Renowned novelist Jane Austen died in 1817, and still today her works are common course material for grade school English and writing classes around the world. Her six major novels, including Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and Emma, serve as both social commentary and romantic entertainment for her readers. Her ability to pinpoint the unseen behavior and thoughts of women at the time, who were socially dependent on marriage both socially and economically, stretched cultural boundaries unlike any author before her.
Information about Jane Austen’s life is famously scarce. Born in 1775, she was known as a Georgian era author. Only a few personal letters and family documents remain to piece together Austen’s life story. Her sister Cassandra, to whom most of Jane’s letters were addressed, burned almost all of the letters and censored those that were left behind. Fifty years after Austen’s death, relatives wrote a bit about her life, but with much bias towards this picture of her as “quiet Aunt Jane.”
Jane Austen had a large family. She grew up with six siblings, and her sister Cassandra was known to be her closest friend and confidante. The two briefly attended Oxford together, but a year later moved to Southampton with their teacher, Mrs. Anne Crawley, and became sick with typhus. Jane nearly died, and was sent home later. In 1785, both girls were again sent to boarding school, but the family could not afford to educate their daughters for a year. Austen had already caught the curiosity for education, and finished out the rest of her studies at home by reading books. She had access to both her father’s library and that of a family friend, Warren Hastings.
Austen’s home was described as an open, intellectual, and often amusing environment, one that invited political discussion and critical debate. She began writing poems, plays, and stories for herself and for her family’s entertainment as early as 1787. The family also put on plays at the house, many of them amusing, which is thought to be where Austen’s satirical, amusing tone in her own novels came from.
Sense and Sensibility, a romance novel known as a comedy of manners, was Austen’s first novel. Published in 1811, it originally appeared under the pseudonym “A Lady.” Austen first wrote the novel in a series of letters when she was 19 years old. Set in southwest England, the story follows two sisters in their relationships, covering topics important and yet unspoken for women at the time, including education, family secrets, marriage, infidelity, and illness. In the title, Sense and Sensibility, “Sense” part of the title refers to good judgment, while “Sensibility” is interpreted as sensitivity or emotion.
Austen’s second novel, Pride and Prejudice, is her most famous and covered many of the same topics for women, while also touching on political topics of the time. It was originally written in 1796 and 1797, and titled First Impressions. Before publication, however, Austen made significant revisions to the novel between 1811 and 1812. None of the original manuscript has survived, but it has been thought, due to the large amount of postage that appear in the story, that Pride and Prejudice was originally written as a series of letters.
While Pride and Prejudice has been adapted to film more and loved widely for its authentic, humorous characters, Emma follows closely in 2nd place for popularity. Many remember its film adaptation, Clueless, which loosely follows the plot of the novel in a more modern format. It is said that before writing it, Austen declared, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Indeed, in the very first sentence of the book, she writes, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich.” Though Emma portrays a character who is self-satisfied and stubborn, readers can’t help but be amused by her as she meddles in others’ lives.
You can find an early 1927 edition of Jane Austen’s complete works with us, including Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey.