Special Commissioned Essay on Jane Austen, Julia Epstein


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 5453 words.)

About Jane Austen

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2814 words.)

Jane Austen At Work

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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....

(The entire section is 5718 words.)

Jane Austen's Era

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 9284 words.)

Jane Austen's Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)



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...

(The entire section is 18065 words.)

Jane Austen As Studied

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8521 words.)