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Jane Austen (1775-1817)

 

English writer, who first gave the novel its modern character through the treatment of everyday life. Although Austen was widely read in her lifetime, she published her works anonymously. The most urgent preoccupation of her bright, young heroines is courtship and finally marriage. Austen herself never married. Her best-known books include Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Emma (1816). Virginia Woolf called Austen "the most perfect artist among women."

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." (from Pride and Prejudice, 1813)

Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, where her father, Rev. George Austen, was a rector. She was the second daughter and seventh child in a family of eight. The Austens did not lose a single one of their children. Cassandra Leigh, Jane's mother, fed her infants at the breast a few months, and then sent them to a wet nurse in a nearby village to be looked after for another year or longer.

The first 25 years of her life Jane spent in Hampshire. On her father's unexpected retirement, the family sold off everything, including Jane's piano, and moved to Bath. Jane, aged twenty-five, and Cassandra, her elder sister, aged twenty-eight, were considered by contemporary standards confirmed old maid, and followed their parents. Torn from her friends and rural roots in Steventon, Austen abandoned her literary career for a decade.

Jane Austen was mostly tutored at home, and irregularly at school, but she received a broader education than many women of her time. She started to write for family amusement as a child. Her parents were avid readers; Austen's own favorite poet was Cowper. Her earliest-known writings date from about 1787. Very shy about her writing, she wrote on small pieces of paper that she slipped under the desk plotter if anyone came into the room. In her letters she observed the daily life of her family and friends in an intimate and gossipy manner: "James danced with Alethea, and cut up the turkey last night with great perseverance. You say nothing of the silk stockings; I flatter myself, therefore, that Charles has not purchased any, as I cannot very well afford to pay for them; all my money is spent in buying white gloves and pink persian." (Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1796)

Rev. George Austen supported his daughter's writing aspirations, bought her paper and a writing desk, and tried to help her get a publisher. After his death in 1805, she lived with her sister and hypochondriac mother in Southampton. In July 1809 they moved to a large cottage in the village of Chawton. This was the place where Austen felt at home. She never married, she never had a room of her own, but her social life was active and she had suitors and romantic dreams.

Between 1801 and 1811 Austen barely wrote anything. With Tom Lefroy, whom she met a few times in 1796, she talked about Fielding's Tom Jones. They shared similar sense of ironic humour and Austen was undeniably attracted to him. James Edward Austen-Leigh, her nephew, wanted to create another kind of legend around her and claimed that "of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crises ever broke the smooth current of its course... There was in her nothing eccentric or angular; no ruggedness of temper; no singularity of manner..." Austen's sister Cassandra also never married. One of her brothers became a clergyman, two served in the navy, one was mentally retarded. He was taken care of a local family.

Jane Austen was well connected with the middling-rich landed gentry that she portrayed in her novels. In Chawton she started to write her major works, among them Sense and Sensibility, the story of the impoverished Dashwood sisters, Marianne and Elinor, who try to find proper husbands to secure their social position. The novel was written in 1797 as the revision of a sketch called Elinor and Marianne, composed when the author was 20. According to some sources, an earlier version of the work was written in the form of a novel in letters, and read aloud to the family as early as 1795.

Austen's heroines are determined to marry wisely and well, but romantic Marianne of Sense and Sensibility is a character, who feels intensely about everything and loses her heart to an irresponsible seducer. "I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same with books, the same music must charm us both." Reasonable Elinor falls in love with a gentleman already engaged. '"I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes," said Elinor, "in a total misapprehension of character in some point or another: fancying people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why or in what the deception originated. Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge."'

When Marianne likes to read and express her feelings, Elinor prefers to draw and design and be silent of his desires. They are the daughters of Henry Dashwood, whose son, John, from a former marriage. After his death, John inherits the Norland estate in Sussex, where the sisters live. John's wife, the greedy and selfish Fanny, insists that they move to Norland. The impoverished widow and and her daughters move to Barton Cottage in Devonshire. There Marianne is surrounded by a devious heartbreaker Willoughby, who has already loved another woman. Elinor becomes interested in Edward Ferrars, who is proud and ignorant. Colonel Brandon, an older gentleman, doesn't attract Marianne. She is finally rejected by Willoughby. "Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favorite maxims."

In all of Austen's novels her heroines are ultimately married. Pride and Prejudice described the clash between Elizabeth Bennet, the independent and intelligent daughter of a country gentleman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a rich aristocratic landowner, who both are blinded by their assumptions and desires. Their relationship starts from dislike, but Darcy becomes intrigued by her mind and spirit, and the "beautiful expression of her dark eyes". She rejects his first marriage proposal but eventually barriers are swept aside and Elizabeth and Darcy are happily united. Austen had completed the early version of the story in 1797 under the title "First Impressions". The book went to three printings during Austen's lifetime. In 1998 appeared a sequel to the novel, entitled Desire and Duty, written by Teddy F. Bader, et al. It followed the ideas Jane Austen told her family.

Emma was written in comic tone. Austen begun the novel in January 1814 and completed it in March of the next year. The book was published in three volumes. It told the story of Emma Woodhouse, who finds her destiny in marriage. Emma is a wealthy, pretty, self-satisfied young woman. She is left alone with her hypochondriac father. Her governess, Miss Taylor, marries a neighbor, Mr. Weston. Emma has too much time and she spends it choosing proper partners for her friends and neighbors – blind to her own feelings. She makes a protégée of Harriet Smith, an illegitimate girl of no social status and tries to manipulate a marriage between Harriet and Mr. Elton, a young clergyman, who has set his sight on Emma. Emma has feelings about Mr. Weston's son. When Harriet becomes interested in George Knightley, a neighboring squire who has been her friend, Emma starts to understand her own limitations. He has been her moral adviser, and secretly loves her. Finally Emma finds her destiny in marriage with him. Harriet, who is left to decide for herself, marries Robert Martin, a young farmer.

Jane Austen focused on middle-class provincial life with humor and understanding. She depicted minor landed gentry, country clergymen and their families, in which marriage mainly determined women's social status. Most important for her were those little matters, as Emma says, "on which the daily happiness of private life depends." Although Austen restricted to family matters, and she passed the historical events of the Napoleonic wars, her wit and observant narrative touch has been inexhaustible delight to readers. Mansfield Park (1814) is, by exception among the novels, perhaps the least popular. The protagonist, Fanny Price, lacks the sharp wit of Elizabeth Bennet and the self-assurance of Emma Woodhouse; she is shy, passive, and not particularly intelligent, but her judgements are based on sound observations and she is more often right than anyone else. Fanny contributes little to the dialogue in the novel. "I suppose I am graver than other people," she says. Mansfield Park was written between February 1811 and the summer of 1813. Its first edition, published at the author's expence by Thomas Egerton, was sold out in six months. 

Of Austen's six great novels, four were published anonymously during her lifetime. She  had troubles with her publisher, who wanted to make alterations to her love scenes in Pride and Prejudice. In 1811 he wrote to Thomas Egerton: "You say the book is indecent. You say I am immodest. But Sir in the depiction of love, modesty is the fullness of truth; and decency frankness; and so I must also be frank with you, and ask that you remove my name from the title page in all future printings; 'A lady' will do well enough."

At her death on July 18, 1817 in Winchester, at the age of forty-one, Austen was writing the unfinished Sanditon. She managed to write twelve chapters before stopping in March 18, due to her poor health. The cause of her death is not known. It has been claimed that Austen was a victim of Addison's disease. According to Claire Tomalin, she may have died of lymphoma. Katherine White has suggested in the British Medical Journal's Medical Humanities magazine, that she died of tuberculosis caught from cattle.

Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral, near the centre of the north aisle. "It is a satisfaction to me to think that [she is] to lie in a Building she admired so much," Cassandra Austen wrote later. Cassandra destroyed many of her sister's letters; one hundred sixty survived but none written earlier than her tentieth birthday.

Austen's brother Henry made her authorship public after her death. Emma had been reviewed favorably by Sir Walter Scott, who wrote in his journal of March 14, 1826: "[Miss Austen] had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The Big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me." Charlotte Brontë and E.B. Browning found her limited, and Elizabeth Hardwick said: "I don't think her superb intelligence brought her happiness." It was not until the publication of J.E. Austen-Leigh's Memoir in 1870 that a Jane Austen cult began to develop. Austen's unfinished Sanditon came out in 1925. Nearly every word she ever wrote has been published, including scrapbooks of her teenage bagatelles,  fragments, and letters.

For further reading: Memoirs by J.E. Austen-Leigh (1870); Jane Austen and Her World by Mary Lascelles (1939); Jane Austen and Her Art by M. Lascalles (1941); Jane Austen by R.W. Chapman (1948); The Novels of Jane Austen by Robert Liddell (1963); The Language of Jane Austen by N. Page (1972); The Double Life of Jane Austen by Jane Hodge (1972); The Critical Heritage, ed. by B. Southam (1987); Jane Austen by Claudia L. Johnson (1990); Erotic Faith by Robert M. Polhemus (1990); Jane Austen's Novels by Roger Gard (1992); The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, ed. by Edward Copeland, Juliet McMaster (1997); Jane Austen, Obstinate Heart by Valerie Grosvenor Myer (1997); Jane Austen: Her Life by Park Honan (1997); Jane Austen: A Life by David Nokes (1998); Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin (1998); A History of Jane Austen's Family by George Holbert Tucker (1998); Critical Essays of Jane Austen, ed. by Laura Mooneyham (1998); Jane Austen by Deirdre Le Faye (1998); The Author's Inheritance: Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and the Establishment of the Novel by Jo Alyson Parker (1998); Pride & Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen by Arielle Eckstut, Dennis Ashton (2001); Jane Austen by Carol Shields (2001) - See also: J.F. Cooper - Museum: Jane Austen's House, Chawton, Alton, GU34 ISD. - Austen wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion while living in this house.

Selected novels:

  • Lady Susan, 1793-94
    - Tahto ja toiveet (suom. Paula Merensuo, 2006)
  • Sense and Sensibility, 1811
    - Järki ja tunteet (suom. Aune Brotherus, 1952)
    - films: TV drama 1971, dir. by David Giles, TV drama 1981, dir. by Rodney Bennett; 1995, dir. by Ang Lee, starring Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant. "Verbally, the film is nicely nuanced and catches the spirit of the text. The female characters tend to be ironists or dimwits, though many of the latter are good, amusing people who generally mean well. For decades readers have been drawn to the civilized world Jane Austen created in her novels. This film brilliantly transforms that world to the screen and is sure to revive Hollywood's interest in Jane Austen, to the delight of literate viewers." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999); Kandukondain Kandukondain, 2000, dir. by Rajiv Menon; TV series 2007, dir. by John Alexander
  • Pride and Prejudice, 1813
    - Ylpeys ja ennakkoluulo (suom. O.A. Joutsen, 1922; Sirkka-Liisa Norko-Turja, 1947)
    - film 1940, dir. by Robert Z. Leonard, written Aldous Huxley, Jane Murfin, play Helen Jerome, starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. "While Austen sustains a heightened level of clever dialogue, the screenwriters insert various slapstick scenes such as the squawking parrot, Lady Catherine sitting on a music box, Mr. Collins scurrying on his knees as he proposes to Elizabeth, and the tipsy tendencies of Lydia and Kitty." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999); BBC televisio series 1995, dir. by Simon Langton, starring Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, Susannah Harker, Crispin Bonham-Carter; 2003, dir. by Andrew Black; Bride & Prejudice, 2004, dir. by Gurinder Chadham, starring Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Daniel Gillies; TV mini-series 2005, dir. by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley, Rosamund Pike, Talulah Riley, Jena Malone, Donald Sutherland, Simon Woods, and Matthew McFadyen
  • Mansfield Park, 1814
    - Kasvattitytön tarina (suom. A.R. Koskimies, 1954)
    - films: TV mini-series 1983, dir. by David Giles; 1999, dir. by Patricia Rozema; television drama 2007, dir. by Iain B. MacDonald
  • Emma, 1815
    - Emma (suom. Aune Brotherus, 1951)
    - films: 1932, dir. by Clarence Brown; TV drama 1948, dir. by Michael Barry; TV drama 1960, dir. by Campbell Logan; 1996, dir. by Douglas Mc Grath, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Collette, Ewan McGregor; Clueless, 1996, dir. by Amy Heckerling, starring Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd; television drama 1996, dir. by Diarmuid Lawrence
  • Northanger Abbey, 1817
    - Neito vanhassa linnassa (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1953) / Northanger Abbey (suom. P. Merjamaa, 1999)
    - films: TV drama 1986, dir. by Giles Foster; starring Katharine Schlesinger; Peter Firth, Robert Hardy, Googie Withers, Geoffrey Chater; TV drama 2007, dir. by Jon Jones
  • Persuasion, 1818
    - Viisasteleva sydän (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1951)
    - films: 1955, dir. by Rober Michell; BBC TV series, 1995, dir. by Roger Michell, starring Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, Susan Fleetwood, Corin Redgrave, Fiona Shaw and John Woodvine; TV mini-series 2007, dir. by Adrian Shergold
  • The Watsons, 1871
    - Tavat ja tunteet (suom. Ritva Mäkelä, 1978)
  • The Novels and Letters of Jane Austen, 1906 (Chawton ed.; 12 vols., edited by R. Brimley Johnson, with an introduction by Prof. William Lyon Phelps)
  • Love & Friendship, and Other Early Works, 1922
  • Three Novels, 1923 (edited by R.W. Chapman)
  • The Letters of Jane Austen, 1925 (selected with an introduction by R. Brimley Johnson)
  • [Sanditon]: Fragment of a Novel, 1925 (unfinished)
    - Leikkiä ja totta (suom. Marja Helanen-Ahtola, 1977)
  • Sanditon, The Watsons, Lady Susan, and Other Miscellanea, 1934 (with an introduction by R. Brimley Johnson)
  • Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, 1935 (2 vols., collected and edited by R. W. Chapman)
  • The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, 1923-54 (edited by R.W. Chapman)
  • The Complete Novels of Jane Austen, 1998
  • Selected Letters, 2004 (selected with an introduction and notes by Vivien Jones)
  • Love and Friendship and Other Early Works, 2005 (introduction by Sarah S.G. Frantz)
  • Becoming Jane: The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen, 2007 (edited by Anne Newgarden)
  • Later Manuscripts, 2008 (edited by Janet Todd and Linda Bree)
  • Catharine and Other Writings, 2009 (edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray; with an introduction by Margaret Anne Doody)
  • The Wicked Wit of Jane Austen, 2011 (rev. ed., compiled, edited, and introduced by Dominique Enright)


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