It would be inaccurate to call Jane Austen one of the greatest female novelists in the English language: she is, quite simply, one of the greatest novelists, male or female, in the history of English literature. Her work marks a period of transition between the highly-stylised novels of ‘sensibility’, which focussed on evoking an emotional response in the reader and had previously dominated the nascent world of the English novel, and the realism which would come to fruition in the work of writers like Dickens. Austen’s sometimes bitingly ironic comedy drew on the often-overlooked hardships of the lives of upper-middle-class and upper-class women during the 18th century, for whom all the comforts, balls and pretty dresses masked a life of sometimes-stultifying idleness lived in total dependency upon men: fathers, brothers, sons and husbands. These last had to be secured at any cost if a young woman was not to end up in the vulnerable position of the old maid, and it is this ever-present threat which provides much of the tension in her novels.
Austen herself never married, although by today’s standards she was never a particularly ‘old’ maid, dying at the age of 41. She was born into a large family (five older brothers and an older sister, plus one younger brother) who were part of the landed, though untitled, English gentry. Although little is known about her personal life, it seems that literary pursuits were a way of life in the Austen household: the family and a close circle of friends often staged plays, primarily of a comic nature, for one another and, like many prosperous families of the time, frequently read aloud to one another in the evenings. She began writing in her teens, and it seems her family were both supportive and proud: her sister, Cassandra, illustrated her satirical ‘History of England’, while her father submitted several of her novels for publication. In spite of this her first published work, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, didn’t hit the shelves until 1811, and both ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’ were published posthumously.
It is doubtful whether Austen would ever have considered herself to be a campaigner for women’s rights. Apart from producing half a dozen exceptional novels (and a selection of poems, prayers, letters, and juvenile works which were probably never intended for publication, plus, of course, her History of England), her life conformed to the expected pattern of the time: she played the pianoforte, attended female relatives at their ‘lying in’ and older relatives on their deathbeds, assisted her mother in managing the household servants, went to church, and was particularly proud of her skills as a seamstress. But her writing not only portrayed the reality of life for women – even privileged women – in a patriarchal society, it also helped give women a voice in the influential world of literature by cementing the respectability and validity of ‘novelist’ as one of the few acceptable female professions in the following century, and ensured that a woman’s name would be listed amongst the élite of English writers. Plus, of course, providing the source material for some fabulously lush BBC dramas.
Starting-points with Austen: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the most widely-known and adapted of Austen’s novels. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ is my personal favourite, simply because I love Elinor’s down-to-earth attitude. ‘Northanger Abbey’ is often considered by critics to be the best of her novels.
Have you read any works by Jane Austen? What did you think?