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Who is Jane Austen?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
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  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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Jane Austen was an early 19th century British novelist, who has received much posthumous praise for her novels. Her work was disregarded for much of the 1800s. Interest in the 1900s clearly established her novels as an important part of the literary canon or “must read” material for those studying literature.

Her novels are comedic, tightly constructed works which gently mock the limited sphere in which she lived--the middle class of England in the early 1800s. She completed six novels during her lifetime: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. The last two novels were written before Emma and published posthumously.

Jane Austen lived an uneventful and short life in England. Born in 1775, Jane Austen only lived until 1817. Her major works were composed during the first decade of the 1800s. She had started writing by the time she was 13 or 14, and some adore her collection of early writings.

Jane Austen clearly wrote to entertain her family in her early works. She received a better education than most women, and was inspired to study the more weighty topics in which her brother excelled.

Jane Austen had six brothers and one sister. She was particularly close to her sister Cassandra, mirroring the relationship between Jane and Elizabeth in her novel Pride and Prejudice. Her letters to Cassandra are available for review on the Internet and at the Jane Austen Museum located in Bath, England.

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Much like the marriage proposal of Mr. Collins to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice(P&P) Jane Austen received a proposal of marriage in 1802 from a “heavyset” man, Harris Bigg-Wither. She initially accepted, then declined the proposal. She would not marry for anything less than love, and would not become the Charlotte Lucas of P&P who married an “odious” man to avoid poverty. Some critics suggest Charlotte is Austen’s argument for refusing Bigg-Winter.

Jane Austen did not find love and was obliged to accept support and guidance from her family. She began writing novels, to partially earn her way. However, as any proper female of the time, she was known to hide her writing under blotting paper, should any guests arrive, as it was considered next to indecent to be a female novelist. Her work was published anonymously befitting “decent” behavior of the time.

She has received both praise and censure for her works from other writers. Both Mark Twain and Charlotte Bronte thought her novels were wretched. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lionel Trilling were fans, and Virginia Woolf referred to Jane Austen as an “incandescent” writer.

Jane Austen lived in a limited sphere of English society, and exemplifies the “write what you know” philosophy of composition. Her works are limited to her understanding of the world, although her last novel, Emma, explores society a bit more and is considered by many critics to be her greatest work. Her novels are unlike much of the writing of the Romantic period, as they do not celebrate either nature or naturalness as was common to her contemporaries like Wordsworth.

Readers find Pride and Prejudice to be the most approachable work of Jane Austen, and had been adapted into two films. The 1940s version stars Laurence Olivier as Darcy, and the other in 2005 stars Keira Knightly. Two miniseries closely adhere to the book. The 1980s BBC version starring Elizabeth Garvey and David Rintoul is the most faithful production. The 1990s series featuring Jennifer Erhle and Colin Firth is most admired.

Sense and Sensibility’s best known film adaptation was written by the actor, Emma Thompson, who also starred in the work. It is a fairly faithful production and pleases most Jane Austen fans. Mansfield Park and Persuasion have been adapted for both films and miniseries several times, and Emma was wonderfully parodied in the 1990s film Clueless.

Austen’s greatness as an author is found less in films, but more in her actual work. Her character studies are precise and witty. One can still find representations of such characters in ordinary modern life. Jane Austen novels form an integral part of the literary canon, and should be studied by all who are analyzing the novel as art form.

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