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Jane Austen

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Jane Austen was born 16 December 1775 at Steventon Parish, Hampshire, England. She was the seventh child and second daughter of the Rev. George Austen and Cassandra Leigh-Austen. Jane was devoted to her older sister, Cassandra-Elizabeth, and eventually wrote enough letters to her to choke a horse. When Cassandra, age 10, was sent away to school in Oxford1, Jane begged to be sent along with her even though she was too young. Mr. Austen, however, couldn't really afford their schooling and the girls were back home after less than three years. Apart from this, Jane never lived outside of her family circle again2. She ended up very well-educated for a female, though. Her oldest brother James helped her out by organizing reading lists for her, and Jane could lay claim to a good knowledge of history as well as a little Latin, Italian and musical training.

It was 1787 when Jane made the decision to devote all her spare time to writing. This early work made three volumes of Juvenilia, and you can see all that satire just dying to come out. In 1791, she wrote a parody of Oliver Goldsmith's History of England. A few years later, when she was only about nineteen, she started work on Lady Susan, an epistolary3 novel which was Jane's first attempt at a serious theme. It didn't work well in the format she used, but it was good enough to encourage her to keep going. She began another epistolary novel in 1795, which was titled Elinor and Marianne4, and 1796 saw the beginning of First Impressions5.

But don't think it was all work for Jane. Like any single young lady back then, she went to dances, properly escorted of course, and flirted decorously with eligible young men. Cassandra had become engaged to Tom Fowle, a local clergyman, in 1795. Two years later, Tom's patron, Lord Craven, who had just purchased a colonelcy in the West Indies, asked Tom to go there as his private chaplain, and Tom felt he didn't dare refuse. Unfortunately, Tom died of yellow fever, and Cassandra slid into quiet spinsterhood6 with her sister.

In August of 1797, Jane submitted First Impressions, as it was still known, for publication, and it was turned down firmly. Jane was not surprised or disappointed; she'd only sent it in because her entire family was telling her to. She knew it wasn't any good7. She spent the next two years rewriting Elinor and Marianne into Sense and Sensibility and starting work on Susan8. In 1800 she took a break and went to visit an in-law. She returned home to learn that her home was moving to Bath. Though naturally a bit disconcerted, Jane soon adjusted to the idea of moving, especially since it was probably meant to improve her parents' health. Also around this time, Jane paid her first visit to the Bigg-Wither9 family and met the reasonably young, moderately wealthy Harris Bigg-Wither. About a year later, when Jane visited the family again in early December 1802, Harris proposed to Jane and she accepted. But before you start scratching your head and trying to figure out why she isn't known to posterity as Jane Bigg-Wither10, know that Jane changed her mind the very next morning11. Now this was really something of a scandal. Jane and Cassandra, who was also visiting, fled to their brother James' house (actually their old house) and demanded to be escorted to Bath immediately12, where Jane had to lay low until everything blew over.

Somewhere around early 1804, Jane started another novel called The Watsons, but when Jane's father died on 21 January 1805, she set the novel aside in her grief and never returned to it. Jane and her mother were now exceedingly poor13. Three of the boys in the family chipped in to arrange an annual income and lodgings for the ladies, but Jane's letters of the time hint that she was depressed at the restrictions of her finances. So it was probably out of desperation that she sent off one of her manuscripts to a publisher. In 1810, Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication on commission, meaning the printing costs would be paid by the author. Jane, expecting to lose money, only agreed reluctantly, but the novel sold briskly and gave Jane a profit of about 140. Jane, knowing a good thing when she saw it, started work on Mansfield Park and sold Pride and Prejudice for publication in 1812. By the next year, it was the fashionable novel in England14, and Mansfield Park was published and selling right along.

In November of 1815, Jane discovered she had fans in high places. People had finally realized who she was, thanks to her brother Henry, who had begun sharing her identity with his friends and acquaintances, and their friends and acquaintances, etc., until even the Prince Regent, who owned enough copies of each of Jane's novels to stock all his residences, knew who she was. He sent Jane, through his chief librarian, royal permission to dedicate any forthcoming novel to His Royal Highness. Jane, like 99% of the British population at the time15, greatly disapproved of the Prince Regent and made up her mind to ignore this permission. Fortunately, several of her relatives rightly interpreted this permission as a command, and Emma, published in 1815, was duly dedicated to the spoiled, spendthrift Prince.

Jane's health was beginning to fail by now. In her quest to tie up loose ends, she now repurchased the manuscript of Susan (Northanger Abbey) from the publishers who'd bought it for 10 back in 1803 and then ignored it. Once the purchase, conducted through an intermediary, was complete, Jane took great pleasure in informing the publishers that the manuscript was by the renowned author of Pride and Prejudice, etc. There is unfortunately no record of the publishers' reactions to this news.

Though she began another novel during a period of remission, Jane's health was very poor. She probably had the then-unnamed Addison's Disease, which attacks the adrenal glands and is still incurable today. In April of 1817, Jane quietly made her will, guessing in spite of all the doctors' reassurances that she would not live long, and left everything, except two small bequests, to her beloved Cassandra. She died early on the morning of 18 July 1817, with Cassandra at her side. In December of that year, her chatty brother Henry arranged the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which she'd finished in August 1816, with the first official acknowledgement of Jane's authorship on the title pages16. The heroine of Persuasion, incidentally, was Anne Elliot, who many of her relatives and friends seemed to think was most like Jane herself in temperament. Just didn't want to leave you all wondering about the nickname

About Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is Jane's Austen's earliest work, and in some senses also one of her most mature works. Austen began writing the novel in 1796 at the age of twenty-one, under the title First Impressions. The original version of the novel was probably in the form of an exchange of letters. Austen's father had offered he manuscript for publication in 1797, but the publishing company refused to even consider it. Shortly after completing First Impressions, Austen began writing Sense and Sensibility, which was not published until 1811. She also wrote some minor works during that time, which were later expanded into full novels. Between 1810 and 1812 Pride and Prejudice was rewritten for publication. While the original ideas of the novel come from a girl of 21, the final version has the literary and thematic maturity of a thirty-five year old woman who has spent years painstakingly drafting and revising, as is the pattern with all of Austen's works. Pride and Prejudice is usually considered to be the most popular of Austen's novels.

About Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility was Austen's first published novel; its first edition came out in three volumes in 1811, and the novel was reasonably well-liked and successful. This was much to the relief of Austen, who financed the printing of the book herself, and managed to make over 150 pounds on the first run alone. Her brother Henry and sister Cassandra were instrumental in convincing Austen to publish the novel, especially after her other books Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice were rejected by a publisher. Austen was discouraged, but her brother convinced a London publisher to put out the book, and the result was the beginning of Austen's career as a novelist. The novel was initially attributed to "A Lady"; her later novels also neglected to mention Austen's name as author, and instead are credited to "the author of Sense and Sensibility," or another one of Austen's several successful books.

Austen wrote the first version of the novel, and also early versions of Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, in the 1790's, between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-three. The original version of Sense and Sensibility was titled Elinor and Marianne, written in 1797, and was likely the first novel that Austen worked on, in addition to becoming her first published text. It was originally a series of letters between the two sisters, but evolved to become the novel we know and read today. Sense and Sensibility was actually revised by Austen between the novel's first and second printings; most modern texts adhere to the changes made in the second edition, some placing the later revisions in brackets to set them off from the original text.

Modern readers and critics, on the whole, do not consider Sense and Sensibility to be Austen's best work. Her characterization is flat in parts, her two heroines, Elinor and Marianne, are both too extreme and two-dimensional to be truly sympathetic, and many have found Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon very dull indeed. The story is somewhat unsatisfying because Marianne's change of heart and her regard for Colonel Brandon are hastily discussed in a paragraph at the end of the novel, and the relationships between Edward and Elinor and the Colonel and Marianne are not well fleshed-out. The ending is also regarded as Austen's weakest, as elements, such as Lucy's elopement with Robert, and Marianne and the Colonel's marriage, seem to come from left-field and are badly justified by the text. Although Austen's trademark wit is in evidence, her sense of social satire is hardly as sharp as in later novels, such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and her plotting, in places, leaves much to be desired. However, this novel was an auspicious beginning for Austen, and is a valuable look at the start of her writing career and the beginning of her development as a novelist.

About Emma

First published in 1816, Emma is generally regarded as Jane Austen's most technically brilliant book. And Emma Woodhouse is one of Jane Austen's most memorable heroines: "handsome, clever, and rich" as well as self-assured, she believes herself immune to romance, and wreaks amusing havoc in the lives of those around her. Determined to control the arrangements of other people's lives, Emma takes on the self-appointed role of matchmaker. She uses considerable creative powers dreaming up romantic scenarios that consistently, and comically, fail to work out as she has planned. And at the end discovers that she is not immune to love and marriage herself.

About Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park is the home of the wealthy Bertram family. The heroine of the novel, Fanny Price, is a "poor relation" living with the Bertrams. Fanny loves their youngest son, Edmund, but finds herself in competition for him with a dazzlingly witty and lovely rival. Courtships, entertainments, and intrigues throw the place into turmoil.

Unique in its moral design and its brilliant interplay of the forces of tradition and change, Mansfield Park was the first novel of Jane Austen's maturity, and the first in which the author turned her unerring eye on the concerns of English society at a time of great upheaval.

About Northanger Abbey

The first of her novels, Northanger Abbey is Austen's most youthful and optimistic. It is centered on the loves and friendships of Catherine Morland, an endearing young girl extremely fond of novel-reading who, during an eventful season in Bath, meets the sophisticated Henry and Eleanor Tiley who invite her to stay at their father's mysterious house, Northanger Abbey. There Catherine runs into dangers, imaginary and real, and learns how to tell the difference between books and real life, false friends and true.

About Persuasion

Persuasion, the most somber of Jane Austen's novels, was published a year after the author's death, and may be the truest reflection of its creator's own life. The heroine, Anne Elliott, is 27 years old and on the path to spinsterhood. Eight years earlier, she had fallen in love with Frederick Wentworth, a young naval officer with nothing but his own merit to recommend him Anne had allowed herself to be persuaded by Lady Russell, an old family friend, to reject the proposal of this suitor who had "no hopes of attaining affluence".

An angry and disappointed Wentworth went off to sea and a heartbroken Anne remained behind to bear the whims and slights of her selfish father and sisters as best she could. When Wentworth finally returns--now a captain, and possessed of a considerable fortune won during the Napoleonic Wars--Anne is forced to watch him apparently fall in love with another woman before discovering that there may still be hope for herself after all.



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