Jane Austen is considered one of the foremost novelists of the 19th century and one of the most widely read writers from the era. At the time of her death in 1817 at the age of 42 she was regarded as a somewhat successful writer with a small critical following. It wasn’t until a book about her written by nephew in 1870 that revived interest in her work and her fame grew considerably and now she is one of literature’s best-loved authors with fan clubs around the world.
Austen was born in 1775 and lived her life in Hampshire, England as part of the rural gentry. Educated by her father she was part of a large and progressive family. Her desire to become a writer was encouraged by her family and her father was instrumental in getting her first novels published.
Austen began writing in her late teens and quickly developed a style of social satire. While her novels were ostensibly romantic comedies, the social conventions of the time such as the dependence of women on marriage for security, the snobbery of the English provincial gentry, the subjugation of women were all recurring subjects in Austen’s writing.
She began writing her first novels around 1793 although most were parodies and romances and were not published. Her first recognized novel Sense and Sensibility was written as early as 1797 but wasn’t published until 1811. The immediate success of that novel meant the quick publication of novels she had worked on in the intervening years. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814 and Emma in 1815. Northanger Abbey (written in 1798) and Persuasion, were both published in 1817 after her death.
Her novels were successful at the time and her fans included the Prince Regent and Sir Walter Scott, although widespread acclaim was not forthcoming during her lifetime. This may have been a result of her early novels being published under the name “A Lady.”
Austen died in 1817 probably from Addison’s Disease of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She worked on a novel, Sanditon, until her death and left it unfinished.
Pride and Prejudice
First published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice is regarded as one of the first romantic comedies in English literature. Originally titled First Impressions, it was written in 1797 but not published until 1813 following the success of Austin’s Sense and Sensibility. The novel was a success although it did not bring Austin broad acclaim at the time.
Pride and Prejudice begins with one of the most famous lines in the English novel “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The man of good fortune is Mr Bingley who attracts the attention on Mrs. Bennet who is eager to marry off her five daughters to men of means. Bingley moves into the local mansion and brings along his best friend Mr. Darcy.
Bingley proves a popular attraction with the local women at the balls and dances that make the social calendar of the village of Meryton. Mr. Darcy on the other hand is seen as proud and arrogant, particularly earning the distain of one of the Bennett daughters, Elizabeth after she overhears him insult her looks.
The novel follows Mrs. Bennet’s attempts to marry of her daughters to a revolving door or wealthy but feckless suitors. Elizabeth resists being married off and through circumstance even comes to like Darcy. But circumstances and misunderstandings again lead Elizabeth to hate Darcy even as be begins to fall in love with her. The two find themselves thrown together in various situations and Darcy even proposes to Elizabeth but is rebuffed.
Finally, Elizabeth’s affections begin to turn.
The novel is regarded as one of literature’s great love stories and its enduring charm has made it a favourite for television and film adaptation. What are seen as rom/com clichés were first presented by Austen in this novel. That said, Austen was aware of the romantic novel conventions of the day and often satirizes them throughout the novel.
Pride and Prejudice makes light of the romantic tensions between Elizabeth and Darcy, the relentless need for Mrs Bennett to marry off her daughters and the provincial attitudes toward love, sex and marriage. Many of the characters are pompous, ridiculous, vain, snobbish, deceitful and stupid which makes for both comedy and ridicule. Throughout the novel much is made about importance of a woman’s reputation and the restrictions on a woman who is seem as difficult and independent. As with other Austen novels, the relationship of women to money or their lack thereof is an important subtext.