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Austen, Jane

(British, 1775–1817)

Jane Austen is one of the greatest and most entertaining of English novelists. She was born in Steventon in rural Hampshire where her father was village rector. She lived there for most of her life, with occasional trips to Bath, Lyme Regis, and London, and died in Winchester at the age of 42. The settings for her novels are similar to her own life, reflecting the lifestyle and conventions of middle-class rural society of that time.

Austen's writing is not so much a direct criticism of genteel life, as an acute examination of the everyday, sometimes petty occupations of her world. Her observations of snobbery and vulgarity are humorous and subtle. Start with Pride and Prejudice (1813), where Mr and Mrs Bennet exert their energies to achieve suitable marriages for their five daughters. At the centre is the romance between outspoken Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy aristocrat. The twin faults of the novel's title are corrected as Darcy moderates his snobbishness and recognizes individual worth in social ranks below his own; Elizabeth in turn recognizes her own limited judgements, particularly of Darcy whom she initially dismissed as an unfeeling aristocrat. The hero and heroine are surrounded by a host of finely drawn, often comic characters, most notably the rather vulgar Mrs Bennet. This is perhaps the most comic of Austen's novels.

In Mansfield Park (1814), Fanny Price is the poor relation brought up in a wealthy family's home. Fanny competes for the man she loves against a witty and beautiful rival. Her modesty and goodness eventually win the day. As in all of Austen's novels, true love between individual men and women is explored as a higher goal than marriage based purely on social and economic convention.

The heroine of Emma (1816) is brought up by a doting father and permissive governess. At the age of 21 she takes it upon herself to arrange the life and marriage of Harriet Smith, a pretty, dim ‘natural daughter of somebody’. The novel charts Emma's gradual recognition of the arrogance of interfering in the lives of others, and ends with her marrying Mr Knightley, the only person who has the courage to criticize her. As in Pride and Prejudice, antagonism transforming into love creates a powerful romantic tension.

Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion (1818), is initially persuaded that her lover Captain Wentworth is an unsuitable marriage partner. She mourns him for seven years. On meeting again, Wentworth apparently spurns Anne for the affections of another woman. Anne must search within herself in order to win his love back. The question of suitable romantic partnerships also features in Sense and Sensibility (1811). Elinor Dashwood embodies good sense and cool judgement, while her sister Marianne is highly imaginative and sensitive. These qualities are explored and challenged through the trials of love, but both sisters eventually find contentment through suitable marriage partners. All of Austen's heroines are faced with moral questions about courtship and matrimony, which are finally resolved by marriage based upon true love. All Austen's novels have been adapted for film and television.

Anthony Trollope, Edith Wharton, Barbara Pym. See CHILDHOOD, CLASSICS, ROMANCE  DJ

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (A-Bo)