Jane Austen: An Individual Literary Rose

April 12, 2009
By Garabed Koosherian BRONZE, Warwick, Rhode Island
Garabed Koosherian BRONZE, Warwick, Rhode Island
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Jane Austen is considered by many to be one of the best novelists of the early nineteenth century. As a woman during her time period it was not impossible to be published but almost impossible to be recognized for her accomplishments, like a man of the same occupation. Her complete works, including novels and unfinished pieces, all speak with remarkable resonance of the human condition. Avid readers of Austen know full well her unique writing style. Portraying her heroines as witty and conscientious was a true reflection of Austen’s own unique personality.
In context, many may think that Austen was unique to be a female writer during a time when women were not seen equal to men. “Perhaps none but a man, of first-rate power... can produce a first-rate novel and if so... a woman of corresponding genius can only produce one of a second-rate order.” However, this is not true. Throughout history women have written. From Ancient Greece’s Sappho to the current J.K. Rowling, women’s words have graced the pages of the past. Even within Austen’s own time we see that many women were published before her. One excellent example of this is Frances Burney, who also wrote of female heroines. Burney published Evelina in 1778 anonymously, which was exactly what Jane Austen did with all of her novels during her lifetime. Burney also published Cecilia, a novel about a woman who sought marriage for love, a principle we see repeated in Pride and Prejudice. Another famous authoress who Austen even mentions in Northanger Abbey is Mrs. Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe was known for her gothic novels , including The Mysteries of Udolpho. However, Northanger Abbey does poke fun at Mrs. Radcliffe’s writing. By doing so Austen establishes her writing style as she does in all of her novels: witty, accurate and passionate.

However, although Austen’s writing was solely based on her characters and the events that took place were solely coincidence, her writing also was in context to what was happening at the time. For example in Persuasion, Austen writes of a Captain Wentworth, who is the main love of Anne Eliot (protagonist), that fought as a naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars. Another example of contextual history is found in Pride and Prejudice. The history shown here is entailing, a form of inheriting land in England, which is sometimes used today. Entailing is a property law where the land in question is entailed to stay in the main line of succession. There are typically restrictions to inherit the land, most commonly the need to be male. This was a problem in Pride and Prejudice because all of the main line were daughters so the Bennet’s property would go to a male cousin, thereby making the females entirely reliant on their male family members. These examples date Austen’s writing to the late 18th to early 19th century and make it unique to literature today.

Jane Austen was born in Steventon, England in 1775 to Cassandra Austen (nee Leigh) and George Austen, a rector. Jane was the seventh of eight children. Her family was part of the minor gentry. Her mother’s prominent family, the Leighs were mostly titled persons, such as barons or baronets, most notably the Lord Mayor of London who proclaimed Queen Elizabeth. Her father’s family were manufacturers of cloth. Cassandra Leigh and George Austen met in Bath , England and were married in 1764. As for Jane’s immediate family, it consisted mostly of six brothers and one sister, Cassandra. Most of her brothers either became naval officers or rectors with the exception of her brother, Edward. Edward was adopted by a cousin, Thomas Knight, who left the entire Knight estate to him. By doing so, the Austen women had a home to go to in Chawton Village after George Austen died in 1805. This was where Austen completed many of her novels and became published.

While living with her family in Steventon, Jane learned the niceties to being a lady. Jane was sent with her sister Cassandra to be taught by a Mrs. Ann Cawley in Oxford. Both the girls contracted typhoid fever and Jane nearly died. Afterward the girls were taught at home and educated mainly in the arts, such as music and drawing and also French. These were considered very valued traits for a woman to possess in order to find a suitable husband. Another enormous part of the Austen family were theatrics, which as a child Jane was accustomed to seeing at home, which is thought to be what sparked her early works.

Austen began her writing early in life as a child. This is quite apparent in her three volume juvenilia. Most famous of the twenty-nine works found here is Love and Freindship and A History of England . These two works along with the others are quite amusing and as their title expresses, juvenile. These works were really for the general amusement of herself and her family, which was predominantly made up of writers. Most well known, besides Austen, among her family are her brother James and her mother Cassandra. Her brother James even published a short-lived literary magazine in 1789. James, however, fell away from his writing after becoming a reverend, like his father, as did Cassandra when she became a mother. Jane also fell away from her writing from the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s but returned to it after moving to Chawton Village in 1809. This rebirth in writing was most likely due to her change of scenery and family support.

Jane Austen and her writing sometimes come into contradiction with each other. She frequently wrote about love and marriage when she herself was never married. Unlike her sister who was betrothed but never married , Jane never became betrothed and spent life free from matrimony. She did have her proposals though. In December of 1802 Austen received her only proposal from a friend of the family. The Bigg sisters were friends of Cassandra and Jane and the two of them frequented Manydown several times. Their brother Harris Bigg-Wither of Manydown House proposed to Austen during the afternoon when Austen accepted and then through the night she doubted her previous choice so in the morning rejected his proposal because she did not feel true love for him. Her only other suitor came years before in the form of a flirtation. His name was Thomas Lefroy. He was to become a barrister . The two were said to have met at a country ball and became close companions. The joining was not lucrative because neither had any money to their name, seeing as Lefroy was dependent on his great-uncle to finance his career. The flirtation was broken off and the two never saw each other again.

As Jane and Cassandra fell into spinsterhood, their parents desperately felt it in their best interest to see them married. In 1801, after George Austen retired from the Anglican parish, the family moved to Bath , England where George and Cassandra met and married. After four years, the two daughters were still unmarried but this was of no stipulation to George Austen as he suddenly died at age 74 . Because the Austen women had no form of income since George Austen’s passing, they were completely dependent on the generosity of Cassandra Austen’s male sons. The women traveled for extended visits to friends and family for a while before settling with Francis Austen and his wife Mary Lloyd. As we know Lloyd’s behavior was not synonymous with the Austens. They eventually moved to Chawton House in 1809, which was owned by Edward Knight, the Austen third child. This was where Jane began writing again frequently and completed six novels and fragments of others before her death in 1817.

When the family moved to Chawton House we see that a tremendous amount of writing completed by Austen. History assumes this is because Austen was given more time to write and less household chores, which fell to the other women. Her writing began with Sense and Sensibility , previously called Elinor and Marianne, which are the two main characters. No one knows for sure how much revising went into this novel but it is certain that it was published in 1811 as her first novel. Later First Impressions, later called Pride and Prejudice, was published in 1813, followed by Mansfield Park, Emma and then posthumously Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. When her writing was viewed in a favorable manner, readers sought lost manuscripts and they were found in the forms of the unfinished Sandition and The Watsons and also the epistolary novel , Lady Susan. All of her work speaks with expression to the human condition and feelings of people. Many may say that Austen was a brilliant writer because she wrote about what she did not know (i.e. love and marriage). However, this is not true. Austen was brilliant because she did write about what she knew. For example in Pride and Prejudice, we see the battle of wits between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. This could be reminiscent of the flirtation Austen entertained with Tom Lefroy or it could also be what was missing from her relationship with Harris Bigg-Wither. Another example of Jane’s life being shown in her books is found in Northanger Abbey. This is a novel about other novels and novel reading, which Austen was famous for considering the vast library her father kept at the Parsonage House at Steventon. With these simplistic examples, history shows Austen’s writing was a liberation for Austen to show the human behavior, which she was so apt at observing. This observation of man and the writing of Austen persisted until her dying days in 1817.

Jane Austen died on July 17, 1817. Today, we think her cause of death was from a condition called Addison’s disease. This is a disease commonly marked with the symptoms of anemia, weakness or fatigue and a discoloration of the skin. Through a recollection of her niece, Caroline , we see that Austen would rest much after dinner. “Aunt Jane used often to lie down after dinner. ... There was only one sofa in the room and Aunt Jane laid upon three chairs.” This act shows Austen’s altruism even in the face of disease. No one even knew what she had because the disease was not documented until years after by Thomas Addison, an English physician. And even though Jane Austen has been dead for almost 200 years her writing is still recognized today as great literary work.

Jane Austen’s writing has been placed in the same category as that of Shakespeare and Dickens. As we see today it has stood the test of time. Austen’s literature has been a template for creative writing for years after its original publication.
It also has impacted popular culture today in the way of movies and organizations.

Many authors today have built off of Jane Austen’s previous works. This is mostly seen in sequels to Pride and Prejudice, which is considered to be Austen’s masterpiece. For example, Elizabeth Aston wrote a sequel about the children of Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet entitled Mr. Darcy’s Daughters and later a sequel to that called The Exploits and Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy. Emma Tennant, a British writer also wrote a sequel called Pemberley. There was also a novel made into a movie in 2007 named The Jane Austen Book Club, a story about six people who personify the main characters of Austen’s novels. Jane Austen also is the focus of historical fiction, like Syrie James’ The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. Not only has popular culture flattered Austen’s writing through imitation and incorporation to future novels, it has created movies about Jane Austen and film adaptations of her novels.

One of the most famous showings of her movies was during the Jane Austen Season. This was a season that took place in England in 2007 and 2008 that made new films based on Austen’s novels. Among these film adaptations the movie Miss Austen Regrets was shown about Austen as an old woman pondering her youth. Also during 2008 the movie Becoming Jane came to the big screen, depicting Austen’s love affair with Thomas Lefroy in her youth. In addition to these movies, many film adaptations have been created over the years for the fans of her novels.

Rudyard Kipling makes mention of Jane Austen in his story ‘The Janeites’. This is a term that can either be good or bad. A Janeite is usually someone who reads Jane Austen and mostly nothing else. There are still people like this today but they have formed organizations dedicated to Jane Austen and other famous English writers. One such administration is JASNA. JASNA is the Jane Austen Society of North America. They read Jane Austen and study her life and novels. They also publish journals dissecting her work for the public to read. It currently employs 4,000 members. Through the pop culture adaptations of Austen’s work and the avid readers who refuse to let her spirit die one can conclude that her literature will be around for a long time to come.

Jane Austen is truly a revolutionary writer that has changed many standards for writing. Her continual wit and sharp precision to detail have made her a brilliant artist. When one chooses to read a novel after being exposed to Austen they hold this work to a higher standard. Austen today has been imbued in our culture. She has become a quintessential part of British literature. Her artistry will surely grace the libraries of the world and improve them. "Only a novel"... in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

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