English novelist Jane Austen is renowned for her six novels, with their subtle satire of the British landed gentry, and her forthright perspective on the social life of 18th-century country estates has been immortalized in her fiction.
Born in 1775 to a clergyman, George Austen, it is unsurprising that Jane’s work often explored morality and religion, and her position on the edge of the gentry would have made her acutely aware of the subtleties of class distinction and their impact on a person’s education and security as well as their social standing. These concerns are clearly expressed by her characters, with the need to marry well fundamental to her heroines’ lives.
Austen herself experienced the financial difficulty that came with not marrying. She and her sister Cassandra remained in the family home and moved with their parents from Steventon in Hampshire to Bath in 1800 when their father retired. His death five years later meant her brothers had to step in to keep her, her sister and their mother in lodgings – they moved repeatedly until 1809, when one of the brothers inherited two large estates and offered them Chawton Cottage in Hampshire.
It was at Chawton that Jane worked most productively and, through her brother Henry four of her six novels were published during her lifetime – Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815). Austen’s authorship was no secret but her name did not appear in print – writing was not considered a suitable occupation for a woman of Austen’s status and when her father had sent First Impressions (later renamed as Pride and Prejudice) to the London publisher Thomas Cadell he had refused it on account of it being written by George’s daughter. The first four novels were favourably reviewed but it wasn’t until the late Victorian era, when her nephew’s Memoir of Jane Austen presented an idealized portrait of her, that the published books, along with the posthumously released Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, found widespread popularity.
Austen had completed twelve chapters of The Brothers when she died and a full transcription of this unfinished novel, now known as Sanditon, was published in 1925. It was around that time that literary study of her work gathered pace, with growing appreciation of her wit, use of irony and the free indirect discourse that allowed her to reveal the moods and psychological depth of her characters.
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