Jane Austen (December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) was a prominent English novelist whose work is considered part of the Western canon. She stands as a model of the writer whose apparently sheltered life did nothing to reduce the stature and drama of her fiction.
She was born at the rectory in Steventon, Hampshire, her father being a clergyman, and lived for most of her life in the area. She had six brothers, and an elder sister, Cassandra, to whom she was very close. The only undisputed portrait of Jane Austen is a coloured sketch done by Cassandra which resides in the National Portrait Gallery in London. However, a full-length painting owned by a family member, traditionally held to be of Jane as a teenager, is now increasingly considered authentic by authorities.
Her brothers Frank and Charles went to sea, eventually becoming admirals. In 1801 the family moved to Bath; after the death of her father in 1805, Jane, her sister and her mother lived with Frank and his family for several years until they moved in 1809 to Chawton. Here her wealthy brother Edward had an estate with a cottage, which he turned over to his mother and sisters. (Their house today is open to the public.)
Jane never married; she was once engaged to a younger man, Harris Bigg-Wither, but changed her mind. Having established herself as a novelist, she continued to live in relative seclusion, and began to suffer ill-health. It is now thought she may have suffered from Addison's Disease, the cause of which was then unknown. She travelled to Winchester to seek a cure, but died there and was buried in the cathedral.
While her first novel, the posthumously published Northanger Abbey, pokes fun at the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, Austen is most famous for her later works, which took the form of socially conscious comedies of errors. These, especially Emma, are often cited for their perfection of form, while modern critics continue to unearth new perspectives on Austen's keen commentary regarding the predicament of young, unmarried, upper-class English women in the early 1800s.
The order in which she began and completed her novels is different from that of their publication. Her novels were fairly well received when they were published, with Sir Walter Scott in particular praising her work. Her reputation has only increased since, and she is now considered one of the greatest English novelists. Austen's chief gift was to be a close observer of human society and social interaction. It should be noted, however, that almost every scene in her novels features women, purportedly because she did not know how men spoke when not in the presence of women.
Some contemporary readers may find the world she describes, in which people's chief concern is obtaining socially prominent marriages, to be unliberated and disquieting; however one should bear in mind that a "good marriage" was then the only available form of social security other than degrading work as governess, or living as hanger-on in a relative's household.
Her most famous novels are: Sense and Sensibility (1811),
Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815).
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