Jane Austen and her time

Born: Steventon, Hampshire, 16th December 1775 – Died: Winchester, Hampshire, 18th July 1817

Jane Austen was born in the village of Steventon, Hampshire in 1775, within five years of Wordsworth and Scott. She was the seventh of eight children. Her father, George, had been a Fellow of St. John’s College, Oxford and lately Rector of Steventon. Her mother, Cassandra, nee Leigh, came from an ancient family, linked to the Leighs of Stonehill Abbey in Warwickshire. Jane and her sister, also Cassandra, were sent to school in Oxford and Southampton, before attending the Abbey School in Reading, and were encouraged to write from an early age. Jane started writing novels in 1790, at the age of only 14, while she was living in Steventon, although her first novel to be published, Sense and Sensibility, did not appear until 1811.
On her father’s retirement, in 1801, the family moved to Bath. Jane’s years at Bath were not happy. The family made acquaintances, but few friends. Their stay at Bath was broken up by annual excursions to the seaside: to Sidmouth, Dawlish and Lyme Regis. As was the custom, the sons of the family pursued careers (two of Jane’s brothers joined the Navy), while the daughters stayed at home, awaiting marriage and involving themselves with domestic affairs. A neighbour from their Hampshire days, Harris Bigg-Wither of Manydown Park (Wootton St. Lawrence) asked Jane to marry him in the Winter of 1802. Though she initially accepted, a sleepless night saw the poor man turned down the following morning. In several of Jane’s letters from Bath to her sister, Cassandra, one senses her frustration at this sheltered existence. Tuesday, 12 May 1801. “Another stupid party …with six people to look on, and talk nonsense to each other”.

Some time after the death of Jane’s father in 1805, the family left Bath to stay with Jane’s brother, Frank, who was stationed at the Naval Dockyard, in Southampton. Jane’s brother, Edward, had been formally adopted by a rich and childless relative, which led to his elevation as a country gentleman. Cassandra had been sent to assist with his domestic arrangements at Godmersham Park, near Canterbury. He also owned Chawton House, Hampshire and in 1809 offered a home to his mother and sisters on the estate there. The family settled happily and it was here that Jane was to enjoy the success of the publication of her first novel. Initially, the secret of their authorship was kept, the author being referred to only as “a lady”, but later, her proud brother, Henry, let it be known and she became instantly famous.
Her last completed novel, Persuasion, was not published until after her death. By the time of its completion, she was seriously ill and not expected to live. During the last few weeks of her life, she lived in College Street, Winchester, to be close to her physician. She died in Cassandra’s arms in Winchester at the age of 41. The family exercised the right, as members of a clergyman’s family, that she should be buried in Winchester Cathedral.



The Novels
“Sense and Sensibility”:published 1811
“Pride and Prejudice”: published 1813
“Mansfield Park”: published 1813
“Emma”:published 1816
“Persuasion”:published 1818
“Northanger Abbey”:published 1818.

Jane Austen started to write at a time when the Romantic Movement was expressing its passionate involvement with the landscape, in particular, the melancholic aspects of gothic ruins, and the natural world in general. She was one of the few writers to adopt an irreverent attitude to this obsession. In many ways, Jane Austen’s detached, ironic style was an antithesis of the Romantic ideal. Many people have commented on the modernity of her novels. Elizabeth Bowen in English Novelists (Collins, 1946), suggests this comment is “an agreeable way of saying that she is still some distance ahead of us”. She followed in the wake of the success of Fielding and Richardson and her sense of comedy and style has been likened to that of Fielding. She is noted for the precision of her observations. Her attention to detail is a means to enlighten a subject. As Elizabeth Bowen notes, “she applies big truths to little scenes”.
“Novels … performances which have only genius, wit and taste to recommend them” Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey, Published 1818)



The Plot

The death of Mr. Henry Dashwood’s uncle opens the novel. Upon the uncle’s death, Norland estate is inherited by Henry Dashwood, on the condition it should next pass to his son John and John’s young son, and not to his three daughters Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. John Dashwood is wealthy, but at Mr. Dashwood’s death, the Dashwood women are left with only a small fortune. On his deathbed, Mr. Dashwood made his son promise to provide for his stepmother and stepsisters, but John is easily persuaded by his selfish wife that they should use the money for their “real” family, namely their son. He and his family move into Norland estate.
Feeling like guests in what had been their home, the four Dashwood women seek a new house on their limited budget. In the interim, the family is visited by Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s brother. He and Elinor get along well, and the family expects they will marry. Their courtship is interrupted by a telegram from a relative telling of a cottage they may rent in Southern England. With mixed feelings, the Dashwoods leave their home and travel to Barton Cottage.
They arrive to meet the owners of Barton Park, Sir John Middleton and his wife Lady Middleton. They also meet Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother. She likes the girls very much, as does Colonel Brandon, an older friend of the Middleton’s who takes a liking to Marianne. Marianne thinks the Colonel is too old for romance. She prefers the dashing Willoughby, who assists her after she falls down a hill and injures her ankle. After carrying her home, the two would meet often and discuss their many mutual interests. People begin to suspect they will be a match, until one day Willoughby suddenly leaves Devonshire for London, upsetting everyone, Marianne most of all.
Soon after Willoughby’s departure, Edward Ferrars makes a belated visit to the Cottage. He seems distant, and Elinor fears he may no longer have feelings for her. After he leaves, the Dashwoods receive two new guests, the Palmers. When the Palmers leave, they are replaced by two young ladies, Ann and Lucy Steele. Sir John tells the Miss Steeles that Elinor is attached to Mr. Ferrars. When Lucy Steele asks Elinor for her confidence, Lucy reveals that she is attached to Edward Ferrars. Elinor conceals her own connection while Lucy tells her about their secret four-year engagement.
Mrs. Jennings invites Elinor and Marianne to her London home. Upon arriving in London, Marianne immediately writes Willoughby, but her letters go unanswered. Elinor becomes increasingly suspicious of their engagement. When they encounter Willoughby at a party, he is cold and formal, and accompanied by another woman.
Marianne writes to Willoughby the next day, and soon receives a letter from him. In it, he denies any feelings for her, apologizes for any confusion, and tells her he is engaged to another woman. This woman, they learn, has a large fortune. Marianne admits there was no formal engagement, but her love for Willoughby is clear. Marianne falls into a terrible emotional and physical sickness. Colonel Brandon reveals to Elinor how Willoughby seduced the Colonel’s young foster daughter, leaving her alone, penniless, and pregnant. When Elinor repeats this story to Marianne, Willoughby’s poor character is cemented in her mind.

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