Jane Austen: Biography and Major Novels
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.
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 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.
She's most widely associated, though, with six major novels (and, of course, their respective film adaptations):
Sense and Sensibility, in 1811, was her first published work. It focuses on the limitations of women's options due to the circumstances of their birth, which is sounding very familiar now that we know something more about her. It's got an older sister, Elinor Dashwood, who's totally ruled by her head, and a younger sister, Marianne, who's motivated by her heart. Each sister thinks that the other one totally doesn't know what she's doing and that it would be better if she did it the other's way. They get what they want when they start acting more like each other; what they want is, of course, husbands. Elinor ends up with a guy named Edward Ferrars and Marianne with Col. Brandon.
Next we get Pride and Prejudice, 1813, and this is probably the most famous Jane Austen novel. It was first called First Impressions because it's about two people - Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy - who initially don't like each other very much, but - spoiler alert (I think you probably know how it ends) - they end up falling in love. This is really the ultimate romantic comedy. We have a whole video on it; watch that to learn more.
Mansfield Park, 1814, is often the least favorite of Austen fans, probably because the heroine, Fanny Price, is kind of boring. Like way too many Austen characters, she ends up marrying her cousin, which is a thing they did back then. She's from a relatively poor family, but she ends up being raised by her rich aunt and uncle and then her cousin. That's who Fanny is.
Emma comes in 1815, and if you've seen the movie Clueless, you'll know this story very well. Wealthy and beautiful, if kind of slightly misguided, Emma Woodhouse is always trying to set up her friends (with often disastrous results) while never realizing that her sort-of brother-in-law (Paul Rudd in the movie) has been in love with her since she was 13. There are so many inappropriate family relationships in Austen, it's unbelievable - and they were all seen as really romantic! That's something that's lost in the modern adaptations; we don't usually have people falling in love with their cousins. That sounds a little too... ugh.
And then we get Northanger Abbey published in 1818, actually after her death, so that's a posthumous publication. This one has all the hallmarks of an Austen novel: we've got a plucky heroine named Catherine Moreland, a grand estate (the titular Northanger Abbey), and kind of a complicated romance, but there's also this fun, spooky element to it. It's kind of in competition with Mansfield Park for the least well-known and least-loved work of Austen, but it's actually kind of fun, and it sort of explores the act of reading novels in addition to being a novel itself, so it's a little bit of a meta thing. Catherine's reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, a gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, and she expects Northanger Abbey to be like that.
Then we get Persuasion, also in 1818, also posthumously, and like the title might indicate, Persuasion kind of explores what happens when somebody acts under the influence of somebody else instead of making her own decisions. In this case, we've got smart but weak-willed Anne Elliott talked out of a marriage that she wants with Fredrick Wentworth, who's kind of a classy but unfortunately, poor naval officer, and she's talked out of it by her family and her close friend and is really unhappy because of it. They do get together in the end because it is Austen, these are comedies, not tragedies. But the point is that you might get swayed by people, and that's not a great thing.
That's a quick summary of Jane Austen and her works. If you want an overarching sense of what her prose is like, you can kind of pick her out by looking for witty heroines, sparkling and clean prose and humor that's aimed at making fun of social conventions and things like that.
Her stories are still read today and are used as the basis of many romantic comedies (like Clueless is based on Emma). And besides being adapted for film all the time, they're just good and relatable. An important thing to remember is that Austen herself never married, even though all her books are about marriage. And that's Jane Austen.
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