Saturday, November 6, 2010

Jane Austen: her Life and her Works

A. The Life of Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Birth and Parentage
Jane Austen was the younger daughter of a Hampshire clergyman, rector of Steventon. She was born on December 16, 1775.
Her father, Geoge Austen, was a scholarly type of man; and her mother, Cassandra Austen, was a keen gardener. Jane Austen had six brothers, and one sister whose name was also Cassandra. Two of her brothers became naval officers and attained the rank of admiral. Her sister, Cassandra, was her close companion and friend. The immediate social circle of Jane Austen included the kind of men whom we meet in her novels—a landowner, a militia officer, two clergymen, and two sailors. The circle was later enlarged by the addition of her brothers' wives and their children.
An Accomplished Woman
Her father's house at Steventon remained Jane Austen's abode for a quarter of a century. The Austen family was at that time reasonably well off, mixed in the best society of the neighbourhood, and owned a carriage and a pair of horses. For their education, Jane and Cassandra depended largely on their father and brothers, the cultured atmosphere of their home, and their contacts with relatives. Reading occupied much of Jane's time; and it was not only reading to herself but reading aloud as a family entertainment. Jane Austen could sing, dance, and play the piano. She also had some knowledge of French and Italian.
Early Writings
Jane Austen began to write stories early. Some of her early works survive in three note-books entitled Volume the First, Volume the Second and Volume the Third, containing short novels, plays, etc., all written before she was sixteen. By 1796, she had written a novel called Elinor and Marianne, in the form of a series of letters modelled on Richardson. This was afterwards re-cast and re-written in 1797, and became Sense and Sensibility. Pride and Prejudice, which shows her at the height of her powers, was written in 1796-97. In 1798, she wrote Northanger Abbey, which was bought by a publisher in 1803, but not published by him.
A Family Tradition
There is a family tradition that, during a visit to Devonshire, Jane Austen met a young man who attracted her greatly but who died soon afterwards. In 1795, Cassandra got engaged to a young man who died in 1797.
The Decision Not to Marry
In 1801, the Austen family moved to Bath which Jane Austen had previously been visiting on occasions. George Austen had retired, and he had decided to settle in Bath. It is believed that Jane was at first unhappy about living there. Perhaps there is a bit of autobiography in Persuasion, where Jane Austen writes of Anne Eliot: "She disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her and Bath was to be her home." (Chapter II). From Bath the family went on expeditions to various places, one of them being Lyme Regis, which is the setting for part of the story of Persuasion. It was on one of these expeditions to Lyme that Jane rashly accepted a proposal of marriage and then changed her mind the very next day, because she realized that she should not marry simply from worldly motives and without love. During this period at Bath, George Austen died (1804). In 1809, the family shifted to Chawton, near Winchester.
It may be noted that Jane Austen wrote hardly anything during the period the family lived in Bath. Her interest in writing seems to have revived after the family moved to Chawton. It was at Chawton that she began to publish her writings, though her life as a publishing author lasted only six years. Sense and Sensibility was the first of her novels to be published, appearing in 1811. Pride and Prejudice appeared in 1813. Mansfield Park, which had been begun in 1811, was published in 1814. Emma, begun in 1814, appeared in 1815. All these novels were published anonymously. Nonhanger Abbey and Persuasion were the only novels that were published under her own name. Persuasion was written in failing health.
Until 1816, there had been no sign of Jane Austen being ill, but early in that year her health was somewhat impaired. She still wrote cheerful letters to her relatives, but she became less and less active. In May 1817, she and Cassandra went to Winchester to get medical aid but there was no hope of a cure. She became seriously ill and died on July 18, 1817, in the arms of her sister. She was buried on the 24th July, 1817, in the cathedral church of Winchester.
Her Character and Temperament
Jane Austen had a lovable character and temperament. "Of personal attractions she possessed a considerable share. Her stature was that of true elegance. It could not have been increased without exceeding the middle height. Her carriage and deportment were quiet, yet graceful. Her features were separately good. Their assemblage produced an unrivalled expression of that cheerfulness, sensibility, and benevolence, which were her real characteristics. Her complexion was of the finest texture. It might, with truth, be said that her eloquent blood spoke through her modest cheeks. Her voice was extremely sweet. She delivered herself with fluency and precision. Indeed, she was formed for elegant and rational society, excelling in conversation as much as in composition....She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination. Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives. Most of her works were composed many years previous to their publication. It was with extreme difficulty that her friends, whose partiality she suspected whilst she honoured their judgment, could prevail on her to publish her first work. She could scarcely believe what she termed her great good fortune when Sense and Sensibility produced a clear profit of about £150. Few so gifted were so truly unpretending." (Henry Austen)
The Writing of the Novels
Jane Austen started writing from an early age, perhaps from the age of sixteen or even before. In 1795, when she was twenty years old, she completed a novel in the form of letters. It was "Elinor and Marianne", which, after revision, became Sense and Sensibility and which was published in 1811. Between 1796 and 1797, she was writing "First Impressions" which, after considerable revision, appeared as Pride and Prejudice in 1813. In 1797-98, she wrote Nonhanger Abbey (then called "Susan"). This manuscript, after undergoing some revision, was sold in 1803 to Richard Crosby who, however, did not publish it and from whom it was bought back in 1816; it appeared in print in 1817 after Jane Austen's death. Mansfield Park was begun in 1811, and it appeared in 1814. Emma was begun in 1814 and published in 1815. Emma was the last of her novels that Jane Austen was to see in print. In 1816, she completed Persuasion which she had begun a year before. Persuasion, too, appeared posthumously in 1817. Between January and March 1817, she was at work on the fragment known as "Sandition". Another fragment, "The Watsons" was written by her during the years she spent in Bath and Southampton.
Her Leisurely Manner of Writing
Jane Austen spent something like twenty-seven years on her six novels, writing them with care, constantly revising and then allowing a full twelve months for each final re-writing before publication. Her leisurely method of writing may be contrasted with the haste of Sir Walter Scott, who at times produced four novels in one year. It is not surprising therefore that the final versions of her novels have a formal perfection—no loose ends, no padding, no characterization for its own sake, and a flawlessly consistent idiom suited to the person who used it. Nothing is allowed in a Jane Austen novel that is not there for a clearly defined reason, to contribute to the plot, the drama of feelings, the moral structure, or the necessary psychology.
The Novels in the Order of Publication
1. Sense and Sensibility (1811)
2. Pride and Prejudice (1813)
3. Mansfield Park (1814)
4. Emma (1815)
5. Northanger Abbey (1817)
6. Persuasion (1817)

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