The seventh of eight children (and the second of only two sisters), Jane Austen (1775-1817) was born to Cassandra and George Austen in Steventon, Hampshire, and lived in the small town in south-central England for the first 25 years of her life. Her father was the rector of the local parish. Aside from a couple of years away at school, she was taught largely at home, informally; her mother, for example, taught her to speak French (and a little Italian) and to play the piano.
The avid reader began to write short satirical pieces while in her teens and completed the original manuscript of Pride and Prejudice , then entitled First Impressions, between 1796 and 1797, at 21 years of age. This followed her having fallen in love with a young man - only to have his family discourage a marriage because neither of them had any fortune. A few years later, Jane became affianced to another man, but broke off the engagement the very next day, perhaps after realizing that she was not in love with him.
For several years, she did not pursue her writing, because her family began moving frequently after her father's death in 1805. She was able to work again in 1809 after settling, with her mother and her sister Cassandra, into a house in Chawton that one of her brothers owned. A publisher had, years before, rejected the initial First Impressions manuscript, and it was only at this time that Jane began the revisions that would bring First Impressions to its final form as Pride and Prejudice. She would also rework some of her early writings to become her later novels.
Two years after the successful publication of Sense and Sensibility (the publishing of which was funded by Jane herself, and which was originally titled Elinor and Marianne in its nascent form over a decade earlier), Pride and Prejudice was published in January 1813 and instantly attained a popularity that endures after nearly 200 years. Four more novels followed: Mansfield Park , Emma , Persuasion , and Northanger Abbey . The last two were published posthumously in 1817 (the year of her death, at age 41, from a long illness), and Northanger Abbey had originally been written and worked on (as Susan ) in 1798. She left behind an unfinished novel, Sandition .
For a time, she wrote behind a door that creaked when visitors approached; this warning allowed her to hide manuscripts before anyone could enter. All of the books were initially published anonymously. Even so, Pride and Prejudice was such a success that, by September 1813 (eight months after it was first published), her authorship of the novel became less of a secret. Certainly her immediate family and close friends, and the literary community, knew that she was the author. Though publishing anonymously prevented her from acquiring a reputation in her own lifetime as a great author, it also enabled her to preserve her privacy at a time when English society equated a woman's entrance into the public sphere with a loss of femininity and respectability. Furthermore, as the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815) threatened the safety of monarchies throughout Europe, government censorship of literature proliferated.
The social milieu of Jane Austen's Regency England was particularly stratified, with class divisions firmly rooted in family connections and wealth. In her work, Jane is often critical of the assumptions and prejudices of upper-crust England. She distinguishes between internal merit (goodness of person) and external merit (rank and possessions). Though she frequently satirizes snobs, she also pokes fun at the poor breeding and misbehavior of those lower on the social scale. The self-awareness, or lack of the same, of her characters, variously yields amusement, poignancy, and dramatic impact. She was in many ways a realist, accurately depicting the England of the time as one in which social mobility was limited and class-consciousness was strong.
While social advancement for young men lay in the military, church, or law, the chief method of self-improvement for women was the acquisition of wealth. Women could only accomplish this goal through a successful marriage; hence the pervasiveness of matrimony as a goal and topic of conversation in Jane's writing. Though Jane's young women of the early 19th Century had more freedom to choose their husbands than those of the early 18th Century, practical considerations continued to limit their options.
Jane Austen is frequently accused of portraying a limited world. As a clergyman's daughter, she would have done parish work and was certainly aware of the poor around her. However, she wrote about her own world, not theirs. The critiques she makes of class structure seem to include only the middle class and upper class; the lower classes, if they appear at all, are generally servants who seem perfectly pleased with their lot. While this apparent lack of interest in the lives of the poor can be seen as a shortcoming, it was one shared by almost all of English society at the time.
The influence of Jane Austen in general, and Pride and Prejudice in particular, continues to be evident in movies, television programs, and the works of many an author. As long as the human comedy abides and love and class complicate it ever further, Jane Austen's perspective remains relevant and refreshing.
Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.
- Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice