Jane Austen: Biography and Major Novels

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  • 0:10 Intro to Austen's Work…
  • 1:18 Austen's Life and Themes
  • 4:20 Biography
  • 6:27 Her Work
  • 11:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Eric Garneau
When you hear the name Jane Austen, you probably think about long dresses, stuffy tea parties, and British accents - unless you don't know who she is. In that case, you really need to watch this video about the writer's life and works.


Jane Austen - you've probably heard of her. She is a very influential and popular writer of romantic novels, and pretty much all of her books have been converted into big-name movies, even though they were published in the early 19th century. Her ability to create these really relatable characters and her really amazing sense of humor - she's got a perfect eye for social comedy -is something that still resonates with readers and viewers today. It's all still pretty relevant.

In a lot of ways, her books are kind of the proto-romantic comedies. Her actual plots are made into movies, but also a lot of the rom-coms that you're familiar with, if not based on Austen, certainly owe a lot to Austen. 'The meet-cute - hate each other - come together at the end' is totally a Jane Austen original plot that's been done to death now, but back when she did it, it was kind of original.

There was an even a novel published in 2004, which was then made into a movie, about people reading Jane Austen novels, called The Jane Austen Book Club. So, you can see we really love some Jane Austen. It's good stuff; we still relate to it.

Austen's Life and Themes

But for someone who's so omnipresent in a lot of ways and so famous, we actually don't know that much about Jane Austen. She was a little bit of a mysterious figure. Part of the reason for this is that her sister, Cassandra, burned a lot of her letters. The theory is that Cassandra thought that the letters would make Jane look bad, but we don't really know. Literary letters often do make their writers look bad but sometimes in really entertaining ways, like James Joyce wrote some really, really dirty letters to his wife that you can Google. So, maybe Jane Austen's letters were dirty sex letters; we'll never know. And actually, Cassandra burning them has probably led us to think a little more creatively about what might be in them and extrapolate further and worse than what they probably were.

The things that we do know: like many of the characters in her novels, Jane Austen grew up in a house wealthy enough to not be poor, but poor enough not to be wealthy; she's kind of in that awkward middle place. A lot of her novels focus on the fact that women who weren't born into extreme wealth are obligated to marry well in order to get any kind of independence from their family or to have any kind of money of their own to spend.

But even though all of Jane Austen's books are about marriage, neither she nor her sister Cassandra ever married, which is kind of interesting. Austen writes about marriage in a way that's clearly saying something about how you don't have a lot of options as a woman in her time. Her take on marriage is that it's something you do and something that can be beneficial in a lot of ways, but it's not something to be happy about. That might explain a bit why she, who was a successful author, didn't end up marrying - she was able to make her own way a bit. And it's interesting, actually, that she was writing in a time when marriage was absolutely expected. That was the only thing that you could do as a woman.

Now, when thinking about all of these books and movies and things that are based on the romantic comedy plotlines that she laid out, we live in a time where you're not forced into marriage, and yet all of those things still end in, if not marriage, the two characters getting together. It's a little funny when you look at it that way: she was writing something that was reflective of the time, where marriage was almost a business proposition in a lot of cases. We've kind of taken that and further romanticized it, made it into something that is not necessary but still greatly desired. We've kind of taken it out of context a bit with the way that we interpret her now.


We said a little bit about her family. How'd she get to writing? That's the next logical question.

Portrait of Jane Austen
Jane Austen Portrait

She was born in 1775 in Steventon, England. She was one of eight children - six brothers and the aforementioned Cassandra (who burned all of her letters). Austen's parents were really good about encouraging her love of reading and writing. She had a sharp wit; that was really apparent right from the beginning. They saw that and nurtured it, which is what parents should do - nurture your children's talents; your kid might turn into Jane Austen! Something that they noticed right away is that she loved making fun of 'the establishment' (social laws, social rules). Her real gift was for skewering social mores. Outside of her writing, her life really wasn't all that dissimilar to a character in her books - she played the piano, she sewed, she danced at balls; she was kind of your typical well-cultured lady (or 'accomplished' is the word that they used to describe women like that. They have accomplishments - piano, sewing, etc.).

She really was a writer who wrote what she knew (with the exception of the whole 'not marrying' thing - although, actually, to be fair, we don't see a lot of her characters in marriages; we see them going towards marriages, so perhaps she did actually still have familiarity with that). Austen scholars speculate, in the same vein of writing what you know and writing for entertainment to skewer the establishment, that she started out writing to amuse her friends and family. She didn't actually decide to be professional until around 1789. I wish I had a friend like Austen, writing to entertain me, instead of some of the friends that I have who you have to encourage in their creative projects. Austen had something going on; she had real talent.

Her Work

Her first attempt at a thing to publish was a shorter novel, called 'Lady Susan', which is totally unlike the work she's famous for, and you've probably not heard of it at all before this lesson, but it's really cool. It's worth checking out. It's interesting because it's very different in a lot of ways. It's about a woman in her mid-30s who's a widow and who's scheming to get a new husband. She's attractive, but she's also really selfish, and she's not very moral, which is kind of a little bit of a deviation for Austen. But she's witty, which is an Austen staple. So she's sort of a weird hodge-podge. It's an interesting first attempt at a work, and it's worth checking out for that reason.

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