford, as his father and his older brother James had done.

Eliza de Feuillide and Philadelphia Hancock return to France.

Edward Austen returns from Europe and takes up permanent residence with the Knight family at Godsmersham.

In December, Frank Austen finishes his studies in Portsmouth and sails for the East Indies on board HMS Perseverance.

King George III has his first attack of “madness,” creating a Regency crisis.

In May, there is a motion in Parliament to abolish the slave trade.

1789: James Austen begins to publish a weekly magazine at Oxford, The Loiterer. His brother Henry participates in this venture, and the two of them are the primary writers.

James Austen is ordained as a priest at Oxford.

George Austen lets Deane parsonage to the recently widowed Martha Craven Lloyd (1728‐1805) and her daughters, Martha (1765‐1843) and Mary (1771‐1843), who soon become close friends with Jane and Cassandra Austen.

King George III recovers and the Regency crisis ends. The Bastille falls in Paris on 14 July and the Declaration of the Rights of Man is signed, beginning the French Revolution.

1790: Jane Austen writes Love and Freindship [sic], the key piece in Volume the Second of her juvenile writings.

James and Henry Austen cease publication of the magazine The Loiterer when James leaves Oxford to become curate at Overton near Steventon.

Philadelphia Hancock and Eliza de Feuillide return to England from revolutionary France.

Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Men are published. Burke's Reflections inaugurates a war of ideas.

1791: Charles Austen (age twelve and the youngest Austen son) enters the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth, which his brother Frank attended.

Jane Austen writes The History of England.

James Austen becomes vicar of Sherborne, St. John, Hampshire, just north of Basingstoke.

Edward Austen marries Elizabeth Bridges (1773‐1808) of Goodnestone Park, about seven miles east of Canterbury, and they live at Rowling House nearby.

Frank Austen remains in the East Indies, but changes ships and becomes midshipman on HMS Minerva.

1791‐92: The dates are speculative, but Jane Austen probably composes “A Collection of Letters” and the play Sir Charles Grandison (based on Samuel Richardson's 1751 novel of the same title) in these years.

1792: Jane Austen writes “Lesley Castle,” “The Three Sisters,” “Evelyn,” and “Catharine,” all from Volume the Second.

Philadelphia Hancock dies of breast cancer on February 26.

James Austen marries Anne Mathew (1759‐1795), granddaughter of the Duke of Ancaster.

Jane Austen attends her first balls (she is sixteen).

Cassandra Austen becomes engaged to marry the Reverend Thomas Fowle (1765‐1797), of the Fowle family of Kintbury. Tom's father Thomas Fowle and George Austen had been friends since their undergraduate days at Oxford, and a third Lloyd daughter, Elizabeth, is married to Tom's brother, the Reverend Fulwar Craven Fowle.

Britain experiences the beginnings of increasingly repressive legislation against “Jacobins,” including a proclamation against seditious writings.

Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman appears.

1793: Most of Jane Austen's juvenile writings, Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third, have been composed and are fair‐copied.1

The collected “Scraps” are possibly composed or revised—including “The Female Philosopher,” “The First Act of a Comedy,” “A Letter from a Young Lady,” “A Tour through Wales,” and “A Tale,” all in Volume the Second.

Edward Austen's first child and Jane Austen's oldest niece, Fanny, is born at Rowling.

Henry Austen becomes a lieutenant in the Oxfordshire Militia.

James Austen's first child, Anna, is born at Deane.

Jane Austen writes the final pieces collected as the Juvenilia and dedicates them to her second niece Anna as “Detached Pieces”: “A Fragment,” “A Beautiful Description of the Different Effects of Sensibility on Different Minds,” and “The Generous Curate.” She also writes “Ode to Pity.” These pieces, which appear in Volume the First, complete the writings collected as the juvenilia.

After six years, Frank Austen returns from the East Indies.

King Louis XVI of France is tried and guillotined in Paris on 21 January. France declares war on Holland and Great Britain in January and on Spain in February. The Terror ensues in France, the Committee of Public Safety under Robespierre comes to power, Jean‐Paul Marat is murdered, and in October Queen Marie Antoinette is executed.

Sedition trials in England and Scotland lead to harsh sentences and exile to Botany Bay, Australia.

1793‐95: This is probably the period during which Jane Austen writes the untitled epistolary novel published as Lady Susan by her nephew James Edward Austen‐Leigh as an appendix to the 1871 edition of his A Memoir of Jane Austen.

1794: Jane Austen possibly begins to write Elinor and Marianne, the epistolary first version of Sense and Sensibility.

Eliza de Feuillide's husband is found guilty of attempting to bribe a witness during the trial of an aristocratic friend charged with conspiracy against the French republic, and he is guillotined in Paris on February 22.

Charles Austen (fifteen) leaves the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth and serves as midshipman to Captain Thomas Williams (1761‐1841), husband of his cousin Jane Cooper, on HMS Daedelus.

Thomas Knight II, Edward Austen's adoptive father, dies and leaves his large estates to his widow, to be inherited by Edward after her death.

The law of habeas corpus is suspended in 1794 with the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act and again in 1798, prompted by increased anxiety among the aristocratic classes.2

Georges‐Jacques Danton (April) and Maximilien‐François‐Marie‐Isadore de Robespierre (July) are executed. The Terror ends in France and is followed by the Directorate.

1795: Jane Austen probably composes most of Elinor and Marianne.

The Reverend Thomas Fowle, Cassandra Austen's betrothed, becomes involved with the West Indian campaign when he joins Lord Craven as his private chaplain.

James Austen's wife Anne dies, and Jane Austen's niece Anna, still a toddler, comes to live with the Austens at Steventon.

Tom Lefroy visits his uncle George Lefroy at Ashe Rectory on his way from Ireland to study law in London. His and Jane Austen's mutual attraction is serious enough that his family sends him away to forestall an inconvenient commitment. Lefroy later settled in Ireland, married and had a family, and became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.

The Seditious Meetings Act and the Treasonable Practices Act pass after George III's coach is attacked on the way to Parliament.3

Napoleon Bonaparte becomes commander of the French armed forces.

1796: Austen's surviving letters begin on 9 January. She completes Elinor and Marianne and beginsFirst Impressions, an early version of Pride and Prejudice, and she probably also works on Sir Charles Grandison.

Charles Austen is involved in a battle when three French ships are intercepted in British waters.

1797: James Austen marries Mary Lloyd, his second wife, and his young daughter Anna returns from Steventon to live with her father and step‐mother at Deane.

Edward Austen's adoptive mother, Mrs. Knight, moves to Canterbury and makes Edward the immediate inheritor of the Knight properties in Kent and Hampshire. Edward and his family move to Godsmersham in Kent.

First Impressions, the first version of Pride and Prejudice, is offered to London publisher Thomas Cadell by George Austen and declined by return of post. Austen works on Sense and Sensibility, the new title for Elinor and Marianne.

Mrs. Austen, Jane, and Cassandra stay with Mrs. Austen's brother and his wife, James and Jane Leigh‐Perrot, in Jane Austen's first known visit to Bath.

Henry Austen marries his cousin, the widow Eliza de Feuillide, in London.

1798: Jane Austen is courted by Samuel Blackall, whom she discourages.

Austen completes Sense and Sensibility and begins Susan, which was published posthumously and given the title Northanger Abbey by Henry Austen.

The mechanization of paper manufacture reduces printing costs. Iron printing presses are introduced.

Mrs. Inchbald's version of Lovers' Vows (August von Kotzebue's Natural Son) is performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent‐Garden, and published in London. This is the play whose attempted staging forms a key episode in Mansfield Park.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes Fears in Solitude, France, an Ode, and Frost at Midnight. Thomas Malthus's Principles of Population, Mary Wollstonecraft's Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, and William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads appear. Wordsworth begins to write The Prelude. Mary Hays's Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of the Women, and Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein trilogy are published.

1799: Jane Austen visits Bath with her mother and Edward and his wife. Susan is probably completed by the end of the year. The family also visits the Leighs at Adlestrop, the Coopers at Harpsden, another of Mrs. Austen's cousins in Surrey, and then spends the rest of the year in Steventon.

Mrs. Leigh‐Perrot, Jane Austen's aunt, is accused of stealing a one‐pound card of lace from a shop in Bath and is sent to Ilchester Gaol. This episode is a family embarrassment. Such a theft (over twelve pence) was considered grand larceny and would have been punishable by death or deportation to Australia.

1800: George Austen retires from his position as Rector of Steventon and leaves his eldest son, James, in charge.

Food shortages spark nationwide food riots.

1801: The Austens move to Bath. At some point between 1801 and 1804 Jane Austen may have had a romance, but no firm evidence survives.

Henry Austen gives up his commission in the Oxfordshire Militia and becomes a banker and army agent in London.

William Pitt resigns as Prime Minister when King George III refuses to agree to Catholic Emancipation, and Henry Addington becomes Prime Minister.

1802: Harris Bigg‐Wither (1781‐1833) proposes marriage to Jane Austen. She accepts in the evening, then declines the next morning.

Sometime late in 1802 or early in 1803, Jane Austen revises and makes a fair copy of Susan.

The Peace of Amiens is signed with France on 25 March, concluding the war. Napoleon Bonaparte is made First Consul for life.

The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act spearheads safety regulation and reform in British factories.

1803: Richard Crosby and Co. purchases the copyright to Susan for £10 through a business associate of Henry Austen, but they do not publish it despite a promise to do so by 1804.

Henry and Eliza Austen travel to France to try to reclaim some of the Comte de Feuillide's property, and they narrowly escape detainment. Napoleon had broken the Peace of Amiens, and the war with France resumes in May.

Frank and Charles Austen return to active naval service. Frank is stationed at Ramsgate and given the charge of organizing the coastal defense forces (the “Sea Fencibles”).

Battles resume between France and England, beginning the Napoleonic wars.

1804: Jane Austen begins writing The Watsons this year, but never completes it.

Frank Austen returns to sea as captain of HMS Leopard, flagship of Rear Admiral Thomas Louis, and is stationed off Boulogne as part of the blockade of Napoleon's fleet.

Charles Austen is promoted to command HMS Indian and sent to patrol the Atlantic coast of America to prevent American trade with France. Charles remains headquartered in Bermuda until around 1810.

Anne Brydges Lefroy dies after a riding accident on 16 December, Jane Austen's birthday.

Napoleon Bonaparte becomes Emperor in France in May.

Spain declares war on England.

1805: George Austen dies on 21 January in Bath. Jane Austen abandons The Watsons and makes a fair copy of Lady Susan, adding the narrated conclusion.

Frank Austen is commanding HMS Canopus in the Mediterranean and participates in the chase of Admiral Villeneuve's fleet to the West Indies and back. Frank is sent to Malta.

Martha Craven Lloyd dies at Ibthorpe, and her daughter Martha Lloyd comes to live permanently with the Austens.

Jane Austen composes “Lines Supposed to Have Been Sent to an Uncivil Dressmaker.”

1806: Frank Austen marries Mary Gibson at Ramsgate, Kent in July and arranges to set up house with his mother, his sisters, and Martha Lloyd.

Jane Austen writes “Lines to Martha Lloyd” and verses on the marriage of her brother Frank Austen.

1807: Frank Austen is put in command of HMS St. Albans, with duties to travel to South Africa, China, and the East Indies. In June, he departs for the Cape of Good Hope.

Jane Austen writes “On Sir Home Popham's Sentence, April, 1807” and possibly composes “Verses to Rhyme with ‘Rose.’”

Charles Austen marries Fanny Palmer (1790‐1814) in Bermuda.

The slave trade is abolished in Britain.4 France invades Spain and Portugal.

1808: Edward Austen's wife, Elizabeth, dies in October at Godsmersham. Later that month, Edward offers his mother and sisters a choice of houses, and they choose Chawton Cottage in Hampshire.

Jane Austen writes “To Miss Bigg with Some Pockethandkerchiefs” and, on the anniversary of Anne Brydges Lefroy's death, “To the Memory of Mrs. Lefroy.”

1809: Jane Austen uses a pseudonym to Richard Crosby to inquire about the status of Susan and to offer to send a second copy. Crosby responds that he has no current plans to publish the work, but will not give up the copyright unless it is purchased from him.

Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, and Jane settle with Martha Lloyd at Chawton Cottage on 7 July.

Jane Austen writes a verse letter to celebrate the birth of Frank Austen's first son. She also makes some revisions to Volume the Third and begins to revise Sense and Sensibility, a process that continues into the next year.

1810: Jane Austen continues to revise Sense and Sensibility, and it is accepted for publication on commission late this year or early in 1811 by Thomas Egerton.

Frank Austen returns from China.

Jane Austen possibly composes “Mock Panegyric on a Young Friend.”

George III suffers a mental breakdown.

1811: Jane Austen stays with Henry and Eliza Austen in London to correct the proofs of Sense and Sensibility.

Jane Austen writes a number of poems: “Lines on Maria Beckford,” “On the Weald of Kent Canal Bill,” “I am in a Dilemma,” “On a Headache,” “Mr. Gell and Miss Gill.”

Charles Austen returns to England with his wife, Fanny, and two children, and the family sees him for the first time in seven years and meets his family. He is given command of the guardship HMS Namur, and he and his family live on board, off Sheerness.

Jane Austen makes substantial revisions to First Impressions and retitles it Pride and Prejudice, and she begins work on Mansfield Park. Thomas Egerton publishes Sense and Sensibility in November in three volumes for the price of fifteen shillings; the title page says “By a Lady,” and about 750 copies are printed. None of Jane Austen's works appears under her name during her lifetime.

The Regency Act appoints the Prince of Wales to the Regency. (He rules as Regent until 1820, when George III dies, and then becomes George IV.)

Luddites (organized machine‐breakers) stage actions in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. Machine‐breaking becomes punishable by death.

Nationwide food riots break out in response to economic depression.

1812: Edward Austen's adoptive mother, Mrs. Knight, dies on 14 October, and Edward officially takes the name Knight.

Jane Austen possibly composes “A Middle‐Aged Flirt.”

Jane Austen sells Thomas Egerton the copyright to Pride and Prejudice for £110. She corrects the proofs in December 1812 and January 1813.

England is at war with America (the War of 1812). Napoleon invades Russia in June and retreats from Moscow in October.

The main streets of London are lit by gas.

1813: Pride and Prejudice is published on 28 January, with a title page that says “By the Author of Sense and Sensibility.” About one thousand copies are printed, at eighteen shillings a copy. Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice receive second printings in October. When the first edition of Sense and Sensibility sells out, Jane Austen receives £140 in profit.

Jane Austen stays with Henry Austen in London through his wife Eliza's final illness and death in April.

Jane Austen completes Mansfield Park.

In November, Jane Austen returns to London to stay with Henry Austen. During this visit, they probably negotiate the publication terms for Mansfield Park with Thomas Egerton, who agrees to publish it on commission.

Robert Southey is made Poet Laureate. The following works appear: Eaton Stannard Barrett's The Heroine, or Adventures of Chirubina, George Gordon, Lord Byron's Bride of Abydos and The Giaour, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Remorse, Sir Walter Scott's Rokeby, Percy Bysshe Shelley's Queen Mab, and Robert Southey's Life of Nelson.

1814: In January, Jane Austen begins work on Emma. Austen corrects the proofs in February, and Mansfield Park is published in May in an edition of around twelve hundred copies at eighteen shillings each. The first edition of Mansfield Park sells out by November, and Jane Austen receives a profit of between £310 and £350. She and Henry try to arrange a second edition, but Thomas Egerton refuses to issue one.

Charles Austen's wife, Fanny, dies on 6 September on board HMS Namur after the birth of their fourth child.

England and its allies invade France and enter Paris on 31 March. Paris falls; Napoleon Bonaparte abdicates in April and is exiled to Elba.

The first steam press is used to print The Times. Steam locomotives become increasingly efficient.

The Treaty of Ghent ends the Anglo‐American war in December (though the Battle of New Orleans occurs in January 1815).

Frances Burney's The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties, George Gordon, Lord Byron's Ode to Napoleon, Lara, and Corsair, Henry Francis Cary's complete translation of Dante'sDivine Comedy, Maria Edgeworth's Patronage, Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, Percy Bysshe Shelley's Refutation of Deism, Robert Southey's Roderick, and William Wordsworth's The Excursion are published.

1815: Jane Austen completes Emma at the end of March and begins to write Persuasion (titled posthumously by Henry Austen).

Jane Austen copies out “Lines of Lord Byron, in the Character of Buonaparté” (Byron's “Napoleon's Farewell”).

Jane and Henry Austen negotiate the publication of Emma with publisher John Murray, who receives a positive reader's report by the end of September.

Jane Austen spends most of the end of the year in London with Henry, who becomes seriously ill. He is out of danger within a month, but she remains to nurse him.

Jane Austen is invited to visit the Prince Regent (later George IV) at Carlton House in November. She is asked to dedicate her next novel to him, and although Austen has misgivings, she agrees. The response comes from the Reverend James Stanier Clarke (1765‐1834), the regent's chaplain and librarian, and in subsequent correspondence he urges Jane Austen to compose a novel about a clergyman. This suggestion is the basis for her comic Plan of a Novel, according to Hints from Various Quarters, written in 1816, possibly with the help of her niece Fanny Knight.

John Murray offers £450 for the copyright of Emma if copyrights for Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park are included in the package. Henry and Jane Austen refuse this offer, and Murray declines to raise it. However, he agrees to publish an edition of 2,000 copies of Emma on commission, along with a second edition of 750 copies of Mansfield Park. Jane Austen corrects proofs for Emma and makes revisions for the second edition of Mansfield Park. Emma appears at the end of December (with the title page marked 1816) in an edition priced at twenty‐one shillings. It is dedicated to the Prince Regent, and a special presentation set is sent to Carleton House prior to the novel's general publication.

Raison et Sensibilité (Sense and Sensibility) is published in France, the first foreign translation of an Austen novel.

The landlords carry the Corn Law Act; the price of bread rises in consequence and causes hardship for the poor.5 Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from Elba and begins the Hundred Days (from March to June), restarting the war. After the Battle of Waterloo of 18 June, Napoleon surrenders (15 July), the war ends, and he goes into exile on St. Helena. King Louis XVIII is restored to the throne in France and a “holy Alliance” of Europe's monarchs forms when the Congress of Vienna establishes the Quadruple Alliance between Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

1816: Jane Austen revises Susan after Henry buys back the rights from Crosby and Co. She changes the title to Catharine, writes the “Advertisement, by the Authoress,” and intends to seek another publisher. A second, revised edition of Mansfield Park is issued. Le Parc de Mansfield (Mansfield Park) and La Nouvelle Emma (Emma) are published in France.

Charles Austen's ship, HMS Phoenix, is wrecked off the coast of Asia Minor in a hurricane. Charles and his crew survive.

Henry Austen's bank collapses in March. Several family members suffer major losses, including Edward Knight (£20,000) and uncle James Perrot (£10,000).

Jane Austen's health begins to weaken, and she goes with Cassandra to take the waters at Cheltenham.

Jane Austen completes the first draft of Persuasion on 18 July and revises the ending by 6 August.

By October, Emma has sold 1,248 copies, with a theoretical profit of £221. However, the second edition of Mansfield Park is creating losses that offset the profit, so she receives only £38 for Emma during her lifetime. In any event, the first edition did not sell out: 539 copies were remaindered in 1821, as well as 498 copies of Mansfield Park.

In December, Henry Austen is ordained deacon and takes the curacy of Chawton. He becomes a priest in 1817.

The Spa Fields riot occurs in December amidst the beginnings of economic depression and discontent.6

Richard Brinsley Sheridan dies and George Gordon, Lord Byron, leaves England. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Christabel, Kubla Khan, Pains of Sleep, and Stateman's Manual appear.

1817: Jane Austen begins to write Sanditon, titled posthumously by the family; she seems to have meant the title to be The Brothers. She stops work around mid‐March because of illness, and Sanditon remains unfinished. She makes her will in April, leaving everything to her sister, Cassandra, except for a legacy of £50 to her brother Henry and another of the same amount to his French housekeeper, Madame Bigeon.

Jane and Cassandra Austen move to Winchester on 24 May to obtain better medical care for Jane. Jane Austen writes her last work, “Venta,” some verses on the Winchester Races and St. Swithin.

Jane Austen dies on 18 July in the early morning. On 22 July, she is publicly identified in the Hampshire Courier obituary as the author of her novels. She is buried in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral on 24 July.

When Jane Austen's will is proved in September and funeral costs (£239) and other payments deducted, Cassandra is left with £561.2.0. At the time of her death, Austen's earnings from her novels amount to about £630. Posthumous profits, which include selling the five remaining copyrights to publisher Richard Bentley, place her total earnings from her work at about £1,625.

In December, Northanger Abbey, a revision of Susan, is published by Murray with Persuasion in a four‐volume set. Included is a “Biographical Notice of the Author” by Henry Austen. Henry probably gave these novels their titles, and negotiated this publication on a commission basis on Cassandra Austen's behalf. The copies number 1,750 and are sold at twenty‐four shillings each. By the start of 1821, Cassandra had netted a profit of £519, at which time 283 copies were remaindered.

Pride and Prejudice sells out in its second edition, and Thomas Egerton publishes a third edition.

Habeas Corpus is suspended in March, and the Seditious Meetings Bill is enacted. Princess Charlotte dies.


1827: Jane Austen's mother, Cassandra Leigh Austen, dies at age 88.

1833: A collected edition of Jane Austen's novels is published with a “Biographical Notice” by her brother Henry Austen.

1845: Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra Elizabeth Austen, dies.

1848: Francis Austen appointed Commander‐in‐Chief of the North American and West Indian Station.

1852: Admiral Charles John Austen, Jane Austen's youngest brother, is made Commander‐in‐Chief of the East India state.

1863: Sir Francis Austen, Jane's Austen's other naval brother, is made Admiral of the Fleet.

1866: The first publication of Jane Austen's verses “To the Memory of Mrs. Lefroy.”

1870: James Edward Austen‐Leigh, Jane Austen's nephew, publishes A Memoir of Jane Austen (it appears on 16 December 1869 but is dated 1870). A second, expanded edition of the Memoir is published, and this edition includes Lady Susan, The Watsons, and a cancelled chapter of Persuasion. Austen‐Leigh's work is the basis for all subsequent biographies, and it sparked increased interest in Jane Austen.

1884: Jane Austen's great‐nephew, Edward, Lord Brabourne, son of Lady Knatchbull (née Fanny Austen‐Knight) publishes Letters of Jane Austen.

1895: Publication of Charades, Written a Hundred Years Ago by Jane Austen and Her Family.

1902: Constance Hill's Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends is published, with additional biographical information.

1906: Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers, by Frank Austen's grandson and great‐granddaughter, is published with new family information, family prints, the poem “Venta,” and letters to Frank.

1913: Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, by William Austen‐Leigh, James Edward's son, and his nephew Richard Arthur Austen‐Leigh, is published. This has come to be a primary source record.

1920: Personal Aspects of Jane Austen, by Mary Augusta Austen‐Leigh, James Edward's daughter, is published.

1922: Volume the Second, a collection of the juvenilia appears under the title Love and Freindship [sic].

1923: The Novels of Jane Austen, the Oxford edition of the novels, is published under the editorship of R. W. Chapman. This is the first scholarly edition and remains the standard edition. The second edition is issued in 1926 and the third in 1932‐1934, with many subsequent reprintings.

1925: The unfinished Sanditon is published. Lady Susan is reprinted. R. W. Chapman edits both.

1926: Chapman re‐edits the original manuscript ending of Persuasion, correcting the ending transcription from the 1871 Memoir. Chapman also edits Plan of a Novel, according to Hints from Various Quarters and Austen's “Opinions of Mansfield Park and Opinions of Emma accompany this printing.”Two Poems by Jane Austen (“Mr. Gill and Miss Gell” and “On a Headache”) is published.

1927: R. W. Chapman's edition of The Watsons is published.

1932: R. W. Chapman publishes Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others. This volume includes new letters.

1933: Volume the First of the juvenilia is published.

1940: W. M. Roth edits Jane Austen's Three Evening Prayers.

1942: R. A. Austen‐Leigh publishes Austen Papers 1704‐1856, a collection of previously unpublished material.

1951: Volume the Third of the juvenilia is published.

1952: Caroline Mary Craven Austen (1805‐1880), James' daughter, publishes My Aunt Jane Austen: A Memoir.

1954: R. W. Chapman publishes Jane Austen's Minor Works, which includes all three volumes of the juvenilia and some other previously unpublished pieces of writing. This volume is reprinted in 1965 and further revised in 1969.

1975: B. C. Southam edits The MS of Sanditon.

1977: The manuscript of Sir Charles Grandison is discovered. Scholar B. C. Southam publishes it as Jane Austen's “Sir Charles Grandison” in 1980. The handwriting in the manuscript is Jane Austen's. Family tradition had ascribed the authorship to Austen's niece Anna, but scholars believe that Austen herself wrote it.

1995: Deirdre Le Faye publishes a new edition of Jane Austen's Letters with further additions.

1996: David Selwyn edits Jane Austen: Collected Poems and Verse of the Austen Family.


  1. A “fair copy” is a neatly recopied manuscript. This is what would have been sent to the printers for publication.

  2. Habeus corpus is a law that requires a person to be brought before a judge or court to investigate a restraint of the person's freedom, and was used as a protection against illegal imprisonment.

  3. These acts represented the response of the government of William Pitt to the mob attack on George III, and derived from efforts to suppress dissidents and to restrict political discussion.

  4. Slavery itself was not abolished until 1833.

  5. The Corn Law Act restricted imports and thus shored up the price of wheat; the bill was supported by landowners.

  6. In this uprising, rioters attempted to seize the Bank of England and the Tower of England but were dispersed. Marilyn Butler suggest that this event may be the subject of a brief reference in Northanger Abbey, in which Henry Tilney mentions a riotous mob trying to seize the Tower. See Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Revolutionaries, and Reactionaries: English Literature and Its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981): 106.

About Jane Austen

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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 Austen destroyed many of her letters, her brother Henry wrote a eulogy that praises his sister as brilliant and long‐suffering, and her nephew James Edward Austen‐Leigh published his influential A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870, in which he described her as a sheltered, unruffled woman whose life was uncommonly uneventful. It has, therefore, been difficult for scholars and biographers to meet the real Jane Austen.

Was she merely an observer of others, without an inner life? Was she a resentful, repressed woman who used her sharp pen to skewer a society that had injured her? Was she the cheerful and tolerant favorite aunt described by her descendants? Was she ignorant of everything that happened in politics, or did she follow the activities of her military brothers Francis and Charles and her Francophile cousin Eliza Hancock de Feuillide with an educated grasp of history and social change? Few writers have been perceived in such varied and contradictory ways.

There is one central fact that we can glean from the existing letters, published books, and memoirs by the Austen family members, and from the archival record of the period in which Austen lived. While Jane Austen was a member of the landed gentry, she was never without financial anxieties. She was a country gentlewoman without economic security. The gentry class suffered enormous changes during Austen's lifetime, which profoundly affected her material circumstances. Her father, George Austen, was the local rector and took in boarding students; his income was merely adequate. Austen eventually earned enough from her writing to supplement their income and to leave something for Cassandra and her mother, but after her father's death in 1805, the women depended for the rest of their lives on the generosity of the Austen brothers. Jane Austen spent her childhood surrounded by an already large family that was expanded by her father's boarding pupils—enough of them to amount to a boys' school.1 One of Austen's biographers, Claire Tomalin, describes the young Jane as “a tough and unsentimental child, drawn to rude, anarchic imaginings and black jokes.”2 George Austen had an ample library, and the children were great readers. They attended church regularly, where their father presided. They kept chickens, a dairy, and a vegetable garden, baked bread and brewed beer, milked cows and churned cream for butter, made preserves, raked hay, played in the barn, and generally enjoyed a country existence.

The second Austen son, George, suffered from ill health and seizures from a young age; he may have had cerebral palsy. George lived most of his life with his Uncle Thomas in Monk Sherburne, another Hampshire village. Thomas, his mother's younger brother, had similar disabilities. He only occasionally returned to Steventon as a young boy. Although there is little mention of George in the Austen archival record, he may have been deaf or lacked language, because there is some evidence that Jane Austen knew sign language.

Living with the crowd of assorted siblings and boarding schoolboys, Jane Austen was perhaps especially comfortable with boys. But she often enjoyed the company of her cousin Eliza Hancock, later Comtesse de Feuillide and ultimately the wife of Jane's brother Henry. Eliza was an important worldly influence, who instructed Jane Austen at a young age how to handle complex social situations with all sorts of people.

The Austen brothers were schooled at home with other boys until they were about twelve. But Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra were sent away to school at a younger age, perhaps to make room for additional paying pupils. Jane was seven in the spring of 1783, when she was sent to a school in Oxford run by a Mrs. Cawley. She joined her cousin Jane Cooper, who was eleven years old. Mrs. Cawley ran her school from her home, which was the usual practice and one of the few respectable ways a woman could make a living in late eighteenth‐century England. Many accounts of such schools are depressing, and many girls were wretched in them.3 Although we know little of what went on at Mrs. Cawley's, Jane Austen later wrote scathingly of schoolmistresses. And we do know that in the summer of 1783, Mrs. Cawley decided to move her school to Southampton without informing the girls' families.

As a port, Southampton was home to various military encampments, and the soldiers and sailors stationed there apparently brought an infectious disease (probably typhus) that soon spread through the town. Many of the schoolgirls became ill, including the Austen cousins. Mrs. Cawley did not inform their parents, but Jane Cooper had the sense to write to her mother in Bath, and Mrs. Cooper and Mrs. Austen immediately retrieved their daughters. Jane Austen was by then dangerously ill, and her mother had to nurse her back to health before taking her home. The other girls also recovered, but Mrs. Cooper caught the fever and died in Bath. Jane Cooper began to spend a good deal of her time in Steventon and became part of the Austen family.

Austen's aunt Philadelphia Walter, her father's sister and mother of Eliza Hancock de Feuillide, provides the first physical description we have of Jane, from the summer of 1788. She was “whimsical and affected,” Aunt Phila wrote in a letter to her daughter Eliza, and “not at all pretty” but “very prim.” Jane was then twelve years old, and was often contrasted with her more “sensible” sister Cassandra.

Jane was about twelve when she began to write her bitingly satirical first experiments with social comedy. Her later novels develope a subtle irony; but in her juvenile writings, Austen boldly unmasked polite society with characters who are openly rude, or adulterous, or downright murderous. And she makes great fun of most of them.

In a letter sent from Chawton to her niece Anna Austen on 9 September 1814, Jane Austen made one of her memorable comments about writing novels. Anna was an aspiring novelist, and had sent several manuscripts to her published aunt for a critique.

You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on—& I hope you will write a great deal more, & make full use of them while they are so favourably arranged.4

Indeed, in addition to describing the circumstances of much of Austen's own fiction, which focuses on details of social interaction and the daily conspiracies of polite society, this passage also seems to describe the world in which Jane Austen lived, the world of country village English gentry.

Austen was always conscious of her choice of literary subject matter. In an equally famous letter to her sister Cassandra on 4 February 1813, she described an evening during which the family read aloud—a common form of household entertainment—her Pride and Prejudice. As an authorial description of Pride and Prejudice, the phrase “light, and bright, and sparkling” is apt and modest and rightly memorable.

Upon the whole, however, I am quite vain enough and well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.5

Yet the rest of the passage is also significant. She was not unaware, either of the political or military upheaval in early nineteenth‐century Europe or of the literary activities that surrounded her own writing. Rather, Jane Austen reveals her deliberate decision to focus her literary skills on the ways in which the social world impinges upon and dictates how people live with one another.

So to answer Austen's nephew James Edward Austen‐Leigh, who wrote fifty years after his aunt's death that “Of events, her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course,” we need to ask how this could possibly have been the case. Austen's life spanned the American and French Revolutions, the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812, and the depths of European involvement in the slave trade. She witnessed the rise of middle‐class culture as the ancient English landed aristocracy slowly declined. Two of her brothers served in the British navy and traveled around the world. Another brother was a banker. Her sister's betrothed died of yellow fever during a voyage to the West Indies. Her cousin married a Frenchman who was guillotined during the Terror in France. Austen's was not a barren life. Even in some of her earliest writings, such as Catharine, or the Bower and, in an odd way, The History of England, Jane Austen conveys dismay at characters that cultivate a blithe ignorance of the history and politics that shape their worlds.

Austen's daily life involved only the circuit of visits and household duties that she experienced in the villages of the English countryside, and that is where she found her creative home. The West Indies and India appear briefly, but political concerns remain subtle and offstage in Austen's fiction. International events are great catalysts in the novels, however, because the economic system at the center of Austen's English gentry depended on inherited wealth and land and on an entangling colonial system that was the British Empire—and supported the social lives of Austen's characters. Austen's brothers—naval officers, clergymen, and bankers—visited the world and returned home with news. And Austen understood the political and economic structure on which she built her fictional society.

Austen herself lived the only life approved for women of her time, learning household skills such as sewing, gardening, and kitchen work, and developing the feminine talents of drawing, needlework, playing the piano, speaking French, and writing letters. From an early age, she found her creative outlet in composing stories and sharing them with her family.

We do not know exactly when Jane Austen began to write her stories, but by her early teens, she supplied stories and plays for her family to read aloud and perform. She copied many pages of her juvenile writings into three carefully kept notebooks. Most of this work is satirical and reveals her prodigious use of her father's extensive library at Steventon. She was familiar with the poetry, drama, and fiction of her day, and she often used her stories to lampoon the popular excesses of sentimentality or Gothicism. The Austens performed amateur theatricals at home, a common entertainment at the time (and more than somewhat morally suspect, as Austen illustrated in a crucial sequence in Mansfield Park).

Jane Austen did not travel beyond the several counties in southern England where she had family members, and she spent relatively little time in London. Yet her brothers and her cousin Eliza brought home tales of a larger world, and she took a great interest in their exploits abroad. So she had reason to be acquainted with India and the European continent as well as with the West Indies and Asia. She chose not to include any direct depictions of these outside worlds in her novels, but many of Austen's characters—from Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park to Captain Wentworth of Persuasion—come and go from the circumscribed worlds of Austen's country villages to the greater world of colonial plantations and the slave economy and military exploits. The emotional action of Austen's novels takes place inside the houses of rural country gentlefolk, but it is clear that Jane Austen knew what went on outside those houses in some detail, and understood as well how the country life of her characters reflected the society in which they lived.

Jane Austen's knowledge of family life was vast. Several members of her extended family, such as her cousin Jane Cooper and her brother James' sister‐in‐law, Martha Lloyd, spent time living with them. Her brothers married and provided her with many nieces and nephews, and she frequently visited neighboring families. The Knights, a wealthy, childless couple, adopted her brother Edward. He took their name and inherited their estates, and he provided Jane and Cassandra Austen and their mother with some further domestic and economic security earlier you say they depended and some knowledge of life in a large country manor. Her brother Henry was reputed to be Austen's favorite and helped her with her publishing activities. Henry married Austen cousin Eliza de Feuillide in 1797, three years after her husband, the Comte de Feuillide, was guillotined. Henry Austen tried a variety of careers and suffered some financial difficulties.

Most of Jane Austen's life was spent either at home or visiting among her numerous family members and neighboring acquaintances, a life that was, by all accounts, profoundly social for a woman who also clearly enjoyed her solitude. She moved around a good deal—from Steventon to Bath to Chawton—and changed lodgings many times.

Austen's knowledge of how human beings interact in complex and delicate social situations, her deep understanding of individual and social psychology, and a lapidary prose style that captures emotional nuances, give us timeless novels that continue to entertain us even as they hold up mirrors to our own contemporary society.

Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817 in Winchester, attended by her beloved sister, Cassandra. She had suffered for months with fevers and weakness, was sometimes irritable, and was often too unwell to sit up in bed. Her skin was pale and mottled, “black & white and every wrong colour” and as she wrote to her niece Fanny, “I must not depend upon ever being blooming again.”6Sanditon, which she was unable to complete, concerns illness and invalidism, and perhaps her condition led her to this subject matter. When her health forced her to stop writing, she turned to prayers and poetry.

Jane Austen's final literary production was a dictated set of comic verses about the Winchester horse races. She also wrote letters about the devoted attention of her family. Her brothers visited, and of Cassandra she wrote, “Words must fail me in any attempt to describe what a nurse she has been to me.”7 Cassandra described her final hours to their niece Fanny, ending with this description: “She gave me the idea of a beautiful statue, & even now in her coffin, there is such a sweet serene air over her countenance as is quite pleasant to contemplate.”8 Scholars have concluded, using what evidence there is, that Jane Austen died from Addison's disease, a condition that could have caused the progressive debility she experienced. We will never have a complete diagnosis, and we can only imagine what works of literature she might have contributed to the canon of English letters had she lived longer.


  1. The Austen family followed the common practice of the time of boarding their infants with local cottagers until they were weaned.

  2. Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), p. 31.

  3. Perhaps the best‐known literary depiction of such a girls' school is the oppressive Lowood School in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, although Lowood is a charitable institution run by the Church and a much bigger establishment than Mrs. Cawley's small home school. In Emma, however, Jane Austen depicts Mrs. Goddard's school as a relatively benign institution, and this is probably much closer to her own experience than the horrors of Brontë's Lowood.

  4. Jane Austen's Letters, ed. Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 275.

  5. Ibid., p. 203.

  6. Ibid., pp. 335‐36.

  7. Ibid., p. 340.

  8. Ibid., p. 345.

Jane Austen At Work

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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.

Brian Southam offers the following dating of the juvenile writings1:

  • 1787‐1790 (Volume the First)
    • “Frederic and Elfrida”
    • “Jack and Alice”
    • “Edgar and Emma”
    • “Henry and Eliza”
    • “Mr. Harley”
    • “Sir William Mountague”
    • “Mr. Clifford”
    • “The beautifull Cassandra”
    • “Amelia Webster”
    • “The Visit”
    • “The Mystery”
  • 1790 (Volume the Second)
    • Love and Freindship
  • 1791 (Volume the Second)
    • The History of England
    • “Collection of Letters”
  • 1792
    • “Lesley Castle” (Second)
    • “The Three Sisters'” (First)
    • “Evelyn” (Third)
    • “Catharine” (Third)
  • 1793
    • “Scraps” (Second)
    • “Detached Pieces” (First)
    • “Ode to Pity” (First)

In Volume the First, the handwriting is childish and the compositions appear to be the earliest of Austen's literary efforts, even though the one date they carry is 1793. The contents of Volume the Third are dated 1792. Volume the First resides in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, Volume the Third is in the British Museum, and Volume the Second has a private owner. The publisher Chatto & Windus first published Love and Freindship [sic] in 1922 with an introduction by English writer G. K. Chesterton.

Family lore maintains that Austen composed these lighthearted and often hilarious early writings simply as family amusements to be read aloud. Many of the pieces are dedicated to family members, and no doubt the evening readings produced much mirth. Still, Austen must have taken this composition seriously, given the copies she made and the revisions she continued to make.

In addition to humor, her juvenile writings display a characteristic toughness. Austen shows little or no mercy to her satirical targets. She goes beyond simple literary parody to skewer some notable excesses in human behavior, and she already gives evidence of her keen eye and no‐nonsense approach to social interactions. She has little patience for arrogance, self‐absorption, vanity, or hypocrisy. She spots human weaknesses from a great distance, and she targets them in her character portraits. Even the pieces that seem purely silly ridicule superficiality and self‐importance. Still, mischievousness prevails in Austen's early work.2

Some of these qualities appear in Austen's later fiction. Several of her characters have exaggerated personality traits. There is Mrs. Allen's obsession with clothes in Northanger Abbey; Mr. Palmer's rudeness to his wife in Sense and Sensibility; and Mr. Woodhouse's concern with health in Emma, reinforcing his portrayal as a fussbudget. However, in her mature fiction, while such characters have a ruling passion or trait, their personalities function in a larger social context, and Austen presents them with real affection and a deep knowledge of the human heart, whereas in the juvenilia, one‐dimensional characters are simple puppets for Austen's burlesque effects. As the pieces become more sophisticated, they offer outlines of Austen's later themes and literary techniques. Her characters evolve into complex individuals who interact in more elaborate ways with the society in which they live, and who grow and change in the course of those interactions.


Austen's extensive reading prepared the way for her writing career. Her father apparently placed no restrictions on the books she read as a child. As her biographer Claire Tomalin puts it, “if she was allowed to read Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison as a child, which gives detailed accounts of maternal drunkenness and paternal adultery, and lays out the correct attitude to adopt towards a father's mistress and illegitimate half‐brothers, Mr. Austen cannot have kept much from her.”3 Henry Austen remembers his sister as a precocious reader, but he also emphasizes her piety, and he focuses on her reading of Samuel Johnson's essays, William Cowper's poetry, and sermons.4 But Austen also enjoyed Henry Fielding's comedy Tom Thumb and his ribald novel Tom Jones, Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy (an experimental comic novel based in part on the philosophy of John Locke), and the fiction of Charlotte Lennox, Frances Burney d'Arblay, and Charlotte Smith.5 The family read plays together, and Austen would have been especially familiar with Shakespeare's plays, which are mentioned throughout her own novels: Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford discuss Shakespeare in Mansfield Park; Catherine Morland mentions Shakespeare in Northanger Abbey; and the Dashwood sisters read Hamlet with Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. She was familiar with Johnson's philosophical novel Rasselas and his essays, and she read James Boswell's work. The Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and Milton's poetry were, of course, important elements of Austen's formation and education.

We know that Austen's favorite novel was Samuel Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, published in 1753 and 1754. The novel is a seven‐volume work about a paragon of gentlemanliness, the woman he falls in love with after rescuing her from a kidnapping and possible rape, an Italian lady to whom Sir Charles has pledged himself and from whom it takes him many volumes to get honorably extricated, and their families and friends. Austen's only attempt at playwriting was a dramatic version of this story, a manuscript preserved by the Austen family for years but not discovered until the late 1970s, when it was edited and published by Austen scholar Brian Southam.6

Given Austen's novelistic preoccupations, some of the features of the plot of Sir Charles Grandison are particularly intriguing.7 For example, Sir Charles's outspoken younger sister Charlotte rails against marriage as a form of imprisonment. When in the end Charlotte agrees to marry, she misbehaves at her own wedding, will not let her new husband sit beside her in the carriage afterwards, and teases him so relentlessly that he smashes her harpsichord. This novel is full of discussions about women's roles and social place. The marriage between Harriet Byron and Sir Charles exemplifies an ideal for which Austen's heroines also strive: a marriage partnership that represents not only romantic love but a highly developed and respectful friendship between a man and a woman.

Austen's reading gave her philosophical insights, subject matter, and social attitudes to mine for her own work and a firm grasp of novelistic techniques. Her early writings were fictions in the form of letters. Letters also figure prominently in her novels: Darcy writes letters and the characters discuss letter‐writing as an activity in Pride and Prejudice, and a letter‐writing scene provides the climax of Austen's final completed novel, Persuasion. Letters were a form of writing practiced by women, and worked easily as a narrative technique that introduced women's voices into fiction. As her craft evolved, Austen developed the early epistolary versions of Northanger Abbey,Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice into third‐person narratives with her trademark omniscient and ironic voice as the controlling narrative authority.

Austen wrote many of her early pieces and the first versions of Northanger Abbey,Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice in epistolary form—a frequent mode of presenting novels in the eighteenth century, and Richardson's particular technique. She uses the mishaps of letters gone astray not only to create plot complications, but to poke fun at the crises and confusions that result. In “Lesley Castle,” one letter begins: “I have but just received your letter, which being directed to Sussex while I was at Bristol was obliged to be forwarded to me here, & from some unaccountable Delay, has but this instant reached me—.”8 Austen often made fun of herself, and of authorship in general. Her hilariously concise history of England, called The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st, is prefaced with an epigraph that reads: “By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.” A note follows this epigraph and promises: “N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History.”9

Jane Austen used a narrative method that has often been misunderstood, in part because of her own self‐deprecating references. In December 1816, she wrote to her nephew James Edward Austen about his writings, which she refers to in a bantering tone as “strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow” in contrast to her own productions, “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”10 She seemed to see herself as a miniaturist, writing occasional, offhand portraits. In fact, she used a technique of concentration, placing her characters in close proximity and in complex social situations, and then watching them interact and work out their relationships through revealing mechanisms of social negotiation. The “little bit” of ivory tells a bigger tale.

Jane Austen's own writing process itself could have been a scene in one of her novels. Her nephew James Edward Austen‐Leigh's memoir of his aunt describes the loss of privacy for writing that Austen suffered when the family left Steventon and moved to Chawton. At Chawton Cottage, she had to write in the public sitting room. Because she didn't want servants or visitors to know that she was writing, she wrote on small scraps that could be quickly hidden under a piece of blotting paper if someone entered the room. As Austen‐Leigh tells it, the door to the sitting room creaked when it opened or closed, and Austen did not wish it to be repaired because it signaled to her that she needed to spirit away her writing.

Jane Austen's irony and the brilliant thematic structure of her carefully wrought stories are legendary. Her brilliance begins at the level of the individual sentence. Almost any randomly selected sentence from one of her six major novels is a model of prose style. Her syntax is clever and elaborate, with flowing punctuation and lengthy, connected clauses; yet her sentences are never muddled or confusing. To parse them grammatically, or to analyze their vocabulary or their punctuation, might tax most readers; but each sentence satisfies because its complexity never gets in the way of its easy good sense. Austen's syntax is entangled, her points of view and manipulation of perspective are elaborately contrived, but the complexities of her prose flatter as well as speak to her readers' intelligence.

Austen was one of the first and most innovative practitioners of a narrative style known as style indirect libre, or free indirect style. While her fame derives largely from her straightforward, canny reportage of ordinary details and personal quirks, she also excels at painting a scene by combining one character's voice or point of view with the perspective of an omniscient narrating voice that speaks from outside the action. Sometimes these voices belong to multiple characters, as in the tour de force of indirect style that describes the strawberry sequence at the Donwell Abbey picnic in Emma.

The whole party was assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her appartus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking—strawberries, and only strawberries, only now be thought or spoken of.—“The best fruit in England—every body's favourite—always wholesome.—These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one's self—the only way of really enjoying them.—Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavour of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade.”11

This passage comes largely from the perspective of vain Mrs. Elton, who has positioned herself as the hostess at Donwell; but it also contrives to deliver a group or community voice that moves from lively pleasure to lethargy in the course of this deliberately disjointed, galloping paragraph. It is not altogether clear who is speaking, and the indeterminacy of the phrases forms part of how they convey a communal sense of the initially delightful and then irritating activity of picking strawberries. The passage is both stylized and almost stream‐of‐consciousness in its flow.12

Austen's prose style welcomes and pleases her readers because she cultivates a rich relationship between the narrator and the reader. The narrator speaks directly to us, and with us consents to view the novel's characters from a certain perspective. Austen's narrative voice assumes that she is speaking to a sensible audience who understands and agrees with her right‐minded standards of behavior and morality. There is an amused, critical irony that embraces the reader in the inner circle of those who have insight and perspicacity, those who know and can judge.

Austen nearly independently invented a new and revolutionary form of the English novel. The novel played an increasingly important role in popular literature during the century that preceded Austen, and her work owes a debt to Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney in particular. But she combined the external observations of eighteenth‐century adventure fiction (the picaresque novels of Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett) with the interior analyses of women's moral fiction of the period (the psychological novels of Ann Radcliffe and Burney) to achieve a quiet but startlingly influential innovation in the genre of the novel.

Women's domestic experience was circumscribed by gender roles and expectations, and women's lives centered primarily on family activities. Yet women also needed to use their domestic choices to fit themselves into the larger social and economic structures into which they were born. Austen took this confluence of private limitation and public necessity and wove it into some of the most psychologically insightful, socially astute, and complex literature we have in the English language. Given her inauspicious and utterly normal surroundings, one might ask how this was possible.

Austen's narrative voice is her most powerful and influential invention. Writing with distance and judgment, her narrators manage to be didactic and aloof, conversational and charming and, above all, ironic. They testify to the technical prowess and craftsmanship of Austen's mature prose. While her subject matter seems small—the subtle ways in which people interact and form judgments of one another, the nuances of space and language at a public gathering, the meanings of gestures and silences—she painted an overarching and highly moral portrait of social life.

As a stylist, Austen is best known for her use of irony, and this technique already emerges in sharp form in her juvenile writings. Austen's juvenile work frequently turns to wicked satire. One of her favorite targets was the vogue for sentimentality. When Emma learns that Edgar is away at college in “Edgar and Emma,” she retires to her room, where she “continued in tears the remainder of her Life.”13 In Love and Freindship [sic], the friends Sophia and Laura shriek and faint, swoon and run mad, a circumstance that leads to some judicious advice.

Beware of swoons … A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an excerise to the Body & if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to health in its consequences.—Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—.14

To understand the finely honed production of Austen's irony, we should look closely at a couple of her mature sentences, because it is at the level of the sentence that Austen's narrative voice succeeds. Here is the famous opening sentence (and paragraph) of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”15 This sentence opens the novel with a proposition that the novel's plot proves: Charles Bingley has moved into the neighborhood of the Bennets, who have five unmarried daughters and an entailed estate, and Mrs. Bennet, with every other mother in the area, plans to ensnare him as a marriage partner for one of her girls, preferably the eldest. And in the end, after many vicissitudes and misunderstandings and illnesses and humiliations, the marriage is certain.

But plot foreshadowing is the least of this sentence's importance. It sets up the comical yet deadly serious dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet about the necessity of paying a visit to the new neighbors, and thus initiates the tone of the whole novel: the nature of the Bennet marriage and thus the question of marriage generally and so the social necessities and economic maneuverings that are requirements in this society. The sentence embodies an idea that is both practical and philosophical; it is an opinion both on economics and on social structure. This sentence, critic Julia Prewitt Brown observes, starts a chain reaction because it “reverberates throughout the entire first chapter, indeed the entire novel, and derives its brilliance from that reverberation.”16 The sentence is meaningful in a straightforward way and yet quite outrageous in its implications.

Brown mentions another classically and somewhat cruelly ironic sentence from Emma. This sentence also opens a chapter, and it also stands alone as a paragraph: “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.”17 What occasions this ironic blast is one of the most awkward circumstances into which Emma Woodhouse contrives to trap herself. Emma encourages her friend Harriet Smith to consider Mr. Elton. Mr. Elton misinterprets her manipulations as a sign that Emma herself is well‐disposed towards him. Emma is mortified, Harriet is humiliated, and Mr. Elton recovers from his disappointment by affiancing himself to Miss Hawkins and returning to town to tout her merits.

Mrs. Elton, née Hawkins, becomes one of Austen's best satirical targets for self‐importance and social obliviousness. The sentence from Emma introduces the embarrassing fact that Miss Hawkins becomes an instant celebrity in Highbury, where everyone suddenly thinks well of her. The operative phrase “interesting situations” in the sentence makes it at once a humorous and a significant statement. The word “interesting” had more complex meanings in Austen's time than it does now, when it represents merely the opposite of dull or boring. Then, it meant something more like “intriguing” or “provocative.” But however we understand the word, it seems staggeringly cruel to call someone's dying “interesting.” (We might note that Mrs. Churchill is not spoken well of in Emma until after her offstage death.) Death, of course, is just what we least expect in a comedy of manners, where what we look for is a wedding. Austen subtly made marriage analogous to death in this neat sentence and illuminated another element of her fiction: It investigates the larger scope of human nature.

Saying as little as possible to convey the crux of a situation or a character constitutes another of Austen's ironic techniques. Her lovers' confessions of love and proposals of marriage perfectly illustrate her economy of language. Whole books lead up to these moments, of course, after a range of obstacles and discomfiting circumstances and embarrassments. At the climactic proposal scene in Emma, for example, even though the narrator provides two pages of indirect discourse on the agitations of Emma's mind when she realizes that she herself is the object of Mr. Knightley's affections, the moment of truth is delivered only in these lines: “She spoke then, on being so entreated.—What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”18 The scene continues with the tactic of indirect speech, a clipped series of confessions and revelations between the lovers who are to be husband and wife.

Jane Austen also pioneered the use of style indirect libre to convey what her characters are thinking without quoting them directly. Austen often used this technique, especially during the climactic scenes when her lovers finally unburden themselves to one another and recapitulate the various musings, miscommunications, and circumstances that have led to plot entanglements and at last to an understanding of mutual love. The revelations between Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot in Persuasion that follow much misreading, self‐doubt, and emotional upheaval are preceded by indirect discourse during a concert scene that involves Wentworth's anxious jealousy of Anne's cousin Mr. Elliot, who ends the scene by interrupting them.19 This conversation has nothing really to do with the concert, but conveys the subtlety and edginess of the unspoken history and feelings between the interlocutors.

When the most important words are spoken in an Austen novel, the reader rarely gets to hear them. The second proposal scene between Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice also uses indirect speech. When it comes to the central moment, the narrator tells us that Darcy “expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.”20 And after the exchange between Knightley and Emma in Emma, the narrator offers a now famous Austenian observation.

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom does it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.21

This sentence tells us a great deal about Austen's novelistic technique. Even as her narrators choreograph their plots around a thicket of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, the characters mature and learn to give one another and themselves the benefit of the doubt.


Jane Austen's brother Henry, in a “Biographical Notice of the Author,” his preface to his posthumous edition of his sister's first and last novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, presented the first public glimpse of his sister's working process as a writer. He stated that she became interested in literature and in her own language abilities at an early age in her father's library. Her novels were polished and sent out for publication from Chawton, but she began many of them, he noted, in earlier periods of her life. In Henry Austen's portrait, Jane Austen appears as a meticulous editor of her own work. “For though in composition she was equally rapid and correct,” he wrote, “yet an invincible distrust of her own judgement induced her to withhold her works from the public, till time and many perusals had satisfied her that the charm of recent composition was resolved.”22

As Henry Austen remarked in his “Biographical Notice,” Jane Austen read and reread, corrected and revised her work until she was satisfied that she had said what she wanted to say. Thus she began to write what would become her major works at a young age, and she spent many years rereading, revising, and correcting the manuscripts. The origins of the first three of Jane Austen's six great novels overlap with the writing of the juvenile works.

Austen may have begun her first completed novel, Lady Susan, as early as 1793 or 1794. We have a fair‐copy manuscript with few corrections from 1805, so scholars have had to speculate from other evidence.23 She began to write First Impressions, later called Pride and Prejudice, in 1796, when she was just twenty‐one, and she completed the first version in 1797. Her family enjoyed it right away. Her father offered it to a publisher, but it was rejected sight unseen. By 1800, Jane Austen had completed a novel she titled Susan, and she had revised a third book called Elinor and Marianne, written before First Impressions. These works were the first versions of Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility. All three were originally composed in epistolary form.

Austen prepared Susan for publication in 1802 or 1803, and sold it to a publisher in 1803 for £10, but it was not published, and in 1809 she arranged to buy back the copyright for the same amount. After her death it was published as Northanger Abbey. In 1803, Austen also worked on a novel fragment called The Watsons; the manuscript is written on paper watermarked 1803 and was probably composed in Bath. Austen's father died in 1805, and scholars assume that she abandoned this work in her bereavement. Her nephew James Edward Austen‐Leigh proposed another hypothesis for the abandonment of this promising manuscript: that the Watson family has the most obscure social status of any of Austen's principal families, and that she thought better of such a subject. Whatever the reason, The Watsons remains a promising story, if darker than much of her other work, and it is a loss to literature that Austen chose not to complete it.

When the Austen women moved to Chawton Cottage in July of 1809, Jane was thirty‐three. Chawton afforded little privacy for writing, but it was here that Austen composed her great mature novels. The first of Austen's completed major novels to be published was Sense and Sensibility in November 1811. It was followed in January 1813, by Pride and Prejudice.Mansfield Park appeared in May of 1814, and Emma in December 1815, the year that Austen began Persuasion. She began to lose her health in 1816, but by July of that year she had completed a first draft and a revised version of Persuasion, and in January of 1817 she began her last novel, the unfinished Sanditon.Northanger Abbey (the first of the six major novels in date of composition) and Persuasion were published together, with a biographical note by Henry Austen, in December of 1818, five months after Jane Austen died in Winchester on 18 July at the age of forty‐two.


Contrary to popular views that Austen was an amateur who did not take her work seriously, she thought a great deal about remuneration for her writings. Her first effort to publish was in November 1797. Her father, the Reverend George Austen, offered First Impressions, later to become Pride and Prejudice, to Cadell and Davies in November, offering to take on the costs and the risk himself. He compared the book in length and subject matter to Frances Burney's Evelina, but the publisher declined to read it.

The literary marketplace was no longer completely inhospitable to women by Austen's time, but it was difficult to enter. A century earlier, Aphra Behn became the first Englishwoman to support herself by her pen—at the cost of her reputation. Fame for a woman automatically meant infamy, which explains Jane Austen's typical decision to publish her work anonymously. Women could neither own property nor sign personal contracts.24 She required a male relation to negotiate on her behalf, and her brother Henry performed this service for her.

There were several publishing options in England. Authors could sell subscriptions to their books, printing only the number for which they had prearranged sales. An author could negotiate a one‐time sale of the copyright, the method Austen chose for Susan (whose copyright she bought back six years after selling it) and Pride and Prejudice. The copyright, then as now, was a license to print a book, and was understood to represent property. The House of Lords had eliminated perpetual copyright in 1774, the year before Austen's birth, but publishers still paid blanket fees for a limited copyright ownership of fourteen or twenty‐eight years. A copyright sale assured an author of money regardless of the book's sales. However, if the book sold well, its author was not entitled to its profits. There were also various forms of profit sharing.

The method that Austen chose for Sense and Sensibility,Mansfield Park, and Emma was to publish on commission. For the author, commission publication entailed underwriting the cost of paper, printing, and advertising, and the publisher distributed the copies and kept the accounts. In practice, the publisher usually fronted the costs of printing and took reimbursements from the profits. The publisher got a ten percent commission on each copy sold, and if things went well, the author made a profit. There was greater risk to commission publication, but also a greater chance of monetary rewards. Of Austen's novels published on commission, only the second edition of Mansfield Park lost money.25

Austen kept careful records of her literary earnings. Writing to her brother Frank on 15 September 1813, she added a postscript.

You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S. & S. is sold & that it has brought me £140—besides the Copyright, if that should ever be of any value.—I have now therefore written myself into £250.—which only makes me long for more.26

In a letter to Martha Lloyd dated 29 November 1812, Austen informed her close friend that Thomas Egerton had paid £110 for Pride and Prejudice. “I would rather have had £150,” she writes, “but we could not both be pleased, & I am not at all surprised that he should not chuse to hazard so much.”27 Interestingly, because publications and copyrights represented property and income potential, they also became associated with the notion of authority.28

It was not until after her death that any of Jane Austen's novels appeared with her name attached to them, so the reviews that were published during her lifetime never mentioned her by name.


  1. Southam discusses his criteria for this dating in B. C. Southam, Jane Austen's Literary Manuscripts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).

  2. Frances Beer provides a useful introduction to Austen's juvenile writings in the “Introduction” to The Juvenilia of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, ed. Frances Beer (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), pp. 9‐19.

  3. Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), p. 67.

  4. Henry Austen added a “Biographical Notice of the Author” to his posthumous edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and R. W. Chapman keeps this Notice in The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. V, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 3‐9.

  5. For accounts of Austen's reading, see the chapter “Reading and Response” in Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and Her Art (1939; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 41‐83 and Margaret Anne Doody, “Jane Austen's Reading,” in J. David Grey, A. Walton Litz, and Brian Southam, eds. The Jane Austen Companion (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 347‐63.

  6. Jane Austen's “Sir Charles Grandison,” transcribed and edited by Brian Southam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

  7. Austen wrote her own version of this story. See Ibid.

  8. The Works of Jane Austen, Vol. VI, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 119.

  9. Ibid., 138.

  10. Jane Austen's Letters, new ed., ed. Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 323.

  11. The Novels of Jane Austen, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 358‐59.

  12. For a useful discussion of Austen's language use, see Norman Page, The Language of Jane Austen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972). For a study of the satiric uses of indirect style before Austen, see Claude Rawson, Order from Confusion Sprung: Studies in Eighteenth‐Century Literature from Swift to Cowper (London, 1985).

  13. The Works of Jane Austen, Vol. VI, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 33.

  14. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. II, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 102.

  15. Ibid., p. 3.

  16. Julia Prewitt Brown, Jane Austen's Novels: Social Change and Literary Form (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 26.

  17. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. V, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 181. Cited and discussed by Julia Prewitt Brown, op. cit., p. 26.

  18. Ibid., p. 431.

  19. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. V, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 190.

  20. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. II, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933). p. 366.

  21. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. V, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 431.

  22. Henry Austen, “Biographical Notice of the Author,” in The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. V, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 4.

  23. See B. C. Southam, Jane Austen's Literary Manuscripts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).

  24. Some property strictures applied differently to married and to single women. For a complete discussion, see Susan Staves, Married Women's Separate Property in England, 1660‐1833 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990). A widow could inherit and manage property after her husband's death, and individual family arrangements could override property laws by explicitly stipulating alternative inheritance rules for an estate. This explains Lady Catherine de Bourgh's powerful position in Pride and Prejudice. She owns the Rosings living and thus has the authority to give it to Mr. Collins. She also makes the telling remark to Charlotte, on the subject of the Longbourne estate, “I see no occasion for entailing estates away from the female line.—It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family” (The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. II, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 164). It should be mentioned in this context that Lady Catherine de Bourgh's title derives from her father rather than from her husband, who was of a lower rank.

  25. Jan Fergus offers a useful discussion of publishing practices in “Conditions of Authorship for Women,” in Jane Austen: A Literary Life (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), pp. 1‐27.

  26. Jane Austen's Letters, new ed., ed. Deidre Le Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 217.

  27. Ibid., p. 197.

  28. For discussions of publishing income and its relation to authorship and authority, see Jan Fergus and Janice Farrar Thaddeus, “Women, Publishers, and Money, 1790‐1820,” Studies in Eighteenth‐Century Culture 17 (1987), pp. 198‐207.

Jane Austen's Era

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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 commercial interests evolved in confusing ways during Austen's life, and she was fully aware of this evolution. As social historian Raymond Williams wrote in The Country and the City, Austen's world was set against the backdrop of a particularly unsettled time in English social and economic history.1

Land—real property—dictated how this social world operated, and critic Tony Tanner usefully points out the etymological and thematic connections between property and Austen's other preoccupation, propriety. As Tanner shows, property rights were born as a sacred trust with John Locke's 1690 Second Treatise of Government. Sir William Blackstone's famous Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in four volumes between 1765 and 1769, discussed property rights as a law of nature. Tanner notes that laws about property offenses grew from fifty or so in 1688 to over 200 in 1820. Both economist Adam Smith and political thinker Edmund Burke also weighed in importantly on the relations between property ownership and the social order. Tanner points out that Austen's “proper” heroes all own land and, until Persuasion, her heroines all require a propertied man.2 Similarly, Alistair Duckworth's important critical study of Austen's novels starts with the premise that the estate and its inheritance and improvement are central to Austen's imagined and real worlds.3

As the structure of the English economy changed during Austen's lifetime, so did English government and society. Coal and iron technologies and steam power supported new industrial developments and brought changes in agricultural and mechanical production. Material wealth increased and posed a challenge to the monopoly of aristocratic interests, and British power grew across the globe as a consequence. Railroads and free trade would come somewhat later, but the way was paved for these developments in the final decades of the eighteenth century.

When Jane Austen was born, the family was the central institution in English life. It bestowed rank or the lack of it on its members and dictated their place and expectations in the world. Eighteenth‐century philosophers built a moral perspective on the notion that order and orderliness could coexist with enlightened self‐interest, and that society should be utilitarian. The wealthy were expected to be benevolent and charitable, and the poor hardworking and grateful. Property owners came in ranks as well, with titled proprietors of large holdings at the top of the heap, those with smaller landed holdings beneath them, and the landed gentry, those whose land holdings provided their upkeep and social standing, anchoring this group. Austen's family belonged to this last group, the gentry, although her brother Edward became a substantial landowner through his adoptive parents the Knights, and Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, and their mother eventually lived in a cottage he provided them on his estates.

At the same time, the new mercantile classes were gaining steadily in prestige and power. Trade allowed those who were not born into landed wealth to acquire it through commerce; trade provided for the rise of the “middling” or middle classes, those who could support themselves in comfort but without benefit of inherited wealth or land. Trade led to the birth of the British empire, particularly through the activities of the East India Company on the Indian subcontinent and sugar plantation owners in the West Indies. Below the merchant classes were yeoman farmers, artisans or skilled laborers, and country people who supported themselves directly from the land; and below these two groups were servants of the propertied and, increasingly, the moneyed classes.

For landed gentry families, there were two tiers in the passing of generations. Under the system of primogeniture, the eldest son inherited the whole of the estate. Daughters were provided a “portion” to facilitate their marriages, and younger sons sometimes also received a monetary settlement or annuity. But for the most part, younger sons, such as Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, had to enter a profession, generally the military or the clergy. Jane Austen's novels depict many such men, from Admiral Crofts and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion to the plethora of churchmen in Austen's novels: John Dashwood and Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Norris, Dr. Grant, and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, and Mr. Elton in Emma. The Church of England was the country's largest and richest institution in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; its twenty‐six bishops each had a cathedral with deans, canon, and prebends, and there were about 26,000 parishes that encompassed all of England and formed part of the local government (parsons also often served as Justices of the Peace).

The church was thickly intertwined with politics and economics. Patronage was the key to clerical posts, and the clergy became an overcrowded profession in Austen's time. At the end of the eighteenth century, there were 11,600 benefices, or livings, which comprised a form of property that could be put up for sale or bestowed on those their owners patronized, and there was a fair amount of trafficking and speculation in church positions. Austen's clerical characters are rectors or vicars: the difference was that rectors received all their parish's tithes, whereas vicars were paid a salary. Both augmented their income by farming the property around the church and rectory. Both positions were forms of incumbency, but as they often paid little, many clergymen held more than one post, a circumstance that was called “pluralism” and provoked some controversy. In these cases, the vicar or rector often paid a stipend to a curate to perform the actual duties of the parish church, baptizing babies, performing weddings and funerals, and conducting Sunday services, while the incumbent served as an absentee. It was also difficult for clergymen to afford to retire, hence when livings were offered for sale, the life expectancy of their incumbents was frequently part of the advertisement. Those who had livings to bestow, such as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, could offer them for sale or as gifts.4

As the eighteenth century progressed, new institutions that were devoted to caring for the very poor arose: voluntary social organizations to care for foundlings, orphans, the elderly, and the ill. There also appeared some class mobility for the first time. When they had acquired enough money, merchants could buy land and the social status that came with estate ownership (Charles Bingley does this in Pride and Prejudice). So hard work and talent could buy one's way up the social ladder. This occurred in politics as well, because individuals could participate in local governance without benefit of aristocratic birth or title.

Industrial developments in the 1780s and 1790s—the Industrial Revolution—affected population and demographics, the growth of cities, trade expansion, and the enormous increase in production of goods such as cloth and copper. Edmund Cartwright set up the first power loom in 1786, which revolutionized cotton spinning and weaving, and cotton manufacturing became the most powerful industrial interest in England. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce was founded in 1754, and the Manchester Committee for the Protection and Encouragement of Trade appeared in 1774. Coal and iron replaced wood, wind, and water as power sources. Beginning in 1775, James Watt and Matthew Boulton began to patent new types of steam engines. Factories and mines changed the natural landscape and brought new ways of thinking, new social groups, and new social problems as well as wealth and global power to England.

Two other areas experienced major advances: transportation, with an increase in roads and the use of rivers and canals, and banking, with increased circulation and availability of capital, credit, and cash. Houses began to be built of brick rather than timber; sewers were constructed and sanitation improved; and increased use of soap and pottery led, in different ways, to improvements in hygiene and personal cleanliness.

At Austen's birth, England was still largely rural, with its population spread across the countryside and in small villages. By the end of her life, towns and cities were becoming the centers of population. For example, the population of Birmingham doubled in the last 40 years of the eighteenth century. There were industrial towns (such as Manchester and Birmingham), market towns (such as Liverpool), ports (such as Portsmouth and Southampton), and specialized centers such as watering places and university towns (for example, Bath and Oxford). And, of course, London grew enormously during Austen's lifetime, with its population accounting for ten percent of the people in England.

All of these changes produced a larger divide than ever between rich and poor. Individuals could become enormously wealthy almost overnight, and the labor force that the new industries needed to sustain them also expanded at a great rate. This represented a major change from the country squire who looked after the rural poor in his neighborhood. Parish administrations could no longer handle the needs of their poor, and working conditions for laborers in the new factories were often dismal. Philanthropy did not provide enough resources to handle the problem, which required new forms of social organization.

Women and children worked in factories, especially in the cotton industry; in fact, children accounted for up to two‐thirds of the work force. Opposition to the new factory system was inspired by deplorable conditions and long hours for many workers; and social philosophers and politicians responded to the new regime of capital owners on the one hand and powerless laborers on the other with new laws. Along the way, traditional views of the social order were altered, in part because of the advent of the modern idea of class.5

In political terms, the England into which Jane Austen was born was a state run according to a Constitution written in 1688 and based on checks and balances as the guarantors of individual freedom, with the legislature (Parliament), the nobility, the executive (Prime Minister), and the King maintaining the civil order by regulating one another. The political order existed in tandem with the social order of property, the family, and professional rank and education. So inherited hierarchies and the attributes of merit coexisted in the way authority was conferred or denied. In Jane Austen's lifetime, the final decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth, social and political interests began to differentiate, the monarchy grew somewhat in power, and what we would call “public opinion” became more politically organized.

George III's madness in the late 1780s inaugurated a prolonged period during which the King relinquished most of the reins of state business, with the exception that he managed to achieve his goal of Catholic emancipation. This lasted until George III's son took over in 1811. (George himself didn't die until 1820, but the country was run by the Prince Regent, to whom Emma was dedicated at his request, from 1811 on.) William Pitt became Prime Minister in 1783, partly as a result of the American War of Independence; the loss of the war created a crisis in England. Pitt's administration set the tone of this period. Following the French Revolution, war broke out between England and France and involved two of Austen's brothers. During this period of turmoil abroad, Pitt restored national finances by reducing the national debt and expanding taxes on everything from horses to bricks to candles; put into place administrative reforms by increasing the powers of the Prime Minister; reorganized the workings of the British empire; and increased England's standing in Europe by making controversial trade agreements with Ireland and France and consolidating British holdings in Asia while the American colonies were being lost.

The American War of Independence was underway when Jane Austen was born, and the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the Peninsular War, and the War of 1812 that followed in its wake marked European politics from the late 1780s until 1815, just three years before Austen's death. English political ideas were strongly influenced by the events in France that brought an end to feudalism and the monarchy, with heated debates between the Jacobins (radicals) and the anti‐Jacobins (conservatives). As the French situation turned from revolution to repression and France turned its attention to wider European activities and became aggressive on military fronts, declaring war on Austria in 1792 and on England and Holland in 1793, the British became more Francophobic in public opinion as well as in governmental attitudes. When the French defeated the Austrians and Antwerp fell in 1792, new trade openings changed European diplomacy because France defied long‐standing commercial treaties. By 1793 the national mood in England was ready for war. The British navy, the strongest of England's armed forces and the one to which Austen's brothers Francis and Charles belonged, was the decisive military force in England.6

Starting in 1792, the English government became more repressive against those seen as agitators or as treasonous, and in 1794, the law of habeas corpus was suspended. Two acts passed in 1795, one making some kinds of speech and writing treasonous (the Treasonous Practices Act) and another that required a special permit for large public gatherings (the Seditious Meetings Act). In 1796, stamp taxes were raised for newspapers, and printing presses had to be registered. In 1799, two more acts made it difficult to organize workers' groups.

At the same time, the English government was dealing with other kinds of pressing questions: Catholic emancipation, the Irish question (there had been armed rebellion in Ireland in 1798), and the price of corn (the Corn Law Act of 1815 barred foreign corn from Britain until a price goal was met). Once the wars ended, the influx of former military personnel into the working ranks and a decrease in urban employment meant difficult times.


Jane Austen was born into the end of the relatively stable world of the neoclassical Enlightenment, but almost immediately, revolutionary wars and often violent and vehement renegotiations of social, political, economic, and philosophical ideas interrupted that stability. Revolutionary claims battled anti‐Jacobin resistance to reform, so the massive industrial and social changes of the period occurred against a backdrop of strife that fed into growing discrepancies between rich and poor. Aristocrats and landowners continued to enjoy their comforts while towns grew without benefit of sanitation systems, urban planning, or decent working conditions. When the writer and civil servant Daniel Defoe observed his country during Queen Anne's reign, he noted the orderliness of the social and economic systems. A hundred years later, the social activist William Cobbett noted that the poor had been disinherited and that rival social and economic interests dominated England.7

England was at war during most of Jane Austen's life. English soldiers fought against colonists in the American War of Independence, which ended with the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781 when Austen was six years old, although the official end did not come until the Treaty of Paris in 1783. From 1789 to 1799, the French Revolution captured the imaginations of the English, who were bitterly divided over which side to support. Beginning in 1793, England fought against France and Napoleon's bid for empire, a fight that did not end until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. And during that same period, from 1812 to 1814, England fought again with America in the War of 1812. There was periodic concern that England's coast would be invaded, and southern ports were filled with military personnel.

The birth of the middle classes introduced a relatively new distinction between the public and the private spheres. Such a distinction always existed between, for example, the state and its laws on the one hand and what went on in people's homes on the other. But something new occurred toward the end of the eighteenth century: a demarcation between the outside world of capitalist markets and rational economic and political forces and the internal world of emotion, religion, and morality. Individuals, predominantly men, began to amass power through their wealth and material activities, while behind them stood a network of family support influenced largely by women. So a sexual division of labor derived from the structure of the family itself and provided the foundation for capitalist values and enterprise outside the home.8 These private, family activities served not only as a backdrop to public life, but dictated what happened to many social institutions and ideologies.

The new middle classes had much in common with the aristocracy and the gentry in terms of their desires for comfort. At the same time, they acquired their status through individual work, so they also had affinities with the work ethic of the poor and with a desire for independence from the established orders of the past. The revolutionary fervor of the period spoke to those desires, and nonconformist writers and thinkers as disparate as William Cowper, Austen's favorite poet, and the political theorists Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine, spoke out against the corruption of those in power and the need for liberatory reforms. Not surprisingly, there was also a backlash of reaction against such calls for reform. Not until the Reform Act of 1832 (the backdrop for George Eliot's 1872 novel, Middlemarch) did middle class households get some political clout, although, ironically, that act explicitly excluded women from political enfranchisement. And through it all, land remained the particular form of property ownership that conferred an authority unavailable from other forms of wealth.

A religious revival in England accompanied these social changes, as people became interested in the idea of individual salvation and turned to Evangelism.9 The notion of a shared moral code united people from different walks of life—farmers and landowners, manufacturers and factory workers, Whigs and Tories, Anglicans and Puritans. This Evangelism coupled Protestant individualism with humanitarian ideas, public piety and strict morality, and unbending standards of personal conduct. Opponents of the French Revolution made much of the revolutionaries' supposed atheism; to be a supporter of the Constitution meant to be a good Christian, and to be a Jacobin was to be unpatriotic. Beginning as an anti‐Jacobin reaction, the new religiosity persisted into the Victorian era. The Church of England, of which Austen was a member, continued to control the majority of England's religious activity, but dissenting groups such as the Evangelicals and the Wesleyan Methodists, not to mention the Roman Catholics, raised issues about everything from spirituality to clerical absenteeism (an issue for Austen in Mansfield Park) to political scandals. There was a staunch moral earnestness that made manners and morals into social and philosophical issues.

Austen's novels illustrate, perhaps better than anything else from the period, the crucial ways in which private behavior toward others stood in for broader questions of merit, social standing, and authority. Humanitarian ideals fostered by increased religiosity brought many religious sects into anti‐slavery activities, as public opinion became more independent. The abolition of the slave trade in 1807, despite powerful opposition from vested economic interests, demonstrated this free thinking, and in 1834 all slaves in the British empire were freed.10 There is evidence in Austen's novels that Jane Austen held abolitionist sympathies. In Emma, Mrs. Elton and Jane Fairfax have a conversation concerning Mrs. Elton's offer of help in finding a situation for Jane as a governess.

“When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.”

“Oh! My dear, human flesh! You quite shock me: if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely differnt certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”11

In Mansfield Park, where the Bertram fortune derives from Sir Thomas's plantation holdings in Antigua and the slave‐driven economy of the West Indies, a conversation between Fanny Price and her cousin Edmund turns to Sir Thomas's new esteem for his young niece after his return from Antigua. Edmund suggests that Fanny should talk to her uncle more:

“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?”

“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like—I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.”12

Claire Tomalin argues that Fanny's abolitionist views are made clear by this exchange.13

Jane Austen's favorite poet was William Cowper, known as a vehement abolitionist. The Austens themselves had family connections to the slave trade; Austen's father, George Austen, was a trustee of a plantation in Antigua that belonged to one of his Oxford friends, James Nibbs. Claudia Johnson has made the persuasive point that Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park represents the ideal of the benevolent slave‐owner, and that his kindness to Fanny stems from the same impulse of caring paternalism that assumes that dependents are better off being looked after than being granted autonomy.14 In this way, Jane Austen may have made connections between the plight of enslaved Africans and the situation of dependent women.

Home, or cottage, industries, became fewer because home manufacture could no longer compete with the new machinery, particularly in the textile industry. This development impoverished many rural households and put many women, especially single women, out of work. Many women joined men in fieldwork, and others went to work in factories or as servants in the homes of people better off than they were. Women thus had access to fewer roles and occupations, and they were beset by more expectations about what a “proper lady” should be.

Other than dancing and occasional equestrian exercise or walking, middle‐ and upper‐class women got little physical exercise. So in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet decides to visit her ailing sister at Netherfield, her mother objects that there is too much dirt and that she will not be fit to be seen when she arrives.

Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of excerise.15

She is received with polite surprise by the Bingleys: “That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it.”16

Home and family dictated the world of women in Jane Austen's time. When capital became liquid and the middle classes redefined notions of property, women could leave production and be supported by their husbands (or fathers or brothers, as was the case for the Austen women after George Austen's death in 1805). At the same time, as marriage became based on the idea of a contract, the position of married women with respect to property became more encumbered by patriarchal ideologies of inheritance. Married women were unable to hold property until the landmark Married Women's Property Acts of 1870 and 1882.17 Property was the key determinant of wealth and status in Austen's lifetime, because ownership of land continued to dominate the economic structure at the end of the eighteenth century. Commerce and credit were coming into play, but “real property” still meant land.


Jane Austen's family was orthodox in its views: Church of England religious ideas and conservative Tory politics. The Austen family belonged to what we would call the upper middle class; they were members of the gentry class that produced landowners, clergymen, military officers, and women with domestic accomplishments and a basic literary education. Austen's novels are justly famous for their highly detailed and meticulously observed portrait of daily life among the English country gentry. Austen depicted a wide range of character types, from the haughty, aristocratic, overbearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice to the misguided commonsensical Lady Russell in Persuasion, and from the caddishly charming Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility to the moralistic but ambivalently motivated Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park and the self‐deludedly intelligent title character of Emma. Austen had a brilliant ear for realistic dialogue and an amazing intuition about human drama.

A woman of Austen's class was best situated to document the private world of human interaction: the subtle ways that families were built or destroyed; the casual interactions between the sexes and the formal relations that ensued and dictated family power, wealth, and lineage; and how people negotiated between moral strictures and human desires.

Education was a major component of domestic change. Upper‐class men had had access to an elite, formal education in Europe since the Middle Ages. In the eighteenth century, forms of education also became available to women and to the poor. Women were given greater access to book learning at home and sometimes were sent off to schools, as the Austen girls were, for several years. The poor had charity schools, though many still argued that these institutions would engender insubordination. One of the major proponents of broad schooling was the reformist philanthropist Hannah More, who opened a school for the poor that local farmers thought would incite children to be disaffected from their families and their lot in life.

Jane Austen received some formal training, but mostly she had the advantage of her father's extensive library. Here is her brother Henry's account of her intellectual accomplishments:

Her reading was very extensive in history and belles letters; and her memory extremely tenacious. Her favourite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse. It is difficult to say at what age she was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language. Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in “Sir Charles Grandison,” gratified the natural discrimination of her mind, whilst her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative. She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high.18

So Austen had something a woman of her class and place might not have had even fifty years earlier: books and the ability to read.

Education in history, philosophy, and poetry was especially important for women because conversation was one of the arts an elegant, well‐bred woman needed for social success. The Bertram sisters study at home in Mansfield Park and know how to read maps, and in Emma, Harriet Smith receives her training at a boarding school for girls. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Emma Woodhouse in Emma demonstrate most powerfully the scope and importance of a woman's ability to be articulate.

In addition to religious training and an education in letters, Jane Austen participated in the range of activities that were considered to be “feminine accomplishments” in the late eighteenth century. She was competent with a needle and made clothing and household textiles; she could draw and paint; she sang and played the pianoforte; and she was a prolific letter‐writer. Darcy's sister plays the harp in Pride and Prejudice, as does Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. Art and music rounded out the most central of women's expected accomplishments, which was needlework.

Much emphasis was placed on a woman's talent at embroidery and the neatness of her handwriting, and Austen excelled in both of these areas—she made shirts for her brothers, stitched a shawl for Cassandra in muslin with satin embroidery, and embroidered handkerchiefs. In 1811 Jane, Cassandra, and their mother created a patchwork quilt. Sometimes young women worked a sampler to complete their education in household skills. In Sense and Sensibility, Charlotte Palmer demonstrates the fruits of her education by displaying a landscape in colored silk. Lady Bertram spends her days doing needlework in Mansfield Park, and Mrs. Jennings makes a rug in Sense and Sensibility. Other artistic hobbies in the home included cutting paper, making designs with shells, and painting with watercolors. These skills fell into the sphere of women's activities; each of them could be undertaken in one's own home or in the homes of others. And certainly one of the goals of perfecting these accomplishments, like the goal of conversational decorum, was to draw the admiration of a suitable young man.

Austen's early anti‐heroine, Lady Susan, sends an account to her confidante that satirizes prevailing ideas about women's accomplishments. After writing about her daughter Frederica's education, she remarks that she herself lacks the usual feminine skills.

Not that I am an advocate for the prevailing fashion of acquiring a perfect knowledge in all the Languages Arts & Sciences; it is throwing time away; to be Mistress of French, Italian, German, Music, Singing, Drawing &c. will gain a Woman some applause, but will not add one Lover to her list. Grace & Manner after all are of the greatest importance. I do not mean therefore that Frederica's acquirements should be more than superficial, & I flatter myself that she will not remain long enough at school to understand anything thoroughly.19

While ridiculing the conflation of surface talents with the pitched battle to win a socially and economically appropriate husband, a battle fought feverishly in the novel, Lady Susan's speech nevertheless suggests the stakes involved in preparing women for society. Compare it with the more sophisticated addition Darcy makes to the usual list of “music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages” as well as “a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions” in Pride and Prejudice. “All this she must possess,” he says, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”20

Like Lady Susan, but utterly without her manipulative motives, Catherine Morland's mother in Northanger Abbey “did not insist on her daughters being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste.” Catherine's happiest day is when her music‐master is dismissed, and she is described as equally mediocre at drawing, French, and accounts. On the other hand, Catherine's ignorance comes in for some satire when the narrator suggests that her shame about her lack of accomplishments is misplaced, as ignorance is a virtue in a woman who wants to attract a man. “To come with a well‐informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid,” the narrator writes. “A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.”21 Yet both Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey present, in very different ways, the necessity that a young woman seek an acceptable husband. An unmarried woman risks poverty and humiliation and, as Elizabeth Watson points out in The Watsons, “my Father cannot provide for us, & it is very bad to grow old & be poor & laughed at.”22 This fear pervades Austen's writings.

Austen was also a competent dancer, card player, and dramatic reader, social endeavors that occupied leisure time in country villages. Country dances and balls featured prominently in Austen's life, as they do in her novels. Such dance assemblies had been around for several centuries, but they became especially ritualized events in Austen's time, when dancing was the most popular and most important recreational activity. For a local country dance, someone who could play the piano and wasn't dancing, often an older married woman, provided musical accompaniment, and the music consisted of dance tunes that we would now label as baroque or classical. Several couples (at least three) “stood up” with one another to dance, and they formed separate lines, with the men and women facing one another. Then they proceeded through a sequence of movements or figures in which they would advance and retreat, lock arms and swing one another around, or weave their way through the other couples. Sometimes everyone danced at once, and other times each couple did their set of figures in turn, following the lead couple, in groups that were called “sets.”

Austen made important narrative use of the time a couple stood and watched the others, as these moments provided sanctioned time for an unmarried man and woman to be alone and to converse in private in an acceptable way. These moments also provided useful narrative opportunities for eavesdropping. In Austen's time, a country dance remained a highly social, even intimate, community gathering.

A ball differed from a country dance in that it was much larger, public, and entailed much stricter rules of etiquette. A young girl might participate casually in a country dance at the home of friends or relations, but to attend a ball required that she had officially “come out.” Coming out entailed a formal entry into womanhood and into matrimonial availability. In Mansfield Park, for example, Mary Crawford asks whether Fanny Price is out, because this is crucial information among young women looking for husbands.23

An orchestra provided the music at balls and the décor was often elaborate. Invitations went out weeks in advance and replies were expected almost immediately. A supper room was set up in a space separated from the dance floor, and a cloakroom was provided for attendees' wraps. At a very public gathering, a master of ceremonies made sure that decorum was maintained and introduced gentlemen to ladies they did not know. For example, Mr. King, the actual Master of Ceremonies of the Upper Rooms at Bath during the period the novel takes place, introduces Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Introductions are also stressed at the assembly that opens Austen's unfinished fragment The Watsons, where readers can find detailed information about such events and the way they worked. Events where dancing took place were carefully chaperoned and regulated, and the highly codified rules of dancing informed Austen's plots.

A woman could not dance with a man to whom she had not been properly introduced, and it was considered improper for a woman to dance more than two dances with the same partner unless they were engaged or married. The hostess or her eldest daughter would begin the dancing with a gentleman of appropriate rank. Emma is annoyed, for example, when Mrs. Elton's status as a new bride mandates that she be asked to begin the ball in Emma. Once engaged to dance with a gentleman, a woman could not accept further offers to dance with others. Dancers took time out for supper, and a standard refreshment was a hot spiked wine punch or soup called negus, mentioned as the refreshment in The Watsons.24

A highly charged discussion of dancing as a social metaphor occurs in Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney proposes that dancing serves as an analogue for marriage. He offers the theory that an engagement to dance represents a contract between the parties. “I consider a country‐dance as an emblem of marriage,” Henry says to Catherine Morland. “Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not chuse to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.” Catherine remonstrates that the two things are very different, in that “People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together” whereas “People that dance, only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour.” Henry extends his metaphor in response, arguing that in both dancing and marriage, the man has the advantage of choosing while the woman can only accept or refuse, that both contracts are exclusive and involve duty and fidelity, and that the chief difference lies in a turnabout in the obligations. In marriage, the man must support while the woman please, whereas in dancing, the man is expected to please “while she furnishes the fan and the lavender water.”25

Those who did not dance often played cards, and card games took place in the evenings after dinner parties as well. Popular card games in Austen's day consisted of, among others, whist, speculation, loo, casino, and quadrille. Whist, like bridge, required a set number of players. Loo and speculation were “round” games, which meant that any number could play. A set of games was called a “rubber.” The Watsons contains some detailed discussions of card‐playing both at the opening ball, where the game of choice is casino, and at a later social visit, where there is a sharp competition between the games speculation and vingt‐un (twenty‐one) for social superiority. Casino is the game of choice for Lady Middleton in Sense and Sensibility. This game entailed trying to match your cards until they were all used up. Mrs. Bates in Emma favors quadrille, which was played by four people using a deck from which the 8s, 9s, and 10s had been removed; it was a variant of ombre, an older game that was disappearing by Austen's time. Quadrille resembled whist and had a trump suit. A game of speculation figures in Mansfield Park. This is a round game with a trump suit: Players sought to get a card higher than the one displayed as trump; and they could sell the card if they chose. The player with the highest card won. Whist was played by two couples with the partners sitting opposite one another and is the ancestor of bridge; the partners tried to match each other's suits. Round games seem to have been played by younger people and entailed a rowdier, less serious demeanor. In Mansfield Park, the speculation players are portrayed as enjoying themselves more than the older, stodgier whist players, who conducted their game in silence.

More intimate social gatherings such as visits to neighbors and dinner parties occupied Jane Austen's time as well. As with dances, there were more elaborate rules of etiquette required by these social rituals than exist today. For example, visitors to one another's homes left a calling card, a small card bearing the visitor's name. The use of cards presupposed a servant to answer the door and take the card to the master or mistress or (if they were “not in”) to place it in the card tray for their later inspection. People often displayed these cards in a dish in the hallway or on the mantel as signs of their social status, as they provided a way to show off one's connections in society. And visits needed to be returned in kind in order not to risk impoliteness and social censure. These visits occurred in the morning. The time category “morning” referred to daylight hours and could last until dinner.

Later in the day, the social gathering of choice was the dinner party. In addition to serving one's guests food and drink, these gatherings served as ways to increase one's social acquaintance. Dinner was prepared and brought to the table by servants, but they were not addressed or spoken about during the meal. After dessert, the women adjourned to the drawing (or “withdrawing”) room for tea while the men drank port and sometimes smoked (neither of these activities was acceptable behavior in front of women). Later, the men joined the women for tea and conversation. In London during the social “season,” dinner guests often proceeded to a ball or assembly at this point.

Rules of etiquette were stringent and strictly defined by gender. Men were introduced to women and not the other way around, and a man waited for a woman to acknowledge or speak to him before he approached or nodded to her. Introductions in general were formal, ritualized, and based on hierarchies. For example, Elizabeth Bennet is highly distressed in Pride and Prejudice when the obsequious Mr. Collins insists on introducing himself to his social better, Mr. Darcy. A man also looked after women in various ways: walking or riding along the street side, taking the backward‐facing seat in a carriage, entering a public place first to find a seat for his female companion, removing his hat when women were present, and so on. An unmarried woman under thirty would not usually be in a man's company without a chaperone, and she did not often walk alone other than in a park or to church in the morning. Outdoors, a man and woman could converse only while walking; they would not simply stand in the street to talk, hence the occasional invitation in an Austen novel to “take a turn” round the gardens or wherever the couple happened to be.

Throughout Austen's private correspondence and often in her novels, there is discussion of visiting the homes of relations and friends for what appear to modern readers as extended periods of time. Explanations for these lengthy visits involve the practical details of travel at the turn of the nineteenth century. In the days before the railroad made long‐distance travel more feasible, roads were poor and travel took place by horse‐drawn carriage or coach. So there was little point, and no practicality, to making a visit that lasted only a few days when the getting there and returning was so arduous and uncomfortable (for example, springs were not invented until the 1790s, and prior to the ability to suspend the coach, a coach ride was stiff and quite grim). During these visits, men spent their days hunting and fishing, while the women went for walks, wrote letters, or went on brief excursions to town; the day's big event was a formal dinner followed by cards or other games.

Mail or stage coaches (so called because they proceeded in stages with fresh horses) took ordinary people long distances. Private carriages of different sorts—such as barouches and landaus, gigs and curricles—had greater social status. These would be additional vehicles (on the order of a second or sports car today), as a family of wealth required a coach‐and‐four for general transportation. In some cases, as with Mrs. Long and the Hearst family in Pride and Prejudice, the family owned the coach but hired the horses. Most of Austen's characters drive in gigs, which were one‐horse carriages that could carry two people. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland favors the curricle, essentially a gig that accommodates two horses so costs more and has more prestige value, over the chaise and four, a sturdier and more sedate means of transportation. The coachman for the Bertrams in Mansfield Park worries about the scratches on his carriage as he is in charge of maintaining the equipage. In general, these vehicles carried the kind of status symbolism that characterizes today's cars. They are toys and prized possessions as well as the means of transportation.

As Austen's novels amply demonstrate, the point of the social life young women led was to yield an appropriate marriage partner. Professional employment for women was out of the question. Jane Austen herself earned money from her writing—enough to increase her comfort and that of her sister and mother—but still an inadequate amount to offer them any real independence. Fanny Price considers with a shudder the dire prospects of returning to life in an impoverished port city with a dissolute father and ill‐mannered mother and siblings in Mansfield Park.

The continuation of families and the consolidation and maintenance of real property depended upon the orderly and socially acceptable marriages of a family's children, and it was especially crucial that daughters find suitable men to take them off the hands of their fathers and brothers. A woman could not marry without her parents' permission until 1823, a detail made stark in Pride and Prejudice when it is pointedly underscored that Lydia and Wickham are in London and have not gone to Gretna Green, just across the border in Scotland, to marry. (After 1823, girls and boys could marry without consent at the startlingly young ages of twelve and fourteen, respectively.)

The institution of marriage underwent some change during the course of the eighteenth century, with the 1753 passage of Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act the key event. After the Marriage Act took effect in 1754, only a church wedding legally bound a couple to one another. Prior to 1754, marriage involving a propertied family consisted of five parts: a written legal contract between the couple's parents, stipulating financial arrangements; a formal exchange of oral vows, termed “spousals,” usually before witnesses; three public proclamations of the banns in church to permit claims of pre‐contract to be heard; a church wedding; and, finally, the sexual consummation of the marriage. However, the spousals or oral contract were legally binding in and of themselves: any sort of exchange before witnesses followed by cohabitation constituted a legally valid marriage. In Scotland, Wales, and parts of the southwest of England, the “handfast” was considered an adequate sign of marriage, and unscrupulous clergymen conducted a thriving trade in marriages performed with no questions asked about age or parental consent. The Marriage Act changed that.26

After 1754, the only recourse for eloping couples was flight to Scotland, where the new Marriage Act did not apply and a new trade in commercial marriage arose. Marriage was by and large indissoluble except by death; divorce that permitted remarriage was not available within the Church of England, so an unhappy couple could separate with a financial settlement, but neither of them was free to remarry. But by Scottish law, any unchaperoned meeting or an elopement that crossed the border constituted a marriage—and was therefore valid in England. Hence the feverish quality with which the Bennets and Gardiners speculate about whether Lydia and Wickham are “gone to Scotland” (282 and 290) and their palpable relief when they learn that the lovers are in London.27

As the frantic search for the eloped Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice illustrates, courtship is a solemn matter of enormous consequence for all parties, and families often intervened. Once the principals and the parents of the bride‐to‐be agreed upon an engagement, serious economic negotiations ensued and produced detailed, legal marriage settlements. One's place in the larger society depended upon these family connections. The financial health of the whole family often depended on one good marriage among its children. Elizabeth Bennet's marriage to the generous and wealthy Fitzwilliam Darcy sets up the whole clan in comfort in Pride and Prejudice. General Tilney opposes the connection between his son Henry and Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey when he discovers that he was mistaken in thinking Catherine an heiress. In Emma, Mr. Knightley supports Harriet Smith's connection with the farmer Robert Martin; he recognizes that Emma's ambitions for Harriet will be frustrated by the fact that Harriet's lack of family prevents her from aspiring higher in social rank. And, perhaps most poignantly, Charlotte Lucas is willing to settle for Mr. Collins in preference to a life of dependence in Pride and Prejudice.

Austen's lifetime represents the period when, some historians have argued, it became the norm for people to marry for love—or at least to expect that they could find appropriate partners for whom they could feel esteem and affection. This view has been hotly contested by social historians, and probably applies more to the upper bourgeoisie and the aristocracy than to the poor or even the gentry.28 Nevertheless, Austen's novels are a study in the development and care of the companionate marriage, and historical evidence supports the idea that finding a mate with whom one could share conjugal love became a greater priority and subject of discussion in the eighteenth century than it had been in earlier periods in England.29 A young woman's life could be influenced in complex and fraught ways by the marital options at her disposal. All of Austen's novels attest to the rich narrative possibilities represented by the courtship plot.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England and throughout the European continent produced an art and culture that has attracted scholars as well as appreciators of the visual arts, music, architecture, and literature. In England, Franz Joseph Haydn composed music, J. M. W. Turner and John Constable painted, and Georgian architecture lent itself to some of the finest domestic buildings in English history, landscaped with the aesthetic ideas of garden designers such as Humphrey Repton and Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Classical order still reigned when Austen was born, but was soon challenged by the Romantic idealism engendered by revolutionary politics and social change. Austen's literary contemporaries included William Blake and William Wordsworth among poets, Frances Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, and Maria Edgeworth among novelists, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft among social theorists who also wrote novels, and Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine among economic and political thinkers. It was a time of cultural richness and diversity, and of artistic ferment.


  1. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).

  2. Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (London: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 16‐17. Neither Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility nor Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park are themselves inheritors of estates, but they both come from established landowning families, and they both achieve clerical livings adequate for the support of a family. For a broader discussion of land ownership and its social ramifications, see F. M. L. Thompson, Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963).

  3. Alistair M. Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971).

  4. For a discussion of the complexities of church positions, see Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy (London: Hambledon Press, 1993).

  5. The terms “common people” and “lower orders” referred to the working poor through most of the eighteenth century; class terminology came into use during the 1790s.

  6. For a detailed account of England's role in the Napoleonic wars, see Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement, 1783‐1867 (London: Longman, 1959), pp. 129‐83.

  7. For a discussion, see G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria (London: Longmans, Green and Co., Ltd., 1944), pp. 463‐66.

  8. A fine book about the role of gender in the development of modern capitalism is Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780‐1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

  9. Over 100 religious periodicals began publication between 1790 and 1820, and for many people these would have been the main reading material in the home. See A. D. Gilbert and T. W. Laqueur, Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture 1780‐1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976).

  10. After May 1807 ships could not legally sail with slaves from any port in the British empire. The slave trade continued illegally, however, and remained divisive and controversial.

  11. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. IV, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 300‐01.

  12. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. III, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 198. Brian Southam has argued that Mansfield Park takes place in the years 1810‐1813, after the abolition of the slave trade (that is, after it became illegal to transport slaves by ship; slavery itself continued). Hence, the Bertram silence when Fanny raises the subject. See Brian Southam, “The Silence of the Bertrams,” Times Literary Supplement (17 February 1995), pp. 13‐14.

  13. Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 230.

  14. Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 107. Johnson discusses the passages in Mansfield Park and in Emma.

  15. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. II, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 32.

  16. The Novels of Jane Austen, 3rd ed., Vol. II, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 32‐33. This passage is a fine example of Austen's use of free, indirect style to represent the thoughts of people without quoting them directly.

  17. For a comprehensive history of married women and property law, see Susan Staves, Married Women's Separate Property in England, 1660‐1833 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

  18. Henry Austen, “Biographical Notice of the Author,” published in 1818 as the front matter to the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion and reprinted in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Vol. V of The Novels of Jane Austen, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 7.

  19. The Works of Jane Austen, Vol. VI: Minor Works, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 253.

  20. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. II, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 39.

  21. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. V, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 14; 110‐111.

  22. Ibid., p. 317.

  23. There are useful discussions of many of these issues in Susan Watkins, Jane Austen: In Style (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990).

  24. For a useful discussion of dancing and other social activities as Jane Austen depicted them, see David Selwyn, Jane Austen and Leisure (London: The Hambledon Press, 1999).

  25. Op. cit., pp. 76‐77.

  26. For a discussion of marriage practices, see Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500‐1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).

  27. See the article on “Marriage” in The New Companion to Scottish Culture (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1993), pp. 208‐10.

  28. The theory of the development of “affective individualism” is connected largely with Lawrence Stone's influential and controversial book, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500‐1800 (New York, Harper & Row, 1977); the phrase is Stone's. See also Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York: Basic Books, 1975), Randolph Trumbach, The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth‐Century England (New York: Academic Press, 1978), and John R. Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). The book that inaugurated the modern study of family social history is Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (New York: Knopf, 1962).

  29. For other discussions, see Jean H. Hagstrum, Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) and Joseph Allen Boone, Tradition Counter Tradition: Love and the Form of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Jane Austen's Works

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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 reveals Austen's comprehensive knowledge of eighteenth‐century prose traditions, her interest in the nature of women's voices in eighteenth‐century narrative, and her sense of how those traditions and voices might be recast. The most common narrative device she used for this work is that of presenting a series of letters. The juvenilia mimic and puncture the conventions of the popular sentimental fiction of the decades that preceded them, and rework some of those conventions in what are Austen's earliest experiments with narrative presence and narrative voice.

Some of the juvenile pieces are brief anecdotes, while others are more extended burlesques. Many are mere fragments and remain static, and others begin in midstream. There is a tough mind at work here, as Austen shows little mercy to the targets of her satire. As with her later fiction, she attacks vanity and hypocrisy and ridicules superficiality and self‐importance. The attacks are real, but so is the sense of mischief that softens them. Austen's subject matter ranges from the decoration of a new carriage to murder, adultery, tea, fainting fits, letter‐writing, shoes and bonnets, and the trappings of domestic civility. She practices deploying various rhetorical modes and moral stances, and hones her command of language and ironic wit.


Love and Freindship (this was Austen's spelling) is the best known of Austen's juvenile writings, and the earliest whose transcript bears a date (13 June 1790). She was not yet fifteen when she wrote it, and it is an extended joke on epistolary form and on sentimental fiction. Already in this early work, Austen demonstrates a literary sophistication capable of dissecting both the forms of storytelling and the inherent absurdity of popular sentimental themes. Most comic epistolary intrigues depend upon a continuous revisionism: Each letter corrects, amends, interprets, or contradicts the perceptions gathered in the letter before it. Love and Freindship, however, opens with a jab at the conventional apologies that had been synonymous with epistolary novels, undercutting the immediacy of “writing to the moment” that Samuel Richardson had claimed for the form, in which the heroine traditionally fends off unwanted suitors with one hand while writing frantically, and often in the present tense, with the other.

The subject of this hilarious burlesque is “[a] sensibility too tremblingly alive” and the moral is “beware of fainting fits.… Beware of swoons.”1 The story revolves around exaggerated outbursts of emotion, or rather, around the collected, objective, retrospective description of such outbursts, as “Sophia shrieked & fainted on the Ground—I screamed and instantly ran mad—. We remained thus mutually deprived of our Senses some minutes, & on regaining them were deprived of them again—” (p. 99). The humor derives not so much from the instantaneous swooning depicted, which would be merely silly in a third‐person narrative, as from the absurdity of a retrospective account of such behavior. The epistolary framework of the story gives it a direct address that claims an utter lack of self‐consciousness: “It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself—We fainted alternately on a Sofa” (p. 86).

Austen parodies her heroines' hothouse sensibilities by overemphasis as well as by a near‐maniacal linguistic skewering of the conventional gestures of sentimentalism in the eighteenth‐century novel. Laura's and Sophia's fainting fits also serve as an ironic commentary on the decorative role of women. These heroines manipulate and exaggerate the outward appearance of frailty in order to gain power over others. The heroines' helplessness is a façade, much like the epistolary form in which it is couched. As fainting suggests female frailty and invalidism, so the letter promises an authentic intimacy and confidentiality that it does not deliver.


Sir Charles Grandison or The Happy Man, billed as “A comedy in Five Acts,” is a slight dramatic work and the only play of any length that Jane Austen wrote. It is based on Samuel Richardson's seven‐volume novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, published in 1753 and 1754. The manuscript remained in the family of Austen's oldest brother, James, and was commonly thought to have been the work of James's oldest daughter, Anna Austen Lefroy, but it is in Jane Austen's hand. The manuscript's existence was not widely known outside the Austen family until it emerged in 1977, stunningly, as a “new” work by Jane Austen. Critical consensus now makes it part of the Austen canon, and Brian Southam published a scholarly edition in 1980, with a Foreword by Lord David Cecil.2

Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison is not as well known as his earlier novels, Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), and remains virtually unread. But it was the favorite Richardson novel of the Austen family. Southam refers to the book's “chilling reputation for long‐windedness and tedium, and its unstomachably perfect hero.” Grandison represents exemplary goodness as a Christian virtue, and is “a paragon of gentle gentlemanliness, of English virtues and Christian benevolence, Chaucer's ‘verray parfit gentil knight’ translated into the mid‐Augustan chivalry of domestic honour, social cultivation, and the errantry of good works.”3 Given the perfection of his hero, it is no wonder that the Austen family found Richardson's novel ripe for burlesque treatment in a family theatrical performance.

Austen's Sir Charles Grandison belongs with her earlier, slight juvenile work; it is, essentially, an extended joke. There are amusing moments for an Austen reader. Sir Hargrave Pollexfen announces, “I wish women were not quite so delicate, with all their faints and fits!” (p. 42). Charlotte Grandison, Sir Charles's willful sister, presents the satirical view to the heroine, “There is something monstrous frightful, to be sure, my dear Harriet, in marrying a man that one likes” (p. 55). On the whole, however, Austen's Sir Charles Grandison cannot compete for stylistic mastery or ironic meaning with the more accomplished of her early work such as Love and Freindship [sic].



The plot of Northanger Abbey uses a device standard to many eighteenth‐ and nineteenth‐century novels: A young woman is either bereft of parental, and especially maternal, guidance, or she finds herself in a situation where this guidance is unavailable to her, or she is given parental figures who are unable or unwilling to provide guidance. Thus the heroine is left on her own to form judgments, make decisions, and forge her way in the world. Catherine Morland's childhood is unexceptional, and her key characteristic is an addiction to reading gothic romances, especially those of Ann Radcliffe.4 At first glance, she does not appear to embody the usual trappings of a heroine, as the novel's first sentence points out: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.”5

Catherine visits Bath under the chaperonage of the Allens, kind but rather ineffectual people, so she is separated from her family and set more or less on her own. In Bath, Catherine forms a friendship with the vapid Isabella Thorpe, and she meets the Tilney siblings, Henry and Eleanor, when Henry arranges to be introduced to her and asks her to dance. She forms an attachment to Henry without fully understanding her own mind. In contrast to the manipulative and self‐interested Thorpes, the Tilneys represent good breeding and good family, as well as landed wealth. John Thorpe, Isabella's brother, is pushy, self‐absorbed, and boorish. The Thorpes incorrectly believe the Morlands to be wealthy, and Isabella sets out to capture Catherine's brother James. John pursues Catherine, who is too naïve and blind to social nuances and expectations to realize what he is about. The jealous John Thorpe thwarts Catherine's growing intimacy with the Tilney family.

The central action of Northanger Abbey concerns Catherine's four‐week visit to the house of the title's name, the home of the Tilneys. There she receives her education, in the form of disenchantment from the illusions and fantasies she has harbored about Gothic buildings and the secrets they might hold. Each time she wanders into a corridor or room expecting darkness and cobwebs, she finds light and space. Having talked herself into and out of various sinister surmises and suspicions, including the notion that General Tilney had mistreated his wife, Henry finally sets her right with a famous speech.

Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understaning, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you—Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetuated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay every thing open?

(Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, pp. 197‐98)

Catherine retreats from this speech with tears of shame: “The visions of romance were over” (p. 199).

Yet, having been humbled by the absurdity of imagining General Tilney a murderer and Montoni‐like villain, she misses something more plausible but equally sinister. When General Tilney learns that she has no wealth or portion and believes that she has imposed upon his family, he treats her with real cruelty by abruptly sending her away to travel seventy miles alone by post, and without understanding her offense. When she finally learns the truth, it appears that “in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty” (p. 247).

Catherine returns to Fullerton after an absence of eleven weeks, and the narrator gives us an ironic picture of this homecoming to an ordinary country village. Her parents and siblings, who join her in the realization that General Tilney has been inhospitable and dishonorable, greet Catherine warmly. Her heart has been broken and her illusions shattered because of money. Throughout this novel, Austen offers detailed discussions of estates and expectations in the form of raw numbers. In Northanger Abbey, more than in Austen's later novels where economic foundations are equally present, the reader learns the details of exactly how much wealth each character commands.

But, of course, Northanger Abbey is a comedy of manners and must end happily with the settling of the hero and heroine into a marital bliss approved by both their families, and such does occur in due course. Henry breaks faith with his father in a quarrel and follows Catherine home, where he behaves very much like an Austen hero, making his professions of love without the narrative quoting him directly: “his first purpose was to explain himself, and before they reached Mr. Allen's grounds he had done it so well, that Catherine did not think it could ever be repeated too often” (p. 243). Among the earliest of Austen's six major novels in composition date, Northanger Abbey is also the lightest. A comedy of manners like the other novels, Northanger Abbey at the same time parodies the popular genre of the Gothic romance with which the protagonists are so enamored, and whose heroines Henry Tilney refers to as “Julias and Louisa” (p. 107). At the same time that she makes fun of this sensational, hothouse genre (while extolling the virtues of engrossing fictional entertainments and giving Ann Radcliffe her due as a skillful and imaginative storyteller), Austen also portrays her main character as wanting the life of a romance heroine while actually being a thoroughly ordinary young bourgeois woman with a good heart, very little experience or psychological insight, and a tendency to occasional lapses of rational judgment. Well‐educated, widely read, worldly, and prone to intelligent raillery, Henry Tilney represents the mentor figure who teaches Catherine how to read situations and people, how to ascribe motives to others, and how to know her own mind. Henry is a younger and more casual and forgiving version of Austen's later mentor‐hero, Mr. Knightley, in Emma.

Catherine Morland remains bluntly straightforward in saying what she thinks, thinks the best of everyone until forced to recognize that many people have flaws, and believes what she reads until humiliation makes her realize that common sense does not always accord with romance fiction. People are not what they seem to be, and neither are circumstances or even physical environments.

Northanger Abbey establishes Austen's novel‐writing artistry by building on, playing off, and ultimately differentiating itself from the popular strain of women's fiction of the period. Austen takes on a powerful foremother in Ann Radcliffe, and she uses irony to turn General Tilney into a bourgeois villain and to make his treatment of Catherine underscore the ways in which she represents an ordinary bourgeois woman who slowly learns to think for herself and trust her own moral instincts. Disenchanted at the end, Catherine is nevertheless rewarded with the love of a handsome, comfortable, and kind hero who understands her and loves her for the artless person she is.

Like Don Quixote before her and Emma Bovary after her, Catherine Morland has read too much and believed too much in her formative reading of romances and fantasies. Unlike them, she forms an adult mind of her own in the course of the novel. The narrative irony of Northanger Abbey emphasizes these lessons, as Catherine's views are formed in subtle moments of realization. Irony is nowhere used to greater effect than when the narrator, largely through the consciousness of Henry Tilney, makes fun of the propensities of Gothic fiction, as Catherine's “passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney” (p. 141).

Catherine and the Tilneys discuss literature and history in addition to theories of the picturesque in landscape and attitudes toward drawing and taste. This extended conversation covers many kinds of reading and intellectual reverie and includes remarks about the play between fact and invention in historical writings. Catherine has little patience for the “quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome” (p. 108). Catherine also paints an interesting picture of the sort of home schooling many children received when she comments that learning one's letters can be torturous. “You think me foolish to call instruction a torment,” she tells Henry and Eleanor Tilney, “but if you had been as much used as myself to hear poor little children first learning their letters and then learning to spell, if you had ever seen how stupid they can be for a whole morning together, and how tired my poor mother is at the end of it, as I am in the habit of seeing almost every day of my life at home, you would allow that to torment and to instruct might sometimes be used as synonymous words” (pp. 109‐10).

In many ways, Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen's novel of education. As reading is a central activity in Northanger Abbey, the novel serves as a precursor to the more psychological focus on the cognitive development of Austen's later and more complex protagonist, Emma Woodhouse of Emma, a woman who begins many books but completes few.6

Because the parody of a popular genre so defines Northanger Abbey, it is especially compelling that this is the work in which Austen offers up her most powerful defense of the novel as a legitimate genre of social commentary and literary artistry. Thus Northanger Abbey represents Austen's most self‐conscious and self‐reflexive work of fiction. While the Tilneys offer a spirited defense of the pleasures of serious history, in the end Catherine Morland and the comic novel carry the day.


During the final editing of Sense and Sensibility in April of 1811, Austen remarked to her sister Cassandra: “I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child.”7 Written at around the same time as Northanger Abbey,Sense and Sensibility bears some resemblance to Austen's more overtly satiric effort. Both works contain ironic discussions about the picturesque and the fashion for landscape appreciation; both involve a world where gossip reigns supreme; both delve in detail into the economics of family alliances and marriages; both treat social hypocrisy with ironic contempt; and both concern female protagonists whose romantic idealism causes them difficulties and requires them to suffer disenchantment before they can gain real happiness. Yet Sense and Sensibility is notably darker than Northanger Abbey. Austen's first published novel tasks its main characters, both female and male, with severe disappointments in love.

Austen writes in Sense and Sensibility with a less mature ironic voice, more overt satire, and less sophisticated narrative interventions than she was to develop in her later novels, but the story she tells is as complex and fraught as any she ever invented. The central characters are the Dashwood women, a mother and her three daughters. Left with little to live on after Mr. Dashwood dies, they leave Sussex for Devonshire, where they encounter a dashing visitor to the neighborhood, John Willoughby, and he and the middle daughter, Marianne, form a flamboyant and ill‐disguised liaison that flouts propriety and flourishes on private outings and poetry. When Elinor's beau Edward Ferrars proves to be engaged to another woman and Willoughby abruptly leaves, publicly snubs Marianne, and marries an heiress, Elinor and Marianne are devastated, and each responds to these severe disappointments in accordance with her temperament.

The novel opens with an extended discourse on the financial circumstances of the Dashwoods, and the economic arrangements of John Willoughby and the Ferrars family come importantly into play as the plot unfolds. When Willoughby marries Miss Grey, who brings him the vast sum of £50,000, the voluble Mrs. Jennings reports the gossip: “Fifty thousand pounds! And by all accounts it won't come before it's wanted; for they say he is all to pieces. No wonder! Dashing about with his curricle and hunters!” (p. 194). And when the secret engagement between Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele is revealed to Edward's imperious mother, Mrs. Ferrars disowns him and bestows the family estate on his younger brother, Robert.

Behind the unfolding of the economic and romantic dramas that take center stage in Sense and Sensibility lies an embedded and centrally important story concerning one of Austen's most unprepossessing and unpromising heroes, Colonel Brandon, the 35‐year old who is described as “silent and grave”8 and who falls under Marianne's spell almost immediately. Marianne and Willoughby make fun of him, and he remains a kind of background figure in the novel's first volume. Yet in many ways, Brandon's situation reflects Austen's extensive reading in eighteenth‐century fiction and echoes the dark, mysterious circumstances that shadow the romantic heroes created by Austen's predecessors. As a young man, Brandon had fallen in love with a childhood friend named Eliza, who was forced to marry his brother and was mistreated by him in such a way that they divorced. Eliza fell into sexual dissolution and penury, and she died of consumption, leaving an illegitimate infant daughter. Colonel Brandon raises the daughter, also named Eliza, and local gossip purports him to be her natural father. On a chaperoned visit to Bath, the second Eliza is seduced by Willoughby and becomes pregnant, and Willoughby abandons her shortly before he meets the Dashwoods. Brandon sends her and her child to the country and fights a duel with Willoughby.

The importance of the Eliza stories lies in the way the events of the novel echo the secret past that haunts several of the characters. In Sense and Sensibility, none of the key romantic alliances that become permanent derive from first loves. This is very much a novel about learning from disappointment, disillusionment, and tragedy, and moving on to find a mature marital love. Elinor is Edward's second attachment, as Marianne is Brandon's second love.

Sense and Sensibility speaks of settlements and annuities, jointures and income, the cost of keeping servants and carriages, furniture and plate, and hunting dogs and horses. The characters all come from the landowning classes, but they are constrained by intricate rules about the way property moves from one generation to the next. The entrenched system of primogeniture—the inheritance by the first‐born son of the entire estate, so that younger brothers have to make their way in the world through a career in the Church or the military—makes rivals of siblings. Family values may receive great lip service, but the property system as Austen depicts it in fact divides rather than unites families, especially siblings, and it treats women most unfairly.

Therein lies the novel's moral center. To gain comfort and social standing, a woman needs a man of a certain status. At the same time, to maintain her moral worth, she must resist the goads to pursue and “catch” a wealthy man. When the Dashwood sisters dispute how much money is necessary to maintain a comfortable household, it is the sensible Elinor who speaks a central economic truth. To Marianne's question, “What have wealth and grandeur to do with happiness?” her older sister replies, “Grandeur has but little … but wealth has much to do with it” (p. 91).

While the novel's title appears to suggest that the Dashwood sisters' characters are to be compared and contrasted, in a world in which marriage leads primarily to material prosperity, as critic Margaret Anne Doody points out, the nature of a woman's temperament hardly matters.9 In many ways, the men are as much reflected in these comparative terms as the women. Colonel Brandon becomes sensible and rational after grievous and tragic disappointments, Edward Ferrars recovers from early impetuosity to become solemn but happily rational, and Willoughby suffers more lastingly from the fruits of his own indulgence in sensibility than any of the other characters. At the same time, Elinor and Marianne differ more in their surface behaviors than in their deepest emotions.

Austen's narrator remains at the side of Elinor, through whose eyes the reader receives and judges the story. The novel seems chilly to many readers, partly because Elinor, long‐suffering and selfless, seems insufficiently rewarded in the end with Edward Ferrars, who is one of the more melancholy and feckless men in Austen's repertoire. Elinor thinks for herself and keeps her own counsel. Unlike Austen heroines such as Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, and Emma Woodhouse, Elinor does not require a moral or romantic education. Until Austen created Anne Elliot in Persuasion, Elinor Dashwood represented her most mature, intellectual protagonist, a woman who knows what she has to learn and learns what she has to know.

Much of the novel is told in style indirect libre (free indirect style) from Elinor's point of view. That is, Elinor does not speak directly, but the narrator recounts what goes on in her mind in a nearly conversational way. As Doody notes, Elinor's careful approach to the world of appearances is crucial because Sense and Sensibility is a novel about knowing and about epistemology, the philosophy of what is knowable.10Sense and sensibility are not so much modes of being or distinctions of character and temperament, as many critics have taken them to be, as they are ways of approaching the world and taking in evidence.

In the world that Austen depicts in Sense and Sensibility, there is little hard evidence. Clues abound—rings that contain locks of hair, faces that blush or go pale, behaviors that seem to communicate something but then are followed by actions that communicate the opposite—but it is nearly impossible to know anything for certain. Characters constantly wonder and conjecture, guess and assume, doubt and become misled. As one critic has remarked, the novel's language is filled with modal verbs: “might,” “would,” and “should.”11 And Elinor understands more than the others both the ways in which she can be misled and the stakes involved. Yet despite this insight, a series of misapprehensions of just these sorts propels the novel's action. Austen's irony serves to ensure that Sense and Sensibility, whatever its serious moral lessons, remains a comedy of manners.


While Northanger Abbey parodies the genre of the female Gothic, and Sense and Sensibility in part satirizes the novel of sensibility, Pride and Prejudice is harder to categorize. The novel features a number of common plot devices: an infelicitously married couple who bear their incompatibility for the sake of social propriety (Mr. and Mrs. Bennet); proud, aristocratic heroes whose first declarations of love to the heroine offend her because of their arrogant claim that only an inability to overcome their feelings prompts them to seek a wife in a lower social circle (Fitzwilliam Darcy); heroes who initially accommodate the wishes of indomitably judgmental elders whose belief in social rules thwarts individual desire (Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh); society women whose frustrations lead them to treat sarcastically those they resent (the Bingley sisters); and hedonistic characters who ruin themselves and bring sorrow to others (Lydia Bennet and George Wickham). But much as Pride and Prejudice emerges from various eighteenth‐century novel traditions, it does not depend upon the literary forms or conventions of the past, but forges a new and ironic comedy of manners all its own. The verbal sparring between Elizabeth and Darcy perhaps recalls the depiction of courtship in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, but it is new to prose fiction.

The plot of Pride and Prejudice is better known than that of any other Austen novel. The Bennet family has five daughters, and with no male heir, their family home at Longbourn and its £2,000 a year will go to a distant cousin, the obsequious Mr. Collins, upon Mr. Bennet's death. Hence the famous opening line—“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”12—might be better phrased, as Isobel Armstrong points out, as “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman without possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a husband.”13 This novel tells a story about the possibility of social mobility at the turn of the nineteenth century. Can class be overcome, either by moving from the bourgeoisie to the landed gentry as Bingley does, or by forging a contract between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, as Darcy and Elizabeth arguably do in the end through their marriage? Most readers have understood Pride and Prejudice to concern only social and personal relations, but the presence of the army and the allusion in the last pages to “the restoration of peace” (p. 387), a reference to the 1802 Peace of Amiens, would have situated the work clearly for contemporary readers as a story set after the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic wars. This was a period in which the merchant and professional classes took up their positions in a challenge to the landed aristocracy, of which Darcy represents one of the last scions.

Charles Bingley rents Netherfield Park with money earned from trade, and brings his sisters to the neighborhood of Longbourn to take up residence there and his friend Darcy to visit. The local families, principally comprising the Bennets and the Lucases, immediately want to be included in this new and high social circle, and everyone meets at the Meryton assembly. The Bingleys admire the eldest Miss Bennet, Jane, and invite her to visit. While at Netherfield she falls ill, prompting her younger sister Elizabeth to walk several miles across muddy fields to tend to her, arriving in the flush of exercise to the ridicule of the Bingley sisters, who think her unrefined. Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley develop an attachment during this visit, while the “lively, playful” (p. 12) Elizabeth judges Darcy cold and critical as he begins to find himself admiring her intelligence and becoming bewitched by her “fine eyes” (p. 27). The key to this courtship lies in the gradual change from Darcy's original contempt for Elizabeth as a dance partner and her persistent dislike of him to something that comes about precisely because she so firmly resists him. The attractiveness of an uninterested woman also plays a role in the later Mansfield Park, in which Henry Crawford pursues Fanny Price more intently as she makes it increasingly clear that she will not change her mind and accept him.

Two key subplots augment and interrupt the romantic and satiric conquests of the elder Bennet sisters. The distant cousin upon whom Longbourn is entailed, Mr. Collins, a clergyman, comes to visit because he has heard it reported that the Bennet daughters are amiable, and his position as inheritor of their home leads him to feel obliged to court one of them as a recompense for taking his cousins' estate. Finding that Jane's affections are elsewhere drawn, he settles on Elizabeth. Mr. Collins is one of Austen's finest comic creations, a delightful caricature who is by turns ridiculous and pathetic, oily and awkward; he represents obeisance to the older aristocratic classes in the way that he fawns on Lady Catherine de Bourgh. When Elizabeth declines him, Collins proposes to Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth's closest friend and a woman who sees the practical need that she marry with clear‐eyed sense.

A militia corps encamps at Meryton, and Elizabeth develops an attachment to the charming George Wickham, an officer who tells her that his boyhood friend Darcy has betrayed him by refusing him a living that he had to bestow, fueling Elizabeth's already settled dislike of Darcy into real hostility.

Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth is one of the most amazing and brilliantly contrived scenes in Austen's repertoire and perhaps in all English fiction. Agitated and uncomfortable, he opens his declaration with “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (p. 189). The rest of the discussion follows in free indirect style with Darcy alluding not only to his emotional attachment but also to his sense that a connection with the inferior Bennets will degrade his family. Elizabeth's response, equally indirect at first, consists largely of resentful anger. This unprecedented anti‐courtship exchange between an unmarried wealthy man and a comparatively poor unmarried women remains a literary classic, capped by Elizabeth's pronouncement that “I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry” (p. 193).

Darcy leaves with dignity, and he writes to Elizabeth to explain his history. “How differently did every thing now appear in which he was concerned!” thinks Elizabeth (p. 207). “Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd,” and she feels shame at herself and humiliation at her actions: “Till this moment, I never knew myself” (p. 208). Shortly, Lydia Bennet is invited to Brighton, where the regiment is encamped, “a situation of such double danger as a watering place and a camp” (p. 237). Lydia's heedless behavior produces a key goad to the plot of Pride and Prejudice when she runs off with Wickham. Much of the rest of the novel is taken up with laborious efforts to find Lydia and Wickham, to discharge Wickham's debts, and to arrange their marriage, much of it brought about by Darcy's good offices. When Elizabeth learns the details, her view of Darcy undergoes a final metamorphosis: “For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him. Proud that in a cause of compassion and honour, he had been able to get the better of himself” (p. 327).

The marriage, however, does not take place until a second unprecedented scene occurs in which Lady Catherine de Bourgh condescends to visit Elizabeth in order to warn her away from her nephew, calling her “a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family” (p. 355) and famously asking, with reference to the scandal of Lydia and Wickham, “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” (p. 357). Elizabeth refuses to promise that she will not marry Darcy, asks Lady Catherine to leave, and assets that she is “resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me” (p. 358).

On one if its surfaces, Pride and Prejudice might appear to be a Cinderella fairy tale: two deserving but poor women win the hearts of handsome, rich, and kind men. The Collins and Wickham subplots, however, mar this surface appearance. Wickham's elopement with Lydia rocks even the somewhat fatuous Bennets in its production of gossip, scandal, and threat of ruin, even though Darcy's money and influence salvage the connection. Less obviously, Collins's indiscriminate courting of whoever looks game to be his wife and his acceptance by a talented and sensible woman raises more profound questions about marital arrangements. Charlotte's decision to marry Collins represents the most straightforward comment Austen ever made on the economic constraints that dictate women's ability to choose a husband.

Charlotte bears her lot because marriage to the painfully formal Collins is preferable to the alternative of dependent spinsterhood. Obsequious Collins may be, and embarrassingly gauche in his slavish obeisance to Lady Catherine, but he is neither improper nor evil. Charlotte has become accustomed to being the one sensible person in a silly family, and her marriage will conform to that experience. Mr. Collins saves Charlotte from the even greater humiliation of poverty and dependence, and for her part, Charlotte sees her marriage for exactly what it is and no more.

In contrast, George Wickham is a true if light‐hearted and charming villain. Importantly, he first appears in the novel with “all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and a very pleasing address” (p. 72). Like John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, Wickham has been brought up and educated with many advantages and has intelligence, good looks, and an easy glibness in conversation. Also like Willoughby, Wickham's tastes are expensive, he grows dissipated and unable to command his own desires, and he adds manipulative economic contrivances and near blackmail to these faults. Unlike Willoughby, Wickham never sees the folly of his ways and repents, nor does he snare a wealthy woman to subsidize his pleasures (although arguably he gains access to Darcy's wealth through his marriage to a Bennet). The Wickham story takes up much of the novel and synthesizes its themes of appearance versus reality and the trials of what people say and think against how they behave.

When the characters fail to understand the nature of social interaction—most notably in the Bennet parents' failure to realize that Lydia cannot be safe in Brighton—misunderstandings ensue. Much of Pride and Prejudice turns on the nature of gossip, news, and information in a circumscribed society, where judgments are formed by hearsay and innuendo. What, finally, can be told and what must remain secret? That question haunts the novel as does a related question concerning whether it is ever possible to know others with justice and to judge rightly other people's motives (not to mention one's own).

The original title of this novel, First Impressions, alludes to personal characteristics. The changed and final title, Pride and Prejudice, is more philosophical. A similar change of title occurs in the predecessor novel when Elinor and Marianne, with its lens trained on two particular women, becomes Sense and Sensibility, with a focus on more abstract concepts. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen does not simply contrast a proud man who learns to be humble and a prejudiced woman who learns to ask more questions before she passes judgment. Rather, she asks the reader to consider to what degree any of us can ever know another fully, without tainting our knowledge with our preconceptions and our wishful thinking. In this sense, Austen's first two published novels resemble one another as works about epistemology, the ability to know. Austen portrays a world where appearances reign and social stature depends on public perception. At the same time, she tells her readers that true knowledge may not be visible through a social lens.


Whereas Northanger Abbey,Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice all had their beginnings in the 1790s when Austen was in her early twenties, Mansfield Park dates from the years immediately preceding its publication, when Austen was in her late thirties. Austen remarked of Mansfield Park, “Now I will try to write of something else;—it shall be a complete change of subject—Ordination.”14 This passage also presents Austen's sense that this novel would be a departure from her earlier marriage plots.

Although ordination indeed forms an aspect of the novel—and Austen had asked her sister to inquire about some of its details from their ordained brother James Austen—service to the Church and ideas about Evangelicalism form only a small portion of the concerns of Mansfield Park. Indeed, given that the stupefyingly inane Mr. Collins was her previous clergyman character, ordination seems an odd choice for a subject. The story opens with a portrayal of the Ward sisters and their history. Maria Ward married Sir Thomas Bertram and became Lady Bertram, the mistress of a large estate and the mother of two sons and two daughters; Miss Ward had to settle for the Reverend Mr. Norris, a friend of Sir Thomas who was given the Mansfield living (neither member of this couple has a given name and Mr. Norris dies before becoming a real character in the story); and Frances imprudently married a Lieutenant in the Marines, broke with her sisters, and began to have “a superfluity of children.”15 Fanny Price, Frances' eldest daughter, arrives as a charity project at the age of ten amid some concerns on the part of the Bertrams that she can never be an equal to her cousins and might become a burden.

The diffident Fanny Price comes to Mansfield and is lodged in an attic room and treated as though she belongs in a rank somewhere between a servant and a poor relation. She is of no importance to the elder Bertram son, Tom, and is held in contempt by her cousins Maria and Julia. The younger Bertram son, Edmund, befriends her and becomes a welcome companion. Sir Thomas and Tom leave to tend to unspecified troubles on their plantations in the West Indies. During their absence, Maria, the older daughter, becomes engaged to a wealthy neighboring landowner, Mr. Rushworth, “a heavy young man, with not more than common sense” (p. 38) who has little beyond his wealth and family connections to recommend him. The Mansfield living was destined for Edmund but the reversion was sold to help pay Tom's gaming debts; upon Mr. Norris's death it is assumed by the purchaser, Dr. Grant, and Mrs. Grant's half‐brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford, come to visit. If Fanny and Edmund are the novel's heroine and hero, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry are its anti‐heroine and anti‐hero.

The first volume of Mansfield Park contains two of Austen's great set pieces, the visit to Rushworth's Sotherton estate and the family's plan to put on a play, Lovers' Vows, Elizabeth Inchbald's version of August Kotzebue's Natural Son. As Northanger Abbey had introduced the subject of the landscape picturesque into Austen's works, and Pride and Prejudice turns part of its plot on Elizabeth Bennet's visit to Pemberley with the Gardiners into an occasion for disquisitions on views and houses, so Mansfield Park uses the houses and grounds of its title location and of Sotherton to depict the domestic spaces, the furnishings, and the gardens of the landed classes, using these geographical and spatial markers as metaphors for the scope of their class influence. This was an age of “improvements” and “prospects” and competing theories of landscape architecture. Several of Austen's novels, most notably Mansfield Park, contain references to the chief garden designer of the day, Humphrey Repton. The playacting episode focuses on the morality of the particular play Lovers' Vows and of acting more generally, and sets up the novel's key plot developments in the intricate erotic dance of jealousy between Edmund and Mary and Fanny, and Maria and Henry and Julia and Rushworth.

At Sotherton, Mary and Edmund discuss the clergy, the expectations of second sons, and morality and wit. As they fall into a dispute about the size of the woods, they leave Fanny alone on a bench, and Maria Bertram, Rushworth, and Henry Crawford join her. When Maria wants to pass through a locked iron gate into the park, Mr. Rushworth goes off to fetch its key. Henry urges Maria to pass around the edge of the gate to circumvent its “feeling of restraint and hardship” (p. 99) and, thus challenged, the two leave Fanny alone a second time, to be joined by Julia, who likewise “scrambled across the fence” (p. 101). Rushworth arrives soon after, “mortified and displeased” (p. 101) to find the others gone off without waiting for him. Rushworth, too, leaves, using his key. Fanny goes off to seek Edmund and Mary, and finds them after their own visit to the park through an unfastened side gate. Eventually, everyone reconvenes, many of them quite out of sorts or out of breath: “By their own accounts they had all been walking after each other, and the junction which had taken place at last seemed, to Fanny's observation, to have been … much too late for re‐establishing harmony” (p. 104).

The maneuverings and conversations of all these characters at Sotherton mirror the operations of the novel as a whole. Clusters of characters come together, part, and regroup in an elaborate choreography that reflects one of Austen's concerns in Mansfield Park, to depict a world in which alliances shift and reform, and where very high stakes attend the arrangements that remain when the music stops. The Sotherton episode opens in the confined chapel with serious discussions about family prayers, the role and status of the clergy, and the moral value of marriage, then moves outdoors to a more expansive round of imprisonment and escape through and around locked gates and doors, where the game of partnering and triangulating has clear erotic overtones.

Tom Bertram returns from Antigua before his father, who is detained by business, and he introduces to Mansfield an Oxford friend, John Yates, a younger son of a lord, who is as idle and irresponsible as Tom. The two young men put forward a theatrical presentation, and they turn Sir Thomas's billiard room into a theater for the purpose. Edmund at first objects on moral grounds.

I think it would be very wrong. In a general light, private theatricals are open to some objections, but as we are circumstanced, I must think it would be highly injudicious, and more than injudicious, to attempt any thing of the kind. It would show great want of feeling on my father's account; absent as he is, and in some degree of constant danger; and it would be imprudent, I think, with regard to Maria, whose situation is a very delicate one, considering every thing, extremely delicate.

(Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, p. 125.)

Maria's flirtations with Henry Crawford have become evident to all, including Rushworth, and Julia Bertram has set her marital sights on Henry, with the family's approbation, as well. Edmund calls upon the rigidity of Sir Thomas's sense of decorum, especially for his daughters, but he is overruled and eventually, through the seductions of Mary Crawford, he joins in the acting plans after saying unequivocally at first that he would not do so. The group scraps over what sort of play to put on—comedy or tragedy—before settling on Lovers' Vows, a play that turns on the abandonment of a pregnant woman, the recognition of an illegitimate child, and a woman who avows her love to her tutor, and would have been considered quite risqué in Austen's time.

Edmund asks Maria to give up her idea of acting in the play, finding it unsuitable, but is laughed at for his prim scruples. In the event, everyone participates, even luring Fanny into a small part. The play serves as a microcosmic variant on the relationships between these characters, with jealousy flaring as Rushworth slowly realizes how Henry Crawford and Maria are making a fool of him, and Fanny uneasily watches the growing attraction between Mary Crawford and Edmund. Fanny herself becomes a more central figure in the household through this episode. Once Edmund compromises with his conviction that acting is wrong and decides to be in the play, the novel's moral compass turns.

The household begins to deteriorate as scene painters arrive, Fanny and Julia retreat, and “Every body began to have their vexation” (p. 164). This episode contains both burlesque elements and aspects of near‐tragic chaos, and hence remains one of Austen's most unsettling extended narrative sequences. The climax occurs when Edmund and Mary ask Fanny to help them to rehearse a scene that Fanny finds shocking and, to end the first volume of the novel, Sir Thomas unexpectedly arrives home, announced by Julia throwing open the door and uttering the news with “a face all aghast” (p. 172).

Sir Thomas finds his house in disarray, disapproves, and in short order burns every copy of Lovers' Vows he finds. A cynicism pervades Mansfield Park. The novel focuses on two sets of threesomes: Edmund and Mary and Fanny on the one hand, and Henry and Maria and Fanny on the other. They work in opposition to one another. The decent and judicious Edmund is nearly seduced into a calculated and too worldly love by Mary, who disapproves of his professional plans, until he finds redemption in Fanny's devotion and propriety. And Henry is nearly redeemed by his love for Fanny until he runs off with the married Maria Bertram Rushworth and condemns her to irrevocable ignominy.

Austen readers tend to hold extreme views about her third published novel. Readers either love it passionately as their favorite of the six major novels, or they find it to be the weakest of the six. Few hold a middle position about this complex work. The reason for this polarizing of positions about Mansfield Park rests in its heroine. Fanny Price begins the novel as a diffident refugee brought to her uncle's mannered estate from her dubious lower‐class home in Portsmouth. The most docile, mousiest, and oddest of Austen's heroines, Fanny moves more and more to the center of the novel, until at the end she represents the moral anchor of Mansfield itself.

A key source of recent critical debate about Mansfield Park has concerned the Bertram colonial possessions in the West Indies, where they raise sugar cane and keep slaves. In some ways, this backdrop, alluded to frequently but only clearly discussed a handful of times in the novel, relates to the theme of ordination, in that the Evangelical movement in which Edmund would seem to fit opposed slavery and worked for the abolition of the slave trade during Austen's lifetime, and Austen's own religious and moral sympathies lay in that direction. Mansfield Park was written during the final years of the Napoleonic wars, a period in which agriculture in England was relatively depressed, much of the economy depended upon sugar from the West Indies, and the professional classes were beginning to forge new ideas about public service. The younger son Edmund in this novel represents hard work and self‐discipline in opposition to characters such as Tom Bertram and John Yates, who represent the lazy self‐importance of the dissolute gentry. Edward Said has argued that the colonial background to Mansfield Park makes the novel a landmark in colonial literature, and much has been written in response to his argument.16 Certainly, Fanny Price is the only character in the novel who purports to be interested in her uncle's stories about Antigua.17

The colonial debates have focused on Austen's interpretation of the economic underpinnings of life on an estate such as Mansfield Park. Another approach might be to examine the microcosm of colonialism represented by the way Fanny is plucked from her impoverished and disadvantaged home in a naval port to be rescued with education and civility at Mansfield in the safe interior of Northamptonshire. Treated virtually as a servant and given accommodations unlike those of the rest of the family, Fanny eventually asserts herself, revolts against expectations by refusing to marry Henry Crawford, and returns to redeem at least two of her siblings, William and Susan, the latter of whom takes her place at Mansfield. Ironically, William's naval promotion is a calculated part of Henry Crawford's courtship of Fanny; his situation also makes likely the success of the younger seagoing Price brothers. Fanny wins her emancipation and eventually marries one of her colonizers, the benevolent second son Edmund Bertram. The turnabout in Fanny's situation might, after all, be a clearer way to understand Austen's global and economic politics than an attempt to elevate the brief discussions of slavery in Antigua to the forefront of the novel. The younger Prices have more energy, capacity, and ambition than any of the Bertrams; this, too, provides clues to Austen's class politics.


John Murray offered Austen £450 for the copyright of Emma, but he wanted Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility to be included in the package, and she turned down the offer. Austen wrote a letter in December 1815 in which she expressed anxiety that readers would find Emma less witty than Pride and Prejudice and less sensible than Mansfield Park. To the Countess of Morley, an early reader of the novel who had sent a note of praise, Austen wrote on December 31, 1815, that she was encouraged to find “that I have not yet—as almost every Writer of Fancy does sooner or later—overwritten myself.”18

Emma returns Austen to her preoccupation with epistemology: What can we know and, more important, how can we make sense of our knowledge? She asks other questions as well: What should we try to know about others, and when should we mind our own business? All of Austen's major works are comedies of manners, but Emma is Austen's purest comedy and her most reassuring portrait of manners. There are no tragic backgrounds with stories like those of Colonel Brandon and the two Elizas, no charming but dangerous seducers such as Willoughby and Wickham, not even a difficult and unforgiving character such as General Tilney. Characters have their weaknesses, but none is so glaringly weak and misjudging as Emma Woodhouse herself, a beautiful and wealthy young woman who dominates the village of Highbury.

Emma contains forays into the problems of class mobility and exegeses on social hypocrisy, as do all of Austen's works. But in Emma, these passages are comically ironic without having a submerged dark side. The secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax exhibits qualities of deception that verge on the sinister but never arrive there. The spirit of separation that creates an almost carnivalesque disorder at Box Hill is ultimately put right, and everyone's happy place is restored.

Emma believes her understanding and psychological insight to be completely reliable. In the course of the novel, she discovers the opposite to be true, and learns to exert less power over others and to pay more attention to knowing and controlling herself. In her first disagreement with Mr. Knightley concerning Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, Knightley expostulates, “Upon my word, Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have. … Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do.”19 The novel abounds with variations on the word “blunder,” a word that at one point is the answer to a word game in a story filled with riddles, charades, puzzles, and enigmas. Emma improves in sense as her small humiliations mount, and she is finally rewarded with knowing who she is and what she wants. Because the novel's village is so circumscribed, and Austen's focus remains so thoroughly on Emma and stays almost entirely within Emma's perspective on events and feelings, Emma has the tightest plot line of the major novels.

The opening sentence lays open the whole of the Emma problem, as Austen's opening sentences tend to do: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twentyone years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (p. 5). Emma's problems derive, in fact, from her comfort and her temperament.

The real evils indeed of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

(On Emma Woodhouse in Emma, pp. 5‐6)

Emma centers on the education of Emma Woodhouse: learning to be humble and to examine her own motives as she comes to an enlightening self‐knowledge.

Pride and Prejudice features a mother who does a poor job of raising her daughters in Mrs. Bennet, and Mansfield Park features bad mothers indeed, with Lady Bertram's indolent inattention to her children, Mrs. Price's overlooking her daughters and poor household management that creates chaos around them, and the childless Mrs. Norris's busybody meddling in the affairs of other people's children. In Emma, the adult characters have virtually no mothers at all. The characters Emma, Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax each must manage without mothers, and when Miss Taylor leaves, Emma experiences her first real grief from the loss. Harriet Smith, “the natural daughter of somebody” (p. 22), lives as a boarder in a girls' school. Jane Fairfax faces the real possibility of having to work as a governess, a position she likens to that of a slave whose life is not her own to regulate. Churchill himself bears an oblique relation to the woman who might have mothered him, his vain and tyrannical aunt Mrs. Churchill, and some of his weakness and vanity might be said to derive from poor or absent mothering.

However, the focus stays fully on Emma Woodhouse throughout this novel. First, she takes up the unpromising Harriet Smith as a project. She finds Harriet attractive and pleasant to be with and at the same time unthreatening to Emma's own reign in Highbury. She separates Harriet from Robert Martin, a local farmer, and decides on a plan of action: “she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners” (p. 24). Emma persuades Harriet to aspire to Mr. Elton, the Highbury vicar and “a young man whom any woman not fastidious might like” (p. 35). Then she encourages Harriet to fantasize about first, Frank Churchill (fantasies that exist only in Emma's mind) and, by accident, Mr. Knightley himself, the highest‐ranking man in the village, as potential suitors before poor Harriet is finally able to get out of Emma's clutches and reconcile with Mr. Martin, a man she loves and with whom she can be happy and appropriately settled.

Emma misses the fact that she is the woman Elton, in fact, aspires to, and that he is a conceited man who thinks Harriet too common for him. Emma endures an embarrassing but wonderfully rendered carriage ride while Elton makes his unwanted professions to her, and she has to take responsibility for humiliating her friend. Emma's conversation with Mr. Knightley about class and rank, along with Elton's more self‐serving definitions of these positions, anchor the novel in its social analysis as a book with a very clear sense of who belongs where. Those who maneuver around their class positions, such as Jane Fairfax, find themselves in a social limbo that disconcerts everyone around them and makes them vulnerable to embarrassment and hardship.

The story of the secret engagement between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax provides one of the novel's central intrigues. Even before she meets Frank, Emma decides that, were she to marry, he might be a suitable match for her. And even before Jane Fairfax arrives in Highbury, she feels threatened by having a potential rival for the role of most beautiful and accomplished young woman in Highbury. Unlike Emma, Jane is a woman educated to be a governess; however, her relative impoverishment does not take away her independence of experience or spirit. Emma indeed has reason to be jealous, because Jane is her equal except in social and economic rank. Her presence reminds readers that Emma's position in society very much depends upon her family and her wealth.

From early in the novel, the consummate matchmaker Emma declares that she herself will never marry. “I cannot really change for the better,” Emma tells Harriet. “If I were to marry, I must expect to repent it.” “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry,” she goes on. “Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want; I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man's eyes as I am in my father's” (p. 84). Mr. Woodhouse, a cantankerous invalid, indeed proves a small obstacle to Emma's marriage to Knightley, and will have to be accommodated with unorthodox measures, requiring that her husband come live with her rather than the reverse. When Harriet worries that Emma will have the dreadful fate of being an old maid if she persists in her decision not to marry, Emma makes an odd speech about independence and economics in relation to marital alliances:

“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.”

(p. 85)

As it happens, these remarks describe one version of Miss Bates, and suggest the cloud that hangs over both Jane Fairfax, who speaks of the governess trade as akin to the slave trade, and Harriet Smith. The trajectory of the novel works away from Emma's rather thoughtless if sociologically astute musings, until she comes to find herself alone and discontent and self‐reproachful at the moment when she learns to understand herself at last.

The set piece and climax of Emma comes in the Box Hill episode, which takes place on midsummer's day and bears some phantasmagoric relation to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. As critic Terry Castle points out, Austen captures in this scene the quality of cranky, overheated discontent that a failed group outing can have, and it causes Emma to be struck with a stab of malice delivered toward the comic‐pathetic character of Miss Bates, a poor spinster who is always good‐natured despite her rather depressed situation.20 The outing begins well, then rapidly deteriorates:

Nothing was wanting but to be happy when they got there. Seven miles were traveled in expectation of enjoyment, and every body had a burst of admiration on first arriving; but in the general amount of the day there was deficiency. There was a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union, which could not be got over. They separated too much into parties … during the whole two hours that were spent on the hill, there seemed a principle of separation … too strong for any fine prospects, or any cold collation, or any cheerful Mr. Weston to remove.

(p. 367)

The wandering disharmony at Box Hill reminds Austen readers of the gate‐evading misconnections and annoyances that plague the party at Sotherton in Mansfield Park. Some of the same principles of misunderstanding and self‐delusion operate at Box Hill, though without the adulterous undercurrent of sexual immorality that buzzes around Sotherton. Frank works to amuse Emma, and she becomes “gay and thoughtless” (p. 368), producing the most trivial yet also the most heinous of Emma's social misjudgments when she openly insults Miss Bates by making fun of her tendency to talk incessantly about nothing. Even Miss Bates, slow on the uptake and nearly incapable of anger, realizes that she has been insulted.

As he hands her into the carriage to leave Box Hill, Knightley, who is “one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them” (p. 11), upbraids her for using insolent wit “to a woman of her character, age, and situation” (p. 374). Emma blushes and tries to shrug off the reprimand, which comes not because Miss Bates is not as ridiculous as Emma sees her to be, but because her poverty and discomfort require compassion. Her mortification at the rightness of his reproach causes her to act sullen, and the day ends with Emma “vexed beyond what could have been expressed—almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life” (p. 376). Extraordinarily, Emma weeps “almost all the way home,” tears that Castle argues may be the first real tears, and the most realistic, in all of English literature.21

Emma visits Miss Bates, makes amends, and is forgiven, but the episode remains odd. In a story in which Emma's deluded errors cause real mischief to the material lives of others, it is a brief, thoughtless remark to an older woman who is a relative nonentity in Highbury society that reveals the crux of Emma's self‐destructive lack of insight and self‐knowledge. In minding the manners of everyone around her, she has failed to mind her own.

Some critics have proposed that Emma bears a resemblance to the detective novel, as Emma tries to solve various mysteries, notably concerning the shady character presentations of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. If so, Emma Woodhouse may be the literary world's most inept detective, missing every clue and hint until she is thunderstruck with the realization that she loves Mr. Knightley: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” (p. 408). After Knightley's profession of love and Emma's famous and maddening non‐reply—“What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does” (p. 431)—the narrator provides a commentary on their zigzagging non‐courtship that could stand for the novel as a whole: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken” (p. 431). In the comic world of Highbury, relative truth rises to the surface and wins the day, but not before it is ringed about with the enticing possibilities of self‐deception.


Jane Austen spent almost a year composing Persuasion, from August 1815 to August 1816. There are two versions of the ending, and the two final chapters of Persuasion represent the only surviving manuscript portions of any of Austen's major novels. In the last months of her life before illness forced her to stop writing, Austen worked on Sanditon, a work that, even in its unfinished state, suggests a return to high satire and the precise delineation of social and personal absurdities. But Persuasion was a bit of a departure from her usual affectionate assault on sentimentality and romance.

Persuasion continues a narrative tactic that also characterized Emma: There is a rhythm that moves from ease to tension, then to reversal and renewed ease. Both novels have theatrical qualities in their plot trajectories, as circumstances build to a suspenseful turn, coalesce and explode, calm again, then crystallize into significance. This rhythm derives from the central plot scenario. When she was nineteen, Anne Elliot fell in love with Frederick Wentworth, a naval officer, and accepted his proposal of marriage. Anne's father, the proud and snobbish Sir Walter Elliot for whose character “vanity was the beginning and the end,”22 opposed their alliance, as did Lady Russell, a family neighbor and friend who became a mother‐figure to Anne when Lady Elliot died. Neither Sir Walter nor Lady Russell could brook an alliance with a man who had no fortune and not much of a family name, and Lady Russell persuaded Anne to give up an imprudent engagement and separate from Wentworth. At the same time, Anne is little valued by her family. Although she possesses “an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, [Anne] was nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way;—she was only Anne” (p. 5).

The title of Persuasion returns Austen to the abstract conceptual titling of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Anne “had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure,” Wentworth believes, and he remains resentful. “She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over‐persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity” (p. 61).

When the novel opens, nearly eight years have passed since the lovers' parting; the Elliot finances have seriously dwindled; and Sir Walter is forced to let Kellynch Hall to Admiral and Mrs. Croft. This arrangement brings Wentworth, now a Captain in the Navy who has distinguished himself in the service, advanced in rank, and “made a handsome fortune” (p. 30), back into Anne's purview, as Mrs. Croft is his sister. Wentworth has not married; and Anne, who “had been forced into prudence in her youth, … learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning” (p. 30). Anne Elliot is twenty‐seven years old when the novel opens, by far the most mature of Austen's heroines. She is the only Austen heroine who has a past.

Persuasion is a more physical novel than Austen had previously written. Two accidents form climactic moments: young Charles Musgrove's fall in which he breaks his collar bone and injures his back, and Louisa Musgrove's near‐fatal fall on the Cobb in Lyme Regis. Both accidents test Anne's resilience and coolness in a crisis. Captain Harville's lameness dates from a war injury, and Richard Musgrove died of a fever in the West Indies. Multiple deaths precede the novel's action as well, most notably those of Lady Elliot and of Mrs. Elliot. Mr. Elliot wears a black band around his hat and the Elliot women wear black ribbons. Mrs. Smith's illness defines her decline and makes her helpless and older than her years. Anne Elliot herself begins the novel with the note that “her bloom had vanished early” and she has become “faded and thin” (p. 6); Wentworth remarks to Anne's sister Mary Musgrove that Anne is “so altered he should not have known” her again (p. 60). Critic John Wiltshire has argued that the human body is at its most vulnerable in Persuasion.23 From this perspective, Persuasion may have paved the way for Austen's focus on invalidism in her final fictional effort, Sanditon, a fragment in which she otherwise seems to move in new directions.

Human emotions are more vulnerable in Persuasion as well. As Anne has to come to terms with having been influenced in an intensely private decision and repented of that decision, so Wentworth has to overcome his bitterness in order to find his way back to Anne and to forgive her. Austen carries out the details of these emotional developments with some of her most powerful and effectively staged scenes. Most notable is her use of eavesdropping, an activity often engaged in by Austen characters, but nowhere more intensely than in Persuasion.

On a walk early in the story, Anne finds herself behind a hedgerow from which vantage point she overhears a conversation between Louisa Musgrove and Wentworth. The conversation snippet begins in medias res and its context makes no difference. Anne hears Louisa tell Wentworth, “What!—would I be turned back from doing a thing that I had determined to do, and that I knew to be right, by the airs and interference of such a person?—or, of any person, I may say. No,—I have no idea of being so easily persuaded. When I have made up my mind, I have made it” (p. 87). Wentworth responds, “It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character, that no influence over it can be depended on.—You are never sure of a good impression being durable. Every body may sway it; let those who would be happy be firm” (p. 88). The second notable eavesdropping scene decides the conclusion of the novel. Wentworth overhears a conversation about constancy in men and women.

Emma moved Austen in the direction of a tighter plot structure; Persuasion is Austen's shortest and most tightly plotted novel. There is the usual allotment of misunderstandings; however, all the plot elements serve the tension—erotic and narrative—that builds when Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth meet so many years after their failed engagement.

Persuasion has one of the clearest temporal structures of any of Austen's novels. Characters frequently allude to the precise dates of events, and the years that have intervened between the broken engagement and the current narrative loom large. For Sir Walter, the past represents the family tradition and status that he wishes to uphold; for his daughter, who looks toward the future, the past represents the mistake of her life and its turning point. Like Elinor Dashwood, Anne must struggle for self‐control, and she must balance self‐respect with emotional repression as she confronts a renewal of acquaintance with Wentworth.

Most of Austen's novels offer little prehistory before the narrative begins. In Persuasion, foreshadowing and decisive pasts abound: Sir Walter Elliot has lost his wife and become estranged from his male heir, Mr. Elliot. Mr. Elliot has failed to marry Elizabeth, Anne's older sister, and then married a woman who has died. Charles Musgrove proposed first to Anne before he married her younger sister, Mary. At school, Anne Elliot became friends with Miss Hamilton, now Mrs. Smith, who has her own sad history. Frederick Wentworth has a long and distinguished war history and set of naval friends in Harville and Benwick. And, of course, Anne and Wentworth became engaged and then Anne succumbed to “persuasion” and broke the engagement.

This dwelling on the past establishes one of the novel's major themes, the changing of the guard from the old, landed aristocracy typified by Sir Walter Elliot and his obsession with Debrett's Baronetage of England [that “book of books” (p. 7) to the new professional classes]. The Napoleonic wars that pitted Britain against France enriched a new group of military and commercial men whose class claims have nothing to do with inherited estates or birth. The narrator holds up for ridicule Sir Walter and the other representatives of the aristocracy in the novel, Lady Dalrymple and her daughter Miss Carteret. In contrast, the naval officers who abound in Persuasion represent education and self‐sufficiency. The aristocrats lack manners and hospitality and fall back on empty formality, while the professional men exemplify inner substance, the value of friendship, tolerance, an embrace of change, and inner strength.

An early conversation about naval men sets up the class conflict that anchors part of the plot of Persuasion. “The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give,” Anne argues when Admiral Croft presents himself as a possible tenant for Kellynch Hall. “Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow,” she continues. Sir Walter feels differently, finding the naval profession offensive, “as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of” (p. 19). In Sir Walter's world, personal worth is based on birth and heritage. In the new professional world, worth (part of Wentworth's name) depends upon merit.

Austen's previous heroes had been landowners or clergymen; Wentworth deviates from that background in important ways. As a consequence, the ending of the novel contains some ambiguities. Whereas Austen's earlier heroines move into a world they know when they marry, Anne Elliot looks forward to a life of adventure, movement, and change. Admiral and Mrs. Croft represent not only the happiest married couple in all of Austen's works, but also the most unconventional couple. Mrs. Crofts challenges gender roles when she accompanies her husband on board ship, participates in financial negotiations, and intervenes to give the reins of the family equipage “a better direction.” Self‐sufficiency and new forms of status may be available for women as well as men, the novel suggests.

The long series of wars between France and England that ended in 1814 made naval officers wealthy and rendered them prominent social figures as well. Napoleon's unexpected escape from Elba renewed hostilities in Europe and suggested that no peace would ever be reliably lasting. The “dread of a future War” (p. 273) referred to in the novel's last sentences is quite real. So readers cannot be sure what the future holds for the Wentworths, other than a happy acceptance of change and social progress.



Lady Susan did not appear in print during Austen's lifetime. James Edward Austen‐Leigh published it for the first time in the 1871 edition of his Memoir of Jane Austen, and he gave the work its title.

Two eighteenth‐century novels may have influenced Lady Susan: Henry Fielding's 1741 parody of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, a wicked send‐up of its inspiration called Shamela, and French novelist Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons). These earlier works use epistolary form with multiple correspondents, and their competing and crossing letters, like those of Lady Susan, unmask rank hypocrisy and display outrageous manipulation of the emotions of the characters whom the protagonists exploit. Lady Susan Vernon, like her notorious predecessor Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons dangereuses, captivates the reader's imagination even as she behaves with repellent amorality to get what she wants.24

The plot of Lady Susan is as outrageously complicated as its heroine. Lady Susan Vernon, thirty‐five and a widow billed as “the most accomplished Coquette in England,” comes to visit her brother‐in‐law and his wife in “that insupportable spot, a Country Village”25 in order to escape a mess that she has created by having an affair with a married man. On arrival, Lady Susan promptly sets about to seduce Mrs. Vernon's brother Reginald de Courcy, the only son and heir of his venerable family. At the same time, she plots to marry her daughter Frederica to the oblivious, dim‐witted, but wealthy buffoon Sir James Martin. Lady Susan uncharitably and unfairly describes her daughter as “the greatest simpleton on Earth … who was born to be the torment of my life” (p. 245), and “a stupid girl, & has nothing to recommend her” (p. 252).

Letters fly chiefly between Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson, her confidante and co‐conspirator in London, and between Mrs. Vernon and her mother, Lady de Courcy, with occasional missives from others and a lot of quoted and indirect dialogue. The pleasure in Lady Susan derives from its eponymous heroine's “captivating Deceit” (pp. 248‐49). While Lady Susan herself delights in what she calls the “exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre‐determined to dislike, acknowledge one's superiority” (p. 254), the other characters are alternately charmed by her considerable art and artifice and horrified at her duplicity and their own susceptibility to it. The reader follows suit.

Lady Susan works her art through her linguistic fluency, and she prides herself on being able to persuade anyone of anything and being able to talk her way out of any difficulty. “If I am vain of anything, it is of my eloquence,” she writes. “Consideration & Esteem as surely follow command of Language, as Admiration waits on Beauty” (p. 268). Her technique involves the fine use of words to maneuver through any social pitfall.

Lady Susan's analysis of her first pass at coercing her daughter into a marriage with Sir James illustrates her simple philosophy: She aims to maximize her economic and social status and her emotional power over others, because for her, all personal pleasure derives from status and power.

Upon this whole I commend my own conduct in this affair extremely, & regard it as a very happy mixture of circumspection & tenderness. Some Mothers would have insisted on their daughter's accepting so great an offer on the first overture, but I could not answer it to myself to force Frederica into a marriage from which her heart revolted; & instead of adopting so harsh a measure, merely propose to make it her own choice by rendering her thoroughly uncomfortable till she does accept him. But enough of this tiresome girl.

(Lady Susan in Lady Susan, pp. 253‐54)

For Lady Susan, social life is a game that involves high stakes and risks, and she is its consummate player. In complaining about her daughter, she writes, “Artlessness will never do in Love matters, & that girl is born a simpleton who has it either by nature or affectation” (p. 274).

Yet, of course, Lady Susan gets her comeuppance in the end. An expository “Conclusion” to the epistolary narrative explains that because some of the characters are together and others permanently estranged, the correspondence has ended (“to the great detriment of the Post office Revenue” [p. 311]). Readers learn that Frederica is living under the care of her aunt and uncle, and that Lady Susan herself will marry Sir James Martin. The narrator remarks at the end that it is not possible to know whether Lady Susan was happy with the choice of Sir James, “for who would take her assurance of it, on either side of the question?” She remains an anti‐heroine and tantalizingly enigmatic.

Critic Terry Castle has pointed out that Lady Susan's double standard infects the reader and that Austen herself does not entirely condemn her character's subversive talents. Castle writes of Lady Susan's “incorrigible will to power, her gaiety, her erotic rebelliousness, her triumphant contempt for all the ‘romantic nonsense’ that keeps other women subservient.”26 She may be evil, but the form that evil takes is quite compelling.

In Lady Susan, Jane Austen initiated the fictional use of twin psychological concepts, employing the terms consciousness (in the sense of “self‐consciousness”) and embarrassment in what were early instances of these rather modern concepts.27 So while Lady Susan carries on the parodic digs at hypocrisy that preoccupy Austen's earlier juvenile writings, this extended and more accomplished short novel moves significantly toward Austen's mature facility with ironic social satire and psychological judgment.


Jane Austen began writing The Watsons in Bath in 1804 (the manuscript bears an 1803 watermark), and she abandoned it in 1805 following her father's death. Austen never returned to this story despite hints about how the plot would have unfolded and real narrative promise. The Watsons is the darkest of Austen's fictions, and when she put it aside, she remained silent, with the exception of some verses and an inquiry concerning the copyright of Susan, until she began to revise Elinor and Marianne into Sense and Sensibility in 1809 or 1810.

If Jane Austen introduced modern psychological concepts into her work with Lady Susan, she constructed a story around the psychology of anxiety and dread in the unfinished The Watsons. This brief work abounds with multiple references to awkwardness and anxiety and mentions of consciousness and conscience, embarrassment, shame, and alienation, all relatively new terms for the period. Emma Watson is a sophisticated heroine who analyzes her social and emotional situation with acute insight.

The plot of The Watsons is complex. Emma Watson has been living with her aunt and uncle, and she returns home at age nineteen after her uncle has died and her aunt has remarried an Irishman, thus cutting her out of the inheritance she and her family had expected for her. After an absence of fourteen years, during which she has had no contact with her family, Emma finds a sensible but invalid father, two petulant, irritable, and self‐interested sisters who see her as an unwelcome rival for the small number of available men in the neighborhood, and a boorish brother who has moved to a neighboring town and married a wealthy but vain wife. An older sister, Elizabeth, worries and meddles but is good‐natured and warm‐hearted. As with many novels from the eighteenth century, the Watson mother has died before the novel begins.

The Watsons opens with a local ball, a segment that offers an intriguing historical account of the social protocols of assemblies. Emma finds herself the center of attention as a new face in the circumscribed social gathering. She marks herself as kind, amiable, and morally responsible when she rescues a boy of ten whose haughty dance partner has reneged on her promise to him, thus making herself interesting to the boy's aristocratic companions. By the end of the fragment we have of this story, Emma has attracted the attentions of the arrogant and socially inept Lord Osborne, the smooth‐talking but vapid social climber Tom Musgrave, and the agreeable, gentlemanly clergyman Mr. Howard.

Meanwhile, Emma's straitened economic situation pains her, and she fights back tears when her cruelly dismissive brother remarks, “What a blow it must have been upon you!—To find yourself, instead of heiress of 8 or 9000£, sent back a weight upon your family, without a sixpence.” He goes on mercilessly: “After keeping you at a distance from your family for such a length of time as must do away all natural affection among us & breeding you up (I suppose) in a superior stile, you are returned upon their hands without a sixpence.”28 Toward the end of the fragment, the narrator sums up Emma Watson's predicament quite grimly:

[S]he was become of importance to no one, a burden on those, whose affection she could not expect, an addition in an House, already overstocked, surrounded by inferior minds with little chance of domestic comfort, & as little hope of future support.

(pp. 361‐62)

A dismal set of circumstances indeed, with people characterized by “Hard‐hearted prosperity, low‐minded Conceit, & wrong ûheaded folly” (p. 361).

For all the gloomy prognostications, the existing text of The Watsons hints that Emma, more congenial and better brought up than her sisters, may find a husband who is both in possession of a comfortable income and social standing and worthy of her affections. Cassandra Austen reported that Emma would have received and declined an offer of marriage from the wealthy if slightly creepy aristocrat Lord Osborne, who can speak of nothing but horses and ladies' fashions in shoes, and she was to have ended up happily engaged to Mr. Howard, whose love she was to have won despite the efforts of Miss Osborne to secure him for herself.

Yet despite the apparently intended happy ending, The Watsons diverges from the plot of Pride and Prejudice, with which it shares some superficial plot resemblances: a group of sisters with little fortune to recommend them as marriage partners; ineffectual parental guidance; obnoxious suitors; and a heroine whose sensibility permits her to see with great acuity precisely where her social situation places her. In The Watsons, the sisters without means who are in search of suitors are snappish, cross, jealous, and resentful of one another and the world. More important, women must compete fiercely with one another for eligible men in the world of The Watsons, a world of palpable social awkwardness, disappointments in love that cause shame as well as heartache, and excruciating anxieties about the future.

In addition to the psychological complexity and anxiety exhibited in The Watsons, bursts of inspired prose enliven this work. As the novel progresses, Austen reveals a developing narrative style and set of writerly techniques that she was later able to deploy more fully. The fragment opens with an effective method of speaking for and about a group consciousness with a writing method that might be called the communal passive voice. Here is the opening sentence:

The first winter assembly in the Town of D. in Surry was to be held on Tuesday October 13th, & it was generally expected to be a very good one; a long list of Country Families was confidently run over as sure of attending, & sanguine hopes were entertained that the Osbornes themselves would be there.

(p. 314)

Far from representing a lack of agency, the passive verbs here and throughout The Watsons present a social ethos that controls the lives of everyone in this well‐defined, hierarchical, rule‐bound community, introducing a theme of social politics that defines all of Austen's mature fiction.

Given the unpromising future the Watson sisters face, it would have been interesting to know how Austen would have resolved their fates. Austen's grasp of economics is forthright in this fragment of a novel, extending even to the stunning moment when Emma chastises Lord Osborne for not understanding that “Female Economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one,” at which “Lord Osborne was silenced” (p. 346).

Snatches of the famous Austenian irony appear in The Watsons. Using a combination of the communal passive voice and indirect discourse, the narrator paints a satiric picture of the ball atmosphere:

The cold & empty appearance of the Room & the demure air of the small cluster of Females at one end of it began soon to give way; the inspiriting sound of other Carriages was heard, & continual accessions of portly Chaperons, & strings of smartly‐dressed girls were received, with now & then a fresh gentleman straggler, who if not enough in Love to station himself near any fair Creature seemed glad to escape into the Card‐room.

(p. 328)

Some turns of phrase reflect Austen at her wicked best. The tongue‐tied, dense Lord Osborne can think, for example, of little to say when he pays a post‐ball visit, but “after hard labour of mind, he produced the remark of it's being a very fine day” (p. 345). And Emma's self‐absorbed, conceited sister‐in‐law “eyed her with much familiar curiosity & Triumphant Compassion” (p. 349), lording it over her impoverished relative at the same time that she reveals her own moral inferiority in this brief phrase.

Austen also sets out her trademark character and plot devices in The Watsons. The dilemmas Emma Watson faces seem trivial—how to avoid being escorted home in Tom Musgrave's curricle, for example—but represent the typical Austenian method for revealing depth of character in confrontation with social proprieties. Emma wants to get home as quickly as possible and Tom's offer would facilitate this. Yet she does not want to invite intimacy with this forward young man. She needs to remain proper and polite, yet dislikes the pressure to act in a way that displeases her and invites misunderstanding. These are the moments in Austen's fiction that prove decisive, and Emma's superior strength of will emerges as she negotiates this social precipice with aplomb, creativity, and decorum, as befits an Austen heroine.


Nothing can be quite so simultaneously depressing and exhilarating for a lover of Jane Austen than to read the wonderful fragment of a novel she left when she died. In the last months of her life, Austen composed the beginnings of Sanditon, a work she was obliged to abandon during her final illness. She began to write Sanditon in January 1817, and the last date on the manuscript is 18 March 1817. She died on 18 July, exactly four months later, and her health quickly deteriorated during the period in which she composed this last work of fiction. It seems fitting, then, that Sanditon concerns health and invalidism and paints an especially vivid picture of hypochondriacs.

This novel fragment is magnificent, and thus underscores the enormous loss to the canon of English literature represented by Austen's premature death. “There are some great writers who wrote too much,” novelist Margaret Drabble wrote. “There are others who wrote enough. There are yet others who wrote nothing like enough to satisfy their admirers, and Jane Austen is certainly one of these.”29

Sanditon departs from Austen's serious later novels and returns to the sort of burlesque she practiced in Northanger Abbey, but on a different subject, that of invalidism and fashionable watering places. The idea that a dying woman depicted hypochondriacal characters with so much energy and real fun and such a skewering of the state of medical knowledge gives some hints about Austen's own character and courage in the face of her last illness.

Highly satirical and at times hilarious, Sanditon presents some of Austen's most promising comic characters and situations. Mr. Parker is “an Enthusiast;—on the subject of Sanditon, a complete Enthusiast” and a man “of a sanguine turn of mind, with more Imagination than Judgement.”30 His wife is “the properest wife in the World for a Man of strong Understanding, but not of capacity to supply the cooler reflection which her own Husband sometimes needed, & so entirely waiting to be guided on every occasion, that whether he were risking his Fortune or spraining an Ancle, she remained equally useless” (p. 372). As “Every Neighbourhood should have a great Lady,” the imperious Lady Denham, seventy years old, “born to Wealth but not to Education” (p. 375) fills that role exquisitely. When the heroine Charlotte Heywood becomes experienced with Lady Denham's economic interactions and judgments and her notion that lawyers and clergymen and military officers are worthless because they produce no heiresses for her nephew to marry, she thinks, “She is thoroughly mean. I had not expected any thing so bad.” “Thus it is, when Rich people are Sordid,” she concludes (p. 402).

The three hypochondriacs, Diana, Susan, and Arthur Parker, are drawn with exaggerated raillery and comic glee. The Parker siblings combine extreme preoccupation with their bodies and bodily functions, with eating and exercise and air, that they take to extravagances such as bleeding themselves with leeches for ten days running or pulling three teeth at once. Their vocabulary tends to phrases such as “Spasmodic Bile” (p. 386). Far from appearing to be as ill as they pretend, Diana officiously organizes the lives even of strangers; Arthur sits next to a roaring fire to nurse his burly constitution with cocoa and buttered toast; and Susan “had no Hysterics of consequence” on their journey until they arrived just in sight of Sanditon (p. 407).

The pompous sentimentalist Sir Edward Denham provides equal mirth to the reader and returns us to Austen's narrative concerns about novel‐reading in Northanger Abbey. Sir Edward fancies himself erudite and sensitive, and he virtually pummels Charlotte with ridiculous quotations from Scott, Campbell, and Burns until she “began to think him downright silly” (p. 398). Sir Edward's disquisition on novels and literary taste beautifully sends up the intellectual snobbery of the day while offering a parody of fashionable language. Poor Charlotte survives this onslaught of words to conclude that their tastes in reading do not coincide and to discover that Sir Edward has primarily enlarged his vocabulary and denigrated his own style through his reading, without in any way improving his mental acuity or capacity for critical judgment.

Sanditon begins more actively than other Austen fictions, with a dramatic carriage accident on a country lane. In the twelve extant chapters, an intriguing scene is set for various plot developments, but not much actually transpires. It is clear that more raillery at the expense of invalidism and hypochondria would have filled many pages. In addition, Austen presents a strong grasp of economic conditions in the Parker‐Denham effort to merchandize and turn a profit from Sanditon. The presence of several unmarried and various situated young men and women—one of them described as a West Indian mulatto—offered rich material for Austen to have mined had she lived to do so. It is not surprising that several writers have made attempts to complete this promising narrative material.


A spate of imitators and completers have finished Jane Austen's unfinished works, published fictional sequels to the novels, and even published historical murder mysteries with a fantasy Jane Austen playing the plucky detective.31 The latest entry into what we might call the Austen augmentation market—often these works pretend to be found manuscripts—is a slim volume purporting to print the expurgated sex scenes from the Austen oeuvre.32 These works are not part of the Austen canon, but they represent a phenomenon that is very much tied to the world of Jane Austen and deserves some attention.

In addition to the literary additions to Jane Austen's output—with works by writers such as Joan Aiken, Julia Barrett, and Emma Tennant, entries by Austen kin Anna Austen Lefroy and Joan Austen‐Leigh, and a novel inspired by Austen by Fay Weldon33—the movie industries in England and the United States have found Austen's novels to be fertile ground for cinematic treatment. Austen movies first appeared in 1940, with a production of Pride and Prejudice that starred Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. Interestingly, it was Harpo Marx who presented this idea to Hollywood after seeing a 1935 Australian theatrical production based on Pride and Prejudice. Marx sent a telegram to producer Irving Thalberg proposing that the role of Elizabeth Bennet would be perfect for Thalberg's wife, actress Norma Shearer. Shearer postponed the project, and Thalberg died before MGM made the film. The English writer Aldous Huxley helped with the screenplay, and the studio advertised the movie with the tag line “Bachelors Beware! Five Gorgeous Beauties are on a Madcap Manhunt!” The plot is significantly altered by having Lady Catherine de Bourgh, played by Edna May Oliver, arrange the match between Darcy and Elizabeth.34

A particularly strong set of movie productions of Austen novels appeared in the mid‐1990s. Seven movies or television series came out between 1970 and 1986, and in 1995 and 1996, six additional adaptations of Austen novels for the screen appeared. These movies of Austen fiction brought with them new mass market editions of the novels on which they were based. Scholars and literary critics have begun to look at the Austen filmography as a way to recover how readers have interpreted Austen's meanings for their own times.35

In 1995, British actress Emma Thompson worked with director Ang Lee to produce a relatively faithful screenplay of Sense and Sensibility. Thompson played Elinor Dashwood, with Kate Winslet as Marianne, Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars, Greg Wise as Willoughby, and Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon. The movie enjoyed box office as well as critical success and brought renewed popular attention to Austen's work. Also in 1995, the BBC and writer Nick Dear produced a film of Persuasion, directed by Roger Michell, with Amanda Root as Anne Elliot, Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth, Corin Redgrave as Sir Walter Elliot, and Sophie Thompson as Mary Musgrove. The same year, a BBC and Arts and Entertainment production of Pride and Prejudice written by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langton scandalized some Austenites with a version of Pride and Prejudice in which Colin Firth, playing Darcy, dived into a lake on the Pemberley property and emerged dripping wet. This sexualized portrait made Firth a screen idol. That production also starred Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and was shown on television in a mini‐series format.

The following year, in 1996, another major movie star, Gwyneth Paltrow, brought attention to Austen with a movie of Emma. Jeremy Northam played Mr. Knightley and Ewan McGregor played Frank Churchill in this movie, written and directed by Douglas McGrath. The same year, a television production for the Arts and Entertainment Network, written by Andrew Davies (who also wrote the televised version of Pride and Prejudice) and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, featured Kate Beckinsale as Emma. So suddenly in 1995 and 1996, Austen novels seemed to be everywhere in popular culture.

In 1999, a movie adaptation of Mansfield Park took more liberties with the story than had the earlier films. Writer and director Patricia Rozema, known for experimental and feminist movie work, created a movie that brought some of the recent critical work on colonialism to bear on Mansfield Park, the epicenter for global analyses of Austen. Rozema gave Fanny Price more backbone than she appears to have at the beginning of the novel. In addition and more controversially, she created a movie in which the slave trade and the presence of slaves at the Bertram plantations in Antigua figure as a nightmarish backdrop to the action in England.

The renewed and popular appeal of Austen's work in Hollywood cannot be explained simply. The factors that help us understand the sudden ubiquitous mass cultural presence of Austen in the 1990s might include the fact that Austen's work, after all, arguably focuses on three best‐selling topics: money, sex, and love. In addition, in a period in which values are splintering and new forms of technological media are proliferating, Austen provides a glimpse into a simpler world where moral issues were clearer, life options were more circumscribed, and choices were, in general, fewer.

Two recent Austen‐related works, updates rather than true adaptations, deserve some mention. In 1995, alongside the Austen movie mania, Paramount produced a movie titled Clueless, written and directed by Amy Heckerling, and starring Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd. The movie is set at a high school in Los Angeles and offers a comic send‐up of angst among wealthy American teenagers with cell phones. Clueless is a funny coming of age story that works in its own right. At the same time, its plot closely follows that of Austen's Emma. The protagonist meddles in the affairs of others while failing to understand the nature of her own feelings. Other parallels abound. The protagonist falls for a man who turns out to be unavailable, as was Frank Churchill, but here because he is gay, and everyone realizes it but the heroine. The man the protagonist loves is under her nose all along—he is her stepbrother. And an incident in a mall replaces the attack by gypsies in the novel. In Clueless, albeit in a late twentieth‐century context, Heckerling captures on film Austen's ironic voice, something most of the movie adaptations of Austen's novels fail to do.

Helen Fielding's novel Bridget Jones' Diary, is less successful than Clueless, both as a work of fiction and as a movie, but it became wildly popular.36 The movie casts Colin Firth, to date the sexiest Darcy, as Mark Darcy. Like Clueless, the story is set entirely in the modern day, in fashionable London rather than Los Angeles, and features a plot closely based on the plot of Pride and Prejudice. Renée Zellweger is the heroine torn between a handsome cad (Hugh Grant as the Wickham character) who is her boss and the distant and proper Darcy, about whom the cad has told her what turn out to be lies to cover for his own misdeeds with respect to Darcy. Both Clueless and Bridget Jones's Diary bring a sharp focus to the ongoing appeal of Austen's irony and cutting wit. At the same time, these contemporary stories also update and renegotiate the marriage plot for a post‐feminist era.


  1. The Works of Jane Austen, Vol. VI, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 78; 102. Further page references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  2. Jane Austen's “Sir Charles Grandison,” ed. Brian Southam (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1980). References to the text of the play will be given parenthetically.

  3. Southam, “Introduction,” ibid., p. 20.

  4. Ann Radcliffe was the major practitioner of the female Gothic novel that Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland so dote on. Her two best‐known works are The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797).

  5. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. V, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 13. Subsequent references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

  6. Many Austen characters are judged by what and how much they read and by how they respond to their reading.

  7. Ibid., p. 182.

  8. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. I, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 34. Subsequent references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

  9. Margaret Anne Doody, “Introduction” to Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. xiii.

  10. Ibid., p. xxxiii.

  11. Zelda Boyd, “The Language of Supposing: Modal Auxiliaries in Sense and Sensibility,” in Janet Todd, ed., Jane Austen: New Perspectives (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983), pp. 142‐52.

  12. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. II, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 3. Subsequent references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

  13. Isobel Armstrong, “Introduction” to Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. xxiv. Note that this revision, however apt, destroys the comic irony of the original.

  14. Jane Austen's Letters, 3rd ed., ed. Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 202. Mansfield Park is set in Northamptonshire.

  15. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. III, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 5. Subsequent references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

  16. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), pp. 92‐93. Moira Ferguson offers a postcolonial analysis of Mansfield Park in “Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender,” in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. Laura Mooneyham White (New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1998), pp. 103‐120. See also The Postcolonial Jane Austen, ed. You‐me Park and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (London: Routledge: 2000) for readings of Mansfield Park from a global economic perspective.

  17. Austen does require, to be sure, a plot device for removing Sir Thomas from Mansfield. The lack of his moral guidance fuels much of the story; the Rushworth engagement would no doubt not have taken place had he remained at home.

  18. Jane Austen's Letters, 3rd ed., ed. Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 309.

  19. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. IV, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 64. Subsequent references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

  20. Terry Castle, “Introduction” to Jane Austen, Emma, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

  21. Ibid., p. xx.

  22. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. V, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 4. Subsequent references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

  23. John Wiltshire, Jane Austen and the Body: “The Picture of Health” (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1992).

  24. The situation in Lady Susan also forecasts Austen's portrait in Mansfield Park of the complicity between Mary Crawford and her brother Henry in his amorous intrigues and, ultimately, his pursuit of Fanny Price.

  25. The Works of Jane Austen, Vol. VI, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 248; 245‐46. Further page references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  26. Terry Castle, “Introduction,” to Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. xxvii‐xxviii.

  27. Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary of the English Language defines “consciousness” as the perception of what passes in one's own mind, citing Locke, and the internal sense of guilt or innocence. Johnson offers two definitions of “embarrassment”: perplexity and entanglement. Margaret Anne Doody has written about Frances Burney's modern and new presentation of embarrassment in Evelina, a novel published in 1778 that Jane Austen knew well, in Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988). Ruth Bernard Yeazell writes about these concepts in women's fiction in Fictions of Modesty: Women and Courtship in the English Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), which includes a chapter on Mansfield Park.

  28. The Works of Jane Austen, Vol. VI, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 352. Further page references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  29. Margaret Drabble, “Introduction,” Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 7.

  30. The Works of Jane Austen, Vol. VI, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 371; 372. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  31. Helen Barton has written The Jane Austen Quiz Book and Maggie Lane published The Jane Austen Quiz & Puzzle Book. Stephanie Barron has written five detective novels that feature Jane Austen as the main character. There are also whole industries of Austen memorabilia, from umbrellas to playing cards to bumper stickers.

  32. Arielle Eckstrut and Dennis Ashton, Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001). For a list of pre‐1975 adaptations, see Andrew Wright, “Jane Austen Adapted,” Nineteenth‐Century Fiction 30 (1975): 421‐53.

  33. This is only a very partial list of the most prolific of the Austen adapters. Joan Aiken's books include Emma Watson: The Watsons Completed (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), Eliza's Daughter (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), Jane Fairfax: A Novel to Complement Emma by Jane Austen (London: Gollancz, 1990), Mansfield Revisited: A Novel (London: Gollancz, 1984), and The Youngest Miss Ward (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998). Julia Barrett's books include Presumption (New York: M. Evans, 1993), The Third Sister: A Continuation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (New York: Donald I. Fine, 1996), and Jane Austen's Charlotte: Her Fragment of A Last Novel (New York: M. Evans and Co., 2000). Emma Tennant has published Emma in Love: Jane Austen's Emma Continued (London: Fourth Estate, 1996), Pemberley, or, Pride and Prejudice Continued (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), and An Unequal Marriage, or, Pride and Prejudice Twenty Years Later (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994).

    Austen's niece Anna Austen Lefroy (1793‐1872) wrote Jane Austen's Sanditon: a Continuation, ed. Mary Gaither Marshal. (Chicago: Chiron Press, 1983). A great‐great‐grandniece, Joan Austen‐Leigh, published A Visit to Highbury/Another View of Emma (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995) and Later Days at Highbury (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996). Fay Weldon wrote Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen (New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1984). Weldon also wrote a novel called Darcy's Utopia (London: Collins, 1990) and a screenplay of Pride and Prejudice that the BBC produced in 1979.

  34. See Rachel M. Brownstein, “Out of the Drawing Room, Onto the Lawn,” in Jane Austen in Hollywood, second ed., ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001): 13‐14.

  35. For a collection of such essays, see Jane Austen in Hollywood, second ed., ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001).

  36. Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary: A Novel (New York: Viking, 1998); the Miramax film appeared in 2001 and was written by Richard Curtis and directed by Sharon Maguire.

Jane Austen As Studied

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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 dubbed this “a playful defence of herself,”3 but critics then as now have often neglected to see that she was being ironic and self‐deprecating.

Austen's novels were reissued as a set in 1833 in the Bentley Standard Novels series, an inexpensive series of reprints. The printings diminished in size over time as sales were smaller than the publisher had anticipated. So Austen's readership remained steady if relatively small through the middle part of the nineteenth century. Critics during this period treated her work as old‐fashioned and out‐of‐date until another family member's biography in 1870 changed Austen reception.

Austen's novels have attracted two overlapping but disparate types of readers: general readers who tend to be overwhelmingly middle‐class white women and are sometimes referred to as “Janeites,” and literary scholars, who come in many different stripes, from formalist to Marxist, feminist to new historicist and postcolonial. The only other major English author of whom this kind of doubled readership—both popular and academic—can be said to exist side‐by‐side is William Shakespeare.4 In 1948, R. W. Chapman wrote, “I have it on good authority that Jane Austen is now the only nineteenth‐century prose writer with whom the rising generation (including aspirants to honours in English Literature) can be assumed familiar.”5

Yet even more than Shakespeare, Austen's dramatic predecessor in the English canon of literary masters, Austen has inspired a dual approach to reading her works. Austen readers in the general public identify with her plots and people and think of characters such as Elizabeth Bennet and Captain Wentworth as friends, or at least as people to identify with and gossip about. Scholars, in contrast, mine the relation of Austen's works to a range of academic concerns, from their use of an omniscient narrator and an ironic voice to British politics and the status of women during the regency, social conservatism, feminist literary strategies, and postcolonial critical theory.

Renewed attention came to the novels with the publication of A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870 by Austen's nephew James‐Edward Austen‐Leigh. The scholarship of R. W. Chapman and B. C. Southam and the 1932 publication of Austen's letters and the subsequent editions of the juvenile and minor writings caught the attention of the scholarly community.6 Other writers have responded with varying degrees of admiration and disdain for Austen's work, from Sir Walter Scott's contrasting of Austen's delicacy to his own “Big Bow‐wow strain” of writing to Charlotte Brontë's notion that “Miss Austen is only shrewd and brilliant” to Henry James' commentary on readers who turned the author into “their ‘dear,’ our dear, everybody's dear Jane.”7 Even Mark Twain weighed in with this biting remark: “Whenever I take up Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”8

Austen's influence as a quintessential representative of British culture is famously apparent in Rudyard Kipling's 1924 short story, “The Janeites,” in which a company of artillerymen in World War I establishes a secret Austen society as a way to cope with the atrocities of trench warfare.9 To the uninitiated, Austen is described this way: “Why, she was a little old maid 'oo'd written 'alf a dozen books about a hundred years ago. 'Twasn't as if there was anythin' to 'em either.… They weren't adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you'd call even interestin'—all about girls o' seventeen (they begun young then, I tell you), not certain 'oom they'd like to marry; an' their dances an' card‐parties an' picnics, and their young blokes goin' off to London on 'orseback for 'air‐cuts an' shaves.” In the end, the main character and last surviving Janeite explains that he continues to reread the six novels and proclaims “there's no one to touch Jane when you're in a tight place. Gawd bless 'er, whoever she was.”10

There are two parts to Austen's continuing popularity. First and foremost, of course, she was a great artist: She invented a new genre of fiction, and her ironic prose style is often compared to Shakespeare's use of language for its power and mastery. She is much read in middle and high schools and in university literature courses, some of which are devoted exclusively to her writings. Scholars have dissected every scrap of evidence from her writings to produce multiple biographies and editions of her six major novels, her juvenile writings, and her letters, and collections of critical essays on every imaginable topic and theme in Austen's work. Conferences are held to discuss Austen's work, and Jane Austen societies and Web sites have appeared in England and the United States and even in Japan. Contemporary writers have produced sequels, spin‐offs, and parodies of the novels as well as multiple television and movie adaptations, not to mention the puzzles, cards, clothing, and bumper stickers (“I'd rather be reading Jane Austen”) that have made Jane Austen a virtual industry. Jane Austen's consummate skill as a storyteller and prose stylist repays all this attention with continuing new insights into her methods and her meanings.

At the same time, there is a second aspect to the popularity of Jane Austen as one of the greatest of all literary artists in the English language. While scholars and university syllabi ply the Austen trade, there is a parallel cultural phenomenon that makes Austen's novels books well‐loved by people who have no aspirations to or interest in the academic study of literature. Henry James referred to this phenomenon disparagingly when he wrote impatiently of “everybody's dear Jane”; Katherine Mansfield, a twentieth‐century English novelist, wrote similarly: “The truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone—reading between the lines—has become the secret friend of the author.”11 Readers feel as though they know Jane Austen, that she is their friend, and there is a rhapsodic quality to some of her fans, for “fans” does seem to be the apt word. It is interesting to ask why this should be the case.

Austen has also been misread. As we have seen, Austen wrote her fiction against the backdrop of churning social turmoil at home and political and military turmoil abroad. Yet she also managed not to transgress in any obvious way the strictures on behavior or the social expectations that genteel women contended with at the turn of the nineteenth century. With a nod to Kipling's conceit in “The Janeites,” some doctors even recommended that shell‐shocked soldiers in World War I hospitals read Austen for therapy. In this view of Austen, her novels represent a world of limitation, of clear rules, of domestic life as a sanctuary; thus reading these books is reassuring, unthreatening, and salutary.


Jane Austen wrote in a pivotal moment in literary history. Her dates place her squarely in the Romantic period, but her poetry receives little attention and her forays into Gothic fiction are satiric, so she fits uncomfortably in literature classes studying Mary Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, and Byron. The novels occasionally surface in discussions of the Romantic period; there are critical debates about her place in Romanticism, and she is sometimes understood to represent sensible moral prudence as a counter‐Romantic.

Austen's importance rests with the genre of the novel. She tends either to serve as the culminating point for courses on the novel's first major century in England, the eighteenth century, or as the starting point for its second flowering in the Victorian period. So sometimes she is the goal to which Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Frances Burney lead. At other times, she inaugurates a tradition of epic prose narrative epitomized by Emily and Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Henry James. In women's studies classes, she is read alongside lesser‐known women novelists such as Jane West, Mary Manley, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Sheridan, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft, with French women sometimes added to the mix: Madame de Lafayette, Madame de Genlis, and Madame de Staël. She is also studied with more modern women writers such as Jean Rhys and Barbara Pym.

And, of course, Austen often appears on the reading lists of survey and “Great Books” courses that sample a range of literary classics. Austen's novels also appear, often as the first assigned reading, in courses on the English novel that go on to read the Brontës, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Eliot, and James. No matter where Austen appears on a school or college syllabus, she represents the apex of novelistic achievement: She invented the detached, all‐knowing narrator whose intelligent perspective provides the story's moral underpinnings.


Early critical writings on Jane Austen's novels make pretty unexciting reading. There were twelve contemporary reviews published as the novels were issued, and not much of substance before 1870. The novel itself remained somewhat suspect as a literary form, so novel criticism wasn't of much scholarly interest.

While Austen's novels were fashionable during her lifetime, she was well‐regarded but not much read in the fifty years or so after her death. As Virginia Woolf later put it, Jane Austen is “of all great writers … the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”12 The first critic to read Austen with critical seriousness may have been Richard Whately (1787‐1863), Archbishop of Dublin, who wrote an unsigned review of the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in the Quarterly Review of January 1821. Whately was the first to realize the important literary innovation represented by Austen's focus on ordinary middle‐class life, and to see that writing about ordinariness need not itself be ordinary. He understood that Austen conveyed a moral world‐view and set of values in her novels.

Austen's consummate skill at depicting people as they are is also a source of negative criticism for those who downplay this talent as “mere” miniature portraiture. An unsigned 1830 essay makes this point well, asserting that readers undervalue the skill required to present characters who behave “as any body might be expected to behave under similar circumstances in real life.” This writer goes on to point out that Jane Austen is “too natural” for some readers, as “the highest triumph of art consists in its concealment; and here the art was so little perceptible, that they believed there was none. Her works, like well‐proportioned rooms, are rendered less apparently grand and imposing by the very excellence of their adjustment.” And Austen's plots and characters are probable and commonplace, in this view: “No novelist perhaps ever employed more unpromising materials, and by none have those materials been more admirably treated.”13

This strain of criticism characterized commentaries for the first hundred years or so after Austen's death. Her works are seen as judicious, prudent, proper, sensible, and instructive. In short, Austen was a safe writer, one whose works could be recommended for impressionable young people, quite the opposite of the sensational kinds of fictions Catherine Morland so loves in Northanger Abbey. Here, for example, is the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on her novels: “She has great power of discrimination in delineating common‐place people; and her writings are a capital picture of real life, with all the little wheels and machinery laid bare like a patent clock.”14

In this view, Austen avoided romance at all costs, a point of view that would surprise the current crop of Austen aficionados. Still, readers (and moviegoers) continue to agree that Austen surpassed all others in representing human nature in all its foibles and insecurities and ridiculousness. As Thomas Babington Macauley, historian and politician, wrote in 1843, Austen comes nearest in stature to Shakespeare of all English writers because she “has given us a multitude of characters, all in a certain sense, common‐place, all such as we meet every day. Yet they are all perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings.”15

George Henry Lewes, a journalist who was the companion of Victorian novelist George Eliot, concurred with the Shakespeare comparison.

A novel may by the dashing brilliancy of its style create a momentary sensation; by some well-kept mystery, some rapid incidents, or some subject of horror dragged from the reeking shambles of civilization, it may hurry the reader onward through its three volumes; but to produce a pleasant, satisfactory, and lasting impression, it must be true to nature. It will then live. It will bear reading and re-reading.16

(George Henry Lewes on Jane Austen)

Not everyone was this positive. One of Austen's notable detractors was Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, for whom Austen's anti‐Romanticism represents a failure of imagination. Brontë responded to G. H. Lewes's assertion that he would rather have written Pride and Prejudice than any of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels with a letter:

I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.”17

G. H. Lewes remained one of Austen's staunch early champions, despite Charlotte Brontë's protestations. His 1859 article in Blackwood's Magazine, entitled “The Novels of Jane Austen,” praises Austen as “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end.”18

In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson recorded a view similar to that of Charlotte Brontë in a journal entry written in 1861:

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow.19

Again, Lewes was her major defender against charges of prosaic smallness of reach and lack of passion. And each of these positions had its counterpart. Where Emerson condemns Austen for the meanness of what he sees as her exclusive focus on marriageability, Richard Simpson justified his praise by arguing that Austen's irony derived from her acute understanding of the distance between the ideal of romantic love and the social realities of alliances made under the pressures of economics and family expectations.20


Prior to 1870, there was little formal commentary on Jane Austen's works other than the reviews that appeared in periodicals as the novels were published. Even so, Austen was not in danger of complete obscurity, thanks to the attention paid to her by Sir Walter Scott and other well‐known literary personages. In 1870, Austen's nephew James Edward Austen‐Leigh published a full‐length memoir of his aunt that produced a spike of critical attention, as the Memoir of Jane Austen was widely reviewed.21 Austen‐Leigh, a clergyman, presented a quite staid portrait of his aunt, presenting her, in the words of one reviewer, as “easily contented, a small modicum of general approbation satisfied her, and what she coveted most was that of her own family. She was willing, like the mole, to make her ingenious structures in the dark.”22 Austen‐Leigh's genteel portrait of tranquil, unruffled domesticity, similar to the 1818 portrait presented by her brother Henry Austen, provided the basis for subsequent biographies. And for the first time, Jane Austen the woman was someone about whom at least something was known.

Austen‐Leigh was concerned about his family; when he first planned to write a biography of his aunt, several family members had objected to the invasion of her privacy (and, presumably, theirs). In 1865, Austen's last surviving brother, Frank, died, and the family objections seemed to wane. The Memoir's publication sparked immediate public interest and renewed critical appreciation. Virginia Woolf cites one of the most striking assertions that the Memoir makes, quoting Austen‐Leigh: “I doubt whether it would be possible to mention any other author of note whose personal obscurity was so complete.”23 Through her nephew, we receive a vision of Aunt Jane as a woman who seized on the spare moment to put down her sewing and take up her pen as a private amusement, and who otherwise quietly watched the world go by, paying attention to conversations and manners along the way, a spinster clergyman's daughter. In many ways, this version of Austen did not begin to be challenged until after World War II, and recent biographies have made it clear that, not surprisingly, Austen's life was not quite this uncomplicated.

In a review of Austen‐Leigh's biography of his aunt, Richard Simpson presented for the first time the view that Austen has a distinctive ironic voice and moral philosophy. “She is neat, epigrammatic, and incisive, but always a lady; there is no brandy and cayenne in her farrago,” wrote Richard Simpson. Simpson's long article dealt with philosophical issues, yet it also ended with this sentence: “Might we not for like reasons borrow from Miss Austen's biographer the title which the affection of a nephew bestows upon her, and recognize her officially as ‘dear aunt Jane’?”24

In one of the most important post‐1870 appreciations of Austen, Henry James echoed Simpson's epithet. In a 1905 essay called “The Lesson of Balzac,” James commented on the resuscitation of Austen by a publishing industry that had overlooked her for several decades following her death. Publishers and editors, James wrote, “have found their ‘dear,’ our dear, everybody's dear, Jane.” He went on to write that Austen's art was “unconscious”; James's Austen has no premeditated artistry.

In 1883, George Routledge published the first inexpensive, popular edition of Austen's novels, with gaudy covers to attract browsers at bookshops. Then Routledge began to issue illustrated versions of the novels in the Sixpenny Novels series. In 1884, Lord Brabourne edited a two‐volume edition of Austen's Letters and dedicated the publication to Queen Victoria.25 Brabourne was Austen's great‐nephew through his mother, Fanny Knight, and he inherited letters from Knight and from Cassandra Austen. There were ninety‐four letters in his collection, and their publication followed soon after Fanny Knight's death.

By the late nineteenth century, publishers began to compete for popular editions with well‐known illustrators who could render period costumes, and at the same time more ornate editions aimed at bibliophiles began to appear, sometimes in limited releases. These editions needed prefaces as well, so some of the important early critical and scholarly commentaries came in this form, by writers such as Austen Dobson, E. V. Lucas, R. Brimley Johnson, Joseph Jacobs, and George Saintsbury. Writers such as H. G. Wells, William Dean Howells, G. K. Chesterton, E. M. Forster, Thornton Wilder, and Willa Cather commented positively about Austen's contribution to literature and influence on the history of fiction. Mark Twain was an exception to the general accolades Austen's works received; he set himself as an enemy and admitted to feeling an “animal repugnance” for her writing. In a letter from 1898, Twain wrote: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin‐bone.”26 And Austen began to appear on university syllabi as well. By 1907, when Henry James rated Austen with Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Fielding, her literary stature was secure.

Reginald Ferrar wrote several influential essays in the second decade of the twentieth century. Notably, Ferrar referred to “the Divine Jane” in an article he published on the occasion of the centenary of her death in 1917, in which he seemed to be addressing Janeites. Ferrar wrote:

When we speak of her as our greatest artist in English fiction we do not mean that she has the loudest mastery of any particular mood, the most clamant voice, the widest gamut of subjects; we mean that she stands supreme and alone among English writers in possession of the secret which so many French ones possess—that is, a most perfect mastery of her weapons, a most faultless and precise adjustment of means to end. She is, in English fiction, as Milton in English poetry, the one completely conscious and almost unerring artist.27

Ferrar here comes full circle from Henry James' castigation of Austen's “unconsciousness” in 1883.


A landmark in Austen reception occurred when R. W. Chapman published a complete scholarly edition of the novels in 1923 with Oxford University Press.28 In 1932, Chapman published an edition of Austen's collected letters, and in 1954 his edition of her Minor Works, including juvenile writings and fragments, appeared.29 The Chapman editions continue to provide the basis for scholarship, as they serve as the definitive texts of the novels, correcting textual errors and restoring Austen's original volume divisions. At the same time, a complete edition with scholarly apparatus gave Austen's work canonical status in the pantheon of English literature.

The first serious full‐length study of Austen as a great writer is Mary Lascelles' 1939 Jane Austen and Her Art.30 Lascelles pointed out the subtlety of the way Austen's social criticism emerged through the consciousness of her characters and examined the art in the apparent simplicity of Austen's prose style and narrative voice. At this point, Austen began to earn her current unshakeable reputation among scholars and popular readers alike as one of the greatest writers in the English language. One important commentator was the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who proposed that Jane Austen was interested in theoretical problems of human nature and human conduct, and that the consideration of moral dilemmas in her novels amounts to a secular ethics.31

D. W. Harding's 1940 article, “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen,” represents another turning point in Austen studies in the twentieth century.32 Harding's thesis remains controversial, and sparked debate. He proposed that what many critics call Austen's satire is actually her way of resolving a dilemma. On the one hand, there are distasteful and difficult people in the world, and on the other hand, one has need of these people for maintaining social decency and respect. Harding views Austen as portraying the “eruption of fear and hatred into the relationships of everyday social life.”33 For Harding, Austen was a writer who found a measured method for expressing her values without risking censure.

Since World War II, the volume and range of Austen criticism has spanned every conceivable approach to literature. As Lionel Trilling put it, writings about Austen are almost as provocative as her work.34 In fact, it might be possible to claim that the major strain of Austen criticism from the mid‐twentieth century onward has been “political” in the broadest sense of that term. That is, critics have wanted to pin down Jane Austen's ideological worldview as either conservative, subversive, or radical. At the same time, much modern criticism continues to take an aesthetic or formalist approach, reading the novels as works of artistic imagination that deploy literary language to enshrine universal truths about human nature, and an underlying appreciation of Austen's artistry founds political readings of her work as well, of course. That the novels are masterpieces of their form is now an assured and established fact, accepted by critics from every approach and every camp of literary interpretation. As Austen criticism is second in quantity perhaps only to Shakespeare criticism, no brief sketch can cover the entire, ever‐expanding territory of Austeniana.

Marvin Mudrick, one of the most influential of twentieth‐century Austen critics, noted the crucial role of irony as a defining attitude in his 1952 study, Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery.35 The particularities of Mudrick's readings have been disputed, but not his assertion that irony is central to Austen's art. A decade later, Frank W. Bradbrook took up the proposal made by the important British critic F. R. Leavis in 1948 that Jane Austen was heavily indebted to the novelists who came before her, and therefore she provides a fruitful test case for the nature of originality.36 Bradbrook examined in Austen what T. S. Eliot has called the relationship of the “individual talent” to literary tradition.37 Following Leavis and R. W. Chapman, Bradbrook studied Austen's readings in philosophy, journalism, and fiction to understand what had influenced her views about life and her artistic production. Ian Watt also considered Austen's inheritance of eighteenth‐century novel conventions, and argued that her strength comes from a fusion of the external techniques of Fielding with the internal psychological understanding of Richardson.38

In 1962, a year after Bradbrook's work appeared, Howard S. Babb published a close study of Austen's language use.39 Babb analyzed Austen's use of dialogue and the way she balances syntax, and he argued that her characters' use of language provides the key to their moral worth. Three years later, A. Walton Litz argued that Austen worked rhetorically and thematically to accommodate the eighteenth‐century antitheses she had inherited, such as those between art and nature and reason and feeling (sense and sensibility).40

In The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels, Alistair M. Duckworth proposed that “Jane Austen maintained an ideal conception of society, even as she represented, ironically and critically, her experience of morally corrupt and economically debased behavior.” Duckworth reads Mansfield Park as the centerpiece of Austen's oeuvre in that it presents “the estate as an ordered physical structure” that also represents other ordered structures in society, such as inherited values, manners, social systems, and codes of morality. According to Duckworth, whose approach has been placed with that of Marilyn Butler and pigeonholed as politically conservative, the theme of the estate unifies Austen's major work and articulates “an authentic commitment to a social morality and a continuous awareness and exposure of attitudes destructive of social continuity.”41 For Austen, in this view, the individual's ultimate responsibility lies in improving traditional society.

Marilyn Butler's 1975 book, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas and her 1981 study, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries: English Literature and Its Background, 1860‐1830, which contains an important section on Austen, also follow a conservative point of view in arguing that Austen championed the individual and was “the gentry's greatest artist” even while engaging in “the controversies of her class and generation.”42 For Butler, Austen was an anti‐Jacobin who supported the established social order against the radical ideas of the French Revolution and Mary Wollstonecraft's feminism. Butler was among the first scholars to recognize the political ramifications of Austen's portraits of the domestic sphere of women, and she placed her novels in the context of the Jacobin debates of the 1790s. Butler saw Austen as a counterrevolutionary who believed that the individual should submit to the larger social and moral order and who distrusted Romantic notions of the self.

Later in the 1970s, the conservative view of Austen was challenged by the landmark publication of a book by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar called The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth‐Century Literary Imagination.43 Gilbert and Gubar inaugurated the notion that while Austen appeared to hold conservative views, her ironic stance actually disguised a subversive attitude toward the social world in which she lived and, especially, toward the place and treatment of women in that world. This view was given substantive and subtle support by Mary Poovey in 1984; Poovey understood Austen to be offering a critique of the ideologies of marriage and romantic love as regulators of social and sexual life for women.44 In 1986, Jane Spencer took an intermediate position, placing Austen within a conservative didactic tradition of reformed heroines, but at the same time recognizing that Austen “wants a better status for women within [the established] hierarchy.”45

Other important feminist work followed. Critics such as Margaret Kirkham, Nancy Armstrong, Claudia Johnson, Alison Sulloway, and Deborah Kaplan published important book‐length studies of Austen from varying feminist perspectives.46 Kirkham presented the view that Austen was a conscious feminist whose “viewpoint on the moral nature and status of women, female education, marriage, authority and the family, and the representation of women in literature is strikingly similar to that shown by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.47 Armstrong reads Austen through the lens of historical materialism, analyzing Austen's depiction of the bourgeois marriage market that prescribes heterosexual monogamy and endorses a sexual contract that disempowers women. Johnson argued that Austen belongs to “a largely feminine tradition of political novels” and that it is crucial to consider her sex in understanding her work. In Johnson's view, Austen uses irony in a political way.

Sulloway reads Austen primarily as a satirist, but one who comes to her satirical voice as an outsider and who uses it to channel her anger at women's circumscribed roles. Sulloway wrote that Austen was “a provincial Christian gentlewoman whose contempt for the overt and hidden ethical disjunctions at the heart of all satire politely but obsessively pierces destructive myths and assumptions about her own sex.”48 Kaplan saw Austen as part of a women's culture that needs to be evaluated in its historical context and social circumstances. Although she falls short of being someone we can claim for twenty‐first century feminist goals, Austen still represents for Kaplan a figure who may have spoken for the patriarchal values of her gentry class but who also understood the stakes involved in the domestic ideology that she wrote about.

A recent strain of Austen criticism has controversially examined her emphasis on close relationships between women.49 The suggestion that there might be something “queer” in this emphasis created an outcry of scandal, explained by Claudia Johnson as deriving from “the enormity of Austen's status as a cultural institution” and her “centrality to the canon of British literature.50 In fact, gender as a factor has simply become a given in recent scholarly and critical work on Austen.51

Feminist scholars have been, with Marxists and other historical materialists and cultural critics, among the first to read Austen ideologically, but certainly not the only critics or the last ones to do so. In a comprehensive 1986 study of Austen's work, Tony Tanner examined what he called Austen's “habitual cool irony” and her “wit, ironic reflectiveness and moral intelligence” to argue that she was better informed about and more aware of the main historical events through which she lived than she has been given credit for, and that this awareness comes through in her fiction. “That Jane Austen held many Tory sympathies need hardly be questioned,” Tanner wrote, “but it does not follow that her work is uncritical of her society in many profound ways.” Indeed, he concluded, “by the end of her work social systems themselves are called in question and found increasingly inadequate to satisfy her heroines' needs.”52

New historicists and followers of Michel Foucault's approach to cultural studies have also taken up the banner of ideology, but have subordinated gender to class and economics in their readings of Austen's novels. The Marxist scholar Raymond Williams, who insisted that we not idealize rural poverty and country nostalgia, has influenced some interpretations of this sort. Williams wrote this intriguing passage comparing Austen to the social thinker William Cobbett, who lived during the same period and in the same part of England:

What [Cobbett] names, riding past on the road, are classes. Jane Austen, from inside the house, can never see that, for all the intricacy of her social description. All her discrimination is, understandably, internal and exclusive.53

Cultural historian James Thompson has written that Austen portrays the conflicts between landed property interests and the new values of commodity exchange.54 Mary Evans published a book with the title Jane Austen and the State in 1987 and argued that Austen deplored economic individualism and skewered the world of monetary self‐interest that her novels depict.55

A 1999 book about Austen's politics contends that Austen has achieved such a mythic stature because she represents something fundamental about English patriotism. Jane Austen, Edward Neill writes, is “one of the great formative and founding influences on how we think about ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’” and has become “something of a Tribal Totem, a prime exhibit in a version of Our Heritage.”56 This argument quarrels with Marilyn Butler about Austen's alleged Burkean Toryism. Julian North puts forth a similar perspective:

Austen has become something of a conservative icon in popular culture: a canonical author whose life and work signify English national heritage and all that implies of the past as an idyll of village life in a pre‐industrial society, of traditional class and gender hierarchies, sexual propriety, and Christian values.57

The contemporary British novelist Fay Weldon, author of a novel entitled Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen,58 has also weighed in on Austen as an icon of English patriotism and culture in a discussion of recent movie adaptations.

When we say ‘Jane Austen’ everyone knows what we're talking about. Austen means class, literature, virginity and family viewing.… The clip-clop of horses over cobbles suggests the past, and the past was when jobs were safe, and bouquets flowed, not brickbats.… or one could say, with a little more charity, but not much: ‘Why we love Jane Austen because she's Heritage’.59

Fay Weldon on Jane Austen

Janet Sorenson writes in a similar vein:

Interested in the experiences of a gentry located in the lush green Home Counties and offering only fleeting impressions of spaces beyond fashionable watering holes and country residences, let alone the country of England, Jane Austen's novels have come to signal to generations of critics and readers the Englishness of England.60

The focus on the “Englishness” of Austen's world arguably comes from the writer herself. After all, in Emma, she has the narrator refer to “English verdure, English culture, English comfort.”61

The controversy over the offstage events beyond England in Mansfield Park—the Bertram sugar plantation holdings in Antigua that take Sir Thomas and Tom Bertram away from the central plot for so many pages—focuses on the flip side of Austen's Englishness. The historical and Marxist strands of Austen criticism have put economics on center stage. In particular, critics have raised the question of the effects of British colonial imperialism on Austen's perspective. Palestinian activist and literary critic Edward Said famously put forward this analysis in a reading of Mansfield Park, the novel around which the colonial allegations swirl. (Mansfield Park has taken its place with Shakespeare's The Tempest and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as a core text of English colonialism.) According to Said, Austen's moral philosophy cannot be separated from the economic substrate which shores it up materially: “[R]ight up to the last sentence,” Said wrote, “Austen affirms and repeats the geographical process of expansion involving trade, production, and consumption that predates, underlies, and guarantees the morality.”62

This global, postcolonial approach to Austen studies characterizes a major strain of recent Austen criticism influenced by the work of Said and cultural theorists such as Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. This criticism claims, as Rajeswari Sunder Rajan phrases it, that “[r]eading Austen postcolonially is not one critical ‘approach’ among others, uniquely propagated by ‘postcolonial’ critics, but rather, an inescapable historical imperative in our times.”63 This argument looks at the particular geographical world of European expansion and commerce and sees Austen's country village worlds as representations of a certain type of Western power in a world dominated by imperialism. Raymond Williams inaugurated this approach when he situated Austen with the journalist William Cobbett and the naturalist Gilbert White as residents of Hampshire and Surrey and proposed that Austen provides us with a “social history of the landed families.”64

It is also plausible to say that Austen portrays only a carefully selected subset of English people, those in the “middling” classes. Servants and the poor do not find their portraits in Austen's fiction, even though this was the period in which class distinctions began to blur. Austen's gentry class, from the struggling to the aristocratic, seems to represent the heart of a broader national experience. “Austen's focus on the domestic does not make her novels apolitical,” writes critic Barbara K. Seeber, “for it is precisely the private matters that were the site of the ideological battles of the times.”65

It is difficult to find any consensus in political readings of Austen. If Marilyn Butler sees her as a crusty antifeminist and staunch conservative who disliked romantic individualism, Alison Sulloway allows her to be “as insurrectionary as Mary Wollstonecraft” and Mary Poovey and Claudia Johnson try to find a middle ground between the two in which Austen can be viewed as a careful progressive. It may even be that this plethora of approaches and views adds to Austen's immense popularity by letting readers choose for themselves in what vein to read her work.66

So the question posed by critics who give pride of place to economics and politics is this: Did Austen champion the old order of gentry tradition, or did she recognize the social instabilities of the new order and the precarious place of women during this period of turbulent socioeconomic change? Was she a nationalistic Church of England Tory, or a progressive egalitarian feminist? One argument that all sides might agree upon is that for Austen, the personal is never isolated from the social. We become who we are in relationship and connectedness to others and to a larger social fabric that defines our choices and our options.


  1. R. W. Chapman reprints the “Biographical Notice” in Volume V of The Novels of Jane Austen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 6, 8.

  2. Letter 146 to James Edward Austen, 16‐17 December 1816. Jane Austen's Letters, New Edition, ed. Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 323.

  3. “Biographical Notice,” p. 8.

  4. For general accounts of the history of Austen readership and criticism, see the introduction to Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968) and Southam's “Janeites and Anti‐Janeites,” in The Jane Austen Companion, ed. J. David Grey, A. Walton Litz, and Brian Southam (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 237‐43; Juliet McMaster, “Jane Austen as a Cultural Phenomenon,” in her Jane Austen the Novelist: Essays Past and Present (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), pp. 3‐17; Claudia Johnson, “The Divine Jane Austen: Jane Austen, Janeites, and the Discipline of Novel Studies,” boundary 2.23 (1996) and reprinted in Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, ed. Deirdre Lynch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 25‐44; Laura Mooneyham White, “Introduction,” in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, (New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1998), pp. 1‐12; Barbara K. Seeber, “Introduction: ‘Directly opposite notions’: Critical Disputes,” in General Consent in Jane Austen: A Study of Dialogism (Montreal: McGill‐Queen's University Press, 2000), pp. 3‐17.

  5. R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948), p. 161.

  6. Jane Austen, Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, two vols., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932). Volume the First, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), Volume the Second, ed. B. C. Southam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), and Volume the Third, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951).

  7. Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p.106 (Scott) and p. 126 (C. Brontë); Henry James, “The Lessons of Balzac,” in The House of Fiction: Essays on the Novel, ed. Leon Edel (London: R. Hart‐Davis, 1957), pp. 61‐63. James' essay first appeared in 1905.

  8. Cited in “Introduction,” Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice‐Hall, 1963), p. 7. B. C. Southam discusses Twain's antipathy in the “Introduction” to his Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam, Vol. 2 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), pp. 74‐75. The 1898 letter sentiment is cited in ibid., p. 232.

  9. Rudyard Kipling, “The Janeites,” in Debits and Credits, ed. Sandra Kemp (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), pp. 99‐128. Many scholars have noted that Austen novels were often prescribed to World War I veterans who suffered from shell shock.

  10. Ibid., pp. 132; 146.

  11. Katherine Mansfield, Novels and Novelists, ed. J. Middleton Murray (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), p. 302.

  12. Cited by Southam in the “Introduction” to Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam, Vol. 1 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 3.

  13. Unsigned review by Thomas Henry Lister in the Edinburgh Review (July 1830), in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam, Vol. 1 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), pp. 113‐114.

  14. Extract from Longfellow's journal entry of March 23, 1839. Ibid., p. 117.

  15. From an article on Frances Burney in the Edinburgh Review (January 1843). Ibid., p. 122.

  16. From an unsigned review in Fraser's Magazine (December 1847). Ibid., p. 124.

  17. Ibid., p. 126.

  18. Cited by John Lauber, Jane Austen (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993), p. 123.

  19. Cited by B. C. Southam in the “Introduction” to Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam, Vol. 1 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 28.

  20. From an unsigned review of Austen‐Leigh's Memoir in North British Review (April 1870). Ibid., pp. 241‐265.

  21. A Memoir of Jane Austen (1st ed., London, 1870; 2nd ed., enlarged, London, 1871); ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926). A second expanded edition appeared in 1871, accompanied by the most important of the unpublished manuscripts: Lady Susan, The Watsons, and parts of Sanditon as well as the cancelled chapter from Persuasion and some letters.

  22. From an unsigned article in St. Paul's Magazine (March 1870); R. W. Chapman supposed that novelist Anthony Trollope might have been the reviewer, but B. C. Southam disagrees. The Critical Heritage, op. cit., p. 237.

  23. From a 1923 review of the five‐volume Oxford edition of Jane Austen's Works, reprinted in The Common Reader (London: Hogarth Press, 1925), p. 182.

  24. Ibid., p. 265.

  25. Edward Brabourne, 1st Lord, Letters of Jane Austen, 2 vols. (London, 1884).

  26. B. C. Southam discusses Twain's antipathy in the “Introduction” to his Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam, Vol. 2 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987): 74‐75. The 1898 letter sentiment is cited in ibid., p. 232.

  27. From “Jane Austen, ob. July 18, 1817,” Quarterly Review (July 1917). Rpt. in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam, Vol. 2 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987): 250.

  28. The first edition of R. W. Chapman's The Novels of Jane Austen was published by Oxford University Press in 1923 in five volumes. Volume I contains Sense and Sensibility, Volume II Pride and Prejudice, Volume III Mansfield Park, Volume IV Emma, and Volume V Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. A second edition appeared in 1926 and a third in 1933. The set was subsequently reprinted in 1940, 1944, 1946, 1949, 1952, 1959, 1965 (with revisions), 1967, 1971, 1973, 1976, and 1982. In 1954, Chapman published Volume VI, Minor Works, which contains the Juvenilia, Lady Susan, the unfinished novels The Watsons and Sanditon, the Plan of a Novel, Austen's gathering of opinions of Mansfield Park and Emma, and Austen's extant poetry and prayers.

  29. The Works of Jane Austen, Volume VI, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954).

  30. Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and Her Art (1939; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1963).

  31. Gilbert Ryle, “Jane Austen and the Moralists,” in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. B. C. Southam (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968): 118.

  32. Scrutiny 8 (March 1940): 346‐362. Reprinted in Critics on Jane Austen, ed. Judith O'Neill (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1970): 42‐49.

  33. Ibid., 45.

  34. Lionel Trilling, “Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen,” written as the “Introduction” to the Riverside edition of Emma (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957) and reprinted in Trilling's Beyond Culture (New York: Viking, 1968).

  35. Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952).

  36. F. R. Leavis made his claim in The Great Tradition (London, 1948), 5.

  37. Frank W. Bradbrook, Jane Austen and Her Predecessors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961). T. S. Eliot's influential essay is called “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and was published in a collection of his essays, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methuen, 1920).

  38. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977): 338. For a more recent discussion of Austen's literary forbears and their influence on her work, see Jo Alyson Parker, The Author's Inheritance: Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and the Establishment of the Novel (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998). Parker connects Austen's focus on the inheritance plot with her effort to claim a literary inheritance, and thus literary authority, for herself.

  39. Howard S. Babb, Jane Austen's Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962).

  40. A. Walton Litz, Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development (London: Chatto & Windus, 1965).

  41. Alistair M. Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971). Duckworth's book was reissued in 1994 in paper with a new introduction that illuminatingly reviews the criticism subsequent to its first publication. Quotations come from the 1994 edition: xv, xxix.

  42. Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries: English Literature and Its Background, 1860‐1830 (1981; New York: Oxford University Press, 1982): 99, 98. Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

  43. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth‐Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

  44. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

  45. Jane Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (London: Basil Blackwell, 1986): 169. Both Spencer and Dale Spender, in Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen (London: Pandora Press, 1986), place Austen squarely within a tradition of women's writing.

  46. Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1983); Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Alison G. Sulloway, Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989); Deborah Kaplan, Jane Austen Among Women (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

  47. Kirkham, op.cit., xi.

  48. Sulloway, op.cit., xvii.

  49. See the chapter on Sense and Sensibility in George E. Haggerty, Unnatural Affections: Women and Fiction in the Later Eighteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) and the chapter on Emma in Lisa L. Moore, Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).

  50. The controversy over Austen and lesbianism erupted when a review by Terry Castle of Deirdre Le Faye's edition of Austen's letters was headlined by editors with the title “Sister‐Sister” in the London Review of Books, 3 August 1995, 3‐6. Castle mildly and judiciously raised the issue of a homosocial and homoerotic dimension in Austen's depictions of female friendship, especially that between sisters such as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. A great brouhaha ensued, and the letters, with Castle's response, were published in the next issue, on 24 August 1995. Even Time magazine reported on what they called this “kerfuffle” (4 September 1995). Claudia L. Johnson offers a useful discussion of this incident, which really amounted to a scandal, in “The Divine Miss Jane: Jane Austen, Janeites, and the Discipline of Novel Studies,” in Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, ed. Deirdre Lynch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000): 25‐44; the quotation appears on p. 27.

  51. A useful collection of feminist essays on Austen's work reflects the legacy of these early feminist readings: Jane Austen and Discourse of Feminism, ed. Devoney Looser (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995).

  52. Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (London: Macmillan, 1986): 1, 9, 5, 11.

  53. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973): 117.

  54. James Thompson, Between Self and World: The Novels of Jane Austen (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981). See also Beth Fowkes Tobin, who understands Austen to respond in her works to her contradictory circumstances by depicting property ownership as a virtue and commerce as a sign of corruption in “The Moral and Political Economy of Property in Jane Austen's Emma,Eighteenth‐Century Fiction 2 (April 1990): 229‐54; Terry Lovell, “Jane Austen and Gentry Society,” in Literature, Society, and the Sociology of Literature, ed. Francis Barker et al. (Colchester: University of Essex Press, 1977); and Judith Weissman's chapter on Austen in Half Savage and Hardy and Free: Women and Rural Radicalism in the Nineteenth‐Century Novel (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 1987).

  55. Mary Evans, Jane Austen and the State (London: Tavistock Publications, 1987).

  56. Edward Neill, The Politics of Jane Austen (London: Macmillan, 1999): ix, 1.

  57. Julian North, “Conservative Austen, Radical Austen: Sense and Sensibility from Text to Screen,” in Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text, ed. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelchan (London: Routledge, 1999): 38.

  58. Fay Weldon, Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen (c. 1984; New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1985). This book concerns the nature of fictional worlds, with Jane Austen serving as a touchstone for the discussion.

  59. Fay Weldon, “Star of Stage and Screen,” Guardian 2, 12 April 1995, 2.

  60. Janet Sorenson, The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth‐Century British Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 197.

  61. The Novels of Jane Austen, Vol. IV, 3rd ed., ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 360.

  62. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993): 92‐93. Moira Ferguson offers another postcolonial analysis of Mansfield Park in “Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender,” in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. Laura Mooneyham White (New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1998): 103‐20. White's “Introduction” to this volume usefully reviews critical approaches to Jane Austen's work (1‐12). Many of the essays in The Postcolonial Jane Austen, ed. You‐me Park and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (London: Routledge, 2000) offer readings of Mansfield Park from a global economic perspective.

  63. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, “Austen in the World: Postcolonial Mappings,” in The Postcolonial Jane Austen, ed. Rajan and Park, op. cit., 3.

  64. Williams, The Country and the City, op. cit., 113.

  65. Barbara K. Seeber, General Consent in Jane Austen: A Study of Dialogism (Montreal: McGill‐Queen's University Press, 2000): 5.

  66. This appealing view is presented by Christopher Clausen in “Jane Austen Changes Her Mind,” The American Scholar 68.2 (Spring 1999): 90. Clausen goes on to argue that Persuasion represents a distinct shift away from the claustrophobic world of the landed gentry and offers a new and riskier approach to the world.

Additional coverage of Austen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 19; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789‐1832; DISCovering Authors; Dictionary of Literary Biograhpy, Vol. 116; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Modules, Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Novels for Students, Vol. 1; World Literature Criticism.


Austen, Jane (1775 - 1817)