Introduction to Jane Austen  cover

Introduction to Jane Austen

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With the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death coming next year, you can be sure that her name will once again be getting the recognition she never found in life and her many, many fans will continue to find solace in her stories from a gentler time.

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Introduction to Jane Austen

Austen Fever

The enduring popularity of Jane Austen nearly 200 years after her death in 1817 at the age of 41 is such that she was once labeled by Vanity Fair as “the hottest writer in show business.”

Austenmania, Austenfever, Austenidolatry…the name has come to represent a nostalgia for a more polite and decorous age.

Jane Austen

Public Domain

Jane Austen

Jane Austen, from a drawing by sister Cassandra.

Avoiding Attention

So it’s all the more peculiar to think that Jane Austen meant absolutely nothing to the literary world when one of the greatest ever English writers was alive, not even to fans of her novels.

During her lifetime, Austen’s novels, among them Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, were published under “A Lady.” It was only when Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were released as a posthumous set in December 1817 that a biographical note written by Henry Austen identified his sister as the author.

Her epitaph at Winchester Cathedral praises Austen, heralding the “extraordinary endowments of her mind”, but fails to even mention she was a writer. In the subsequent decade after Austen’s death, her books slipped out of print.

Leading Lady

Writing at a time when it was considered unbecoming to be a published author she nevertheless released Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Pride and Prejudice two years later, Mansfield Park in 1814 and Emma in 1815, her own headstrong nature often mirrored in her heroines.

As well as the two posthumous novels she had begun a third, later titled Sanditon, but died before completing it.

A Simple Life

Other than this prolific period, Austen’s life was in many ways unremarkable.

Born on December 16, 1775, she inhabited the lower echelons of the English landed gentry as part of a close-knit family from whom she never ventured very far. Despite their position, money was always tight for her parents, George and Cassandra, who had six sons and two daughters.

Of all her brothers, Austen was closest to Henry, who would become her literary agent. She was especially close to her clergyman father, who encouraged her writing and individuality much as Mr. Bennett did his second daughter Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice.

Loved by Millions

Loved by Millions

Image by Charlotta Wasteson (CC BY 2.0)

Affairs of the Heart

Austen’s older sister, Cassandra, was her closest friend and confidante who, like her, died unmarried.

In a scene straight out of her novels, Jane turned down her one marriage proposal, changing her mind the day after accepting because she felt no love for her suitor, the wonderfully named Harris Bigg-Wither, and had only agreed to better her family’s situation.

Her hopes of a union with law student Tom Leroy, the great love of her life, were cruelly dashed by his family, who deemed her financially unsuitable and kept them apart.

Time and Preference

Republished in the 1830s the novels became steady sellers but the author described by Henry James as among “the fine painters of life” perhaps portrayed a too delicate picture for 19th Century tastes that tended towards Dickensian bombast and color.

Slowly but surely, Austen’s work grew in popularity, so much so that a group called the Janeites emerged from the literary elite in the early 20th Century distinguishing themselves from the masses they accused of not properly understanding her books that are, in many ways, the model formula for today’s romance novels.

Finally Embraced

The novels became a focus for academic study and by the time of the first film adaptation of her works, the 1940 MGM production of Pride and Prejudice, starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, she had finally been embraced as a great English writer.

Jane Austen was no longer “A Lady” but the lady of English literature and it was about to get even crazier with a flurry of cinematic adaptations in 1995 - Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Clueless (a modern re-imagination of Emma) - coining in millions at the box office.

The Bright Side

Add to that the BBC’s star-making production of Pride and Prejudice for Colin Firth the same year and the Austen phenomenon had become a literary cultural touchstone.

A special for MSNBC decreed that Austen had been “dead for 179 years, an unfortunate condition which has done her career nothing but good.

“It is no accident that her novels’ finely detailed accounts of moral and social education should inspire such interest at a time when conservative criticism of American culture is increasingly concerned with failures in those areas”, noted the New York Times, adding, “we gaze upon Austen’s world with... envy”.

Something to Celebrate

Public Domain

Something to Celebrate

With the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death coming next year, you can be sure that her name will once again be getting the recognition she never found in life and her many, many fans will continue to find solace in her stories from a gentler time.