JANE AUSTEN (1775-1817)

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The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Jane Austen

BIOGRAPHY

Jane Austen, one of the best known English writers, was born in 1775 at Steventon, Hampshire, a small country village in south-west England where most of her novels are set. She was the daughter of the local church’s rector and the last child of a close and affectionate family, she and her sister Cassandra had a very special relationship that lasted all throughout their lives. Neither ever married. As was the custom of the time she was educated at home, she soon showed a great interest in literature and began writing at a very early age, in fact most of her novels’ drafts date back to about  1787. However, she did not publish until 1811 when  Sense and Sensibility first came out anonymously, as simply stated, “by a lady”. It was only after her death  that her identity was revealed by one of her siblings, Henry, while overseeing the publication of her last novel Northanger Abbey that appeared posthumously. By then though her literary value had been widely recognized as shown by many favourable reviews of the time regarding her books. Perhaps one of the first to appreciate Miss Austen’s works was Sir Walter Scott, her contemporary and a novelist himself.

At her father’s retirement the family moved to Bath, a popular holiday resort on the coast, which Miss Austen was not much fond of; later, after her father’s death, with her mother and sister she moved to Chawton, not far from where she was born and back once again in her beloved country side Jane Austen totally dedicated herself to writing completing much of her most mature novels.  Due to her ailing health she was taken to Winchester for treatment and there she died in 1817. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

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THEMES AND STYLE

   Despite her uneventful life it is from her own personal experience that she took inspiration for her novels. A great observer of human nature and endowed with extraordinary psychological insight, Jane Austen gave life to what is now known as the British Novel of Manners, her interest lays in showing the country gentry’s world and life-style of her time with its concerns, troubles, ambitions, aspirations as they were engaged in their daily occupations while struggling to achieve success, social and economic stability. She does so through her descriptive narrative that lays out in front of the reader’s eyes a realistic, matter-of-fact snap-shots of the English country side of her time. She doesn’t convey moralising judgements but merely depicts reality just as if taking a photograph of the world she knew best and that the reader will need to take face-value

THEMES: CLASS DISTINCTION AND MARRIAGE

Miss Austen chooses to write about that small landed gentry of that part of England in which she had lived almost all her life, as already said, disregarding altogether the rest of Britain and even England’s industrialized north for a matter linked with social class, just as well as she discards the higher nobility. Jane Austen’s bias surely rests on the side of the professional class, which is in fact the one she herself belongs to, that is to say that sphere of society that was obliged to earn a living and could do so only in view of a limited spectrum of opportunities, in fact they could find employment only in the church, the military, the law or medicine. By highlighting these circumstances Miss Austen points out that the system of inheritance implemented at her time was highly unfair and benefitted exclusively the first born male of a family with the only aim to preserve the family’s prestige and its fortune which was, at the same time, the centre around which the marriage market revolved. In other words a good marriage, both for men and women, was basically a profitable one, or a good business transaction between families meant to increase wealth and power of both parties involved. This is why Austen’s novels all focus on the theme of marriage which seems to be a primary concern for many of her characters, what she does introduce as a new theme in her works is romantic love.

Thus a marriage that comes to be after a time of proper courtship allowing those involved to develop deep feelings and attraction in the process while, at the same time, learning a great deal about themselves and the counterpart. This character’s inner growth defines their roundness as, in many cases, they undergo profound personal changes as shown in Pride and Prejudice especially with both protagonists radically different from beginning to end.

WRITING STYLE AND TECHNIQUES

Therefore romantic love, the marriage market and social class distinction are the three main themes of Jane Austen’s novels and those around which her characters’ choices and lives revolve. Needless to say that human nature is then thoroughly investigated and clearly portrayed through her style that privileges the descriptive narrative of her characters’  daily occupations thanks to the all knowing narrator technique used when it is necessary to unfold misunderstandings and reveal the truth about situations that at first sight appear different than what they actually are; or when Austen needs to highlight issues and feelings that are veiled and remain unsaid. But, aside from that, Austen also uses the epistolary novel technique to allow the characters to gather further information regarding specific matters thus enlightening the readers too about otherwise unknown truths. However, it is especially in witty dialogues that miss Austen’s writing is at its best and in irony that she excels.

LINKS TO PAST AND PRESENT IN JANE AUSTEN’S NOVELS

It is most evident then that Jane Austen owes a great deal to Augustan novels from which she takes a good number of writing techniques whereas she only takes from Romanticism the theme of Romantic love that, nevertheless, she doesn’t portray as a blind overtaking passion but, on the contrary, as a temperate feeling developing from a proper balance between reason and sentiments; as a matter of fact those marriages that are the product of one prevailing over the other are labelled as not altogether happy ones since they all lack something basic, the right balance as main ingredient.

A CLOSER LOOK AT PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Pride and Prejudice is probably her most read novel, certainly the best well-known among adolescent girls especially because it fulfils all their rooted stereotypes about romantic love that have been so far handed down to them in fact since Romanticism. Nevertheless, Pride and Prejudice indeed beholds all of Miss Austen’s precious ingredients in the making of literature, that is why all her novels, as all literature for that matter, show the reader different mind paths according to their age. So, if during adolescence all we see is the titillating effects aroused by the pages in which Elizabeth and Darcy engage their bright intelligence adding zest and rhythm to the novel; later on in life, at a second and perhaps even third reading we can grasp more profound meanings though shrouded by light-hearted and apparently frivolous verbal exchanges going on between two recalcitrant and fearful lovers to be.

For instance we may surprisingly understand that beneath the surface there actually is much more and that maybe her use of irony and comical effect have a long lasting effect on our minds and even a more meaningful one. This might be the case, for example of the scenes in which Miss Austen portrays Lady Catherine de Bourgh showing that class distinction that has been mentioned already and leaving no doubt on the reader’s mind which she favours best, in fact when Miss Austen does deal with great aristocrats in her novels such is the case of Lady Catherine de Bourgh these are treated with great contempt for their snobbish attitude towards those they consider below their station. Yet Jane Austen reserves the same contempt to less prominent characters who strive to obtain the benevolence of those in power showing lack of dignity and self-esteem as for instance in the scene in which Mr Collins goes out of his way to please the said Lady Catherine de Bourgh – his patron at the parsonage – going into such a flutter to the point of ridicule resulting in an extraordinarily comical effect. The same exact comical effect she achieves with Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s verbal debates, quite extraordinary as they also underline the author’s great ability to point out her characters’ outstanding self confidence, alongside their hard core prejudices and disdainful pride.

There is still another aspect that strikes the reader although Miss Austen never actually does bluntly point it out, however it is poignant. It regards women’s legal inferiority and blatant submission to men’s will and power. The entire novel in fact revolves around not so much the idea of marriage, but marriage as the only way out of poverty and being left homeless. That would actually be the outcome for all the Bennet girls should their father die before they are well taken care of. Through marriage, of course, as that was the only way for women in Austen’s time. That is the real issue at hand for women could not inherit their fathers’ property, nor did they have any legal right whatsoever. Elizabeth’s character is then ever more significant, she lacks almost all of female virtues, she is outspoken, confident, self assured in her judgement and intelligence and she will not settle for less than best. In other words Jane Austen bestowes upon her heroine all male qualities, she is assertive, strong minded and has dignity. She stands up for her rights even at the cost of being stranded and end her days as a spinster.

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As far as the marriage theme is concerned here again Jane Austen’s mastery consists in underlining the misconceptions and the ambiguities that can be connected to the unreasonable passionate love conveyed by the Romantic Age. Not all marriages end happily as she subtly shows in a couple of examples that can be found in Pride and Prejudice, above all with Wickham’s and Kitty’s marriage that would surely end up as a total fiasco if not for Darcy’s generosity in providing for their well-being economically, at least giving them a good start, yet it was out of sheer passion and youth’s recklessness that the two couple up; but Miss Austen also unmasks another myth of her time, that of marriage no matter what as in Mr Collins’ and Charlotte Lucas’ case whose marriage is based solely on the rational choice of settling decently, and that in time will betray all its coldness and mere convenience on both parts.

Yet, as in all her novels, Pride and Prejudice triumphs in a happy ending with the two older sisters of the Bennet family, namely Jane and Elizabeth, marrying for love and marrying exceptionally well. Jane, who is the less brilliant and most feminine of the two – she is helpless and always agreeable – finds her rainbow’s silver lining in marrying Bingly, the well off young  man coming from Northern England, the land of factories and industrialisation; Elizabeth instead, despite all odds, considering her headstrong personality, not altogether feminine according to the standards of the time, finds love and lasting friendship with the man she actually despised on first sight due to her prejudices and proud disposition, the same occurs to Darcy as he too is affected by similar flaws of character.

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Anne Hathaway in the 2007 film: Becoming Jane

This dichotomy embodied by both protagonists is not new to Jane Austen, in her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, it is highlighted in that novel’s protagonists as well, in which the two sisters fight their inner tendencies to see only one side of what, according to Miss Austen is, in fact a double faced issue that can be overcome only through a proper balance, again, between one and the other.

In this case though, it is perhaps more evident because both Elizabeth and Darcy jump to conclusions, the wrong ones, due to their high-spirited temperaments and their overestimated self-confidence stemming from excessive pride and wide prejudiced assumptions of others’ intentions before learning all the hidden facts based solely on appearance and their own education and social backgrounds. So as to say that it is best to give others the benefit of the doubt before making up ones’ mind as to people’s true worth. This is exactly what both characters will have to do in order to achieve self-awareness while learning to be humble about others and life in general.

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