The United Kingdom is today known and equally lauded for defending and upholding values of women’s rights. The U.K however wasn’t always this way. England, which is the eco-demographic hub of the U.K (housing 100 of Europe’s 500 largest corporations, accounting for 84% of the combined total of the U.K’s population, and upon whose legal system, developed over centuries, is the basis of Common Law the world over) at one point promoted laws that persecuted women simply for being women!
Women were burt alive for killing their husbands (even when done in self-defence), practicing “witchcraft”, defying orthodox status quo by seeking academic pursuits and independence, demanding the rights to sue and to own property. Uncannily, men who did the same or similar were vindicated by order of the very same cumulation of ancestral and fundamentalist religious tradition!
Societal conventions that were the norm during eighteenth century England, were avidly criticised in Jane Austen’s social commentary. She first of all couldn’t write under her real name and be published, because it was considered unladylike for women to be intellectual figures. Unlike J. K Rowling and other English female writers today, who are well known for their works (even without using their full names), Jane Austen lived within the refuge of a close-knit family and always published her works under a pseudonym that could not be traced back to her. Writing at the time was a male-dominated profession. Notions such as “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16) were prevalent at the time in English society. Women depended completely on men for their livelihood. A woman’s best assets were her health, marriage eligibility, genealogy, inherited wealth and appearance. She wasn’t lauded in society simply because she was a “fierce”, determined, go-getting, independent, intelligent hard-working woman. Austen grew up as the daughter of a farmer, among the lower fringes of the English-landed gentry. During her upbringing, she realized the importance of money to women in a severely classist and patriarchal society, and thus marriage to the survival of women in the eighteenth century, which she was critical of in her works. It is comical that even while criticising these classist norms in her book Pride and Prejudice, the book was published with a prejudiced ‘nameless’ cover, shedding even greater light on the lack of sense and lack of sensibility of patriarchal eighteenth century Great Britain. The frontispieces of the rest of her published works around the time are equally telling.
By the nineteenth century, Austen’s works had many admirers who considered themselves part of a literary elite. They were not necessarily industry critics, but people who viewed their appreciation of Austen’s works as a mark of their cultural taste. Perhaps an act of benevolence somewhat, considering the prejudiced nature of society at the time. It is noted that Austen’s works were never bestsellers (Johnson; p. 127). She never wrote for notoriety or great material success, and nineteenth century critics generally preferred the works of Charles Dickens and George Eliot (Southam “Introduction”; vol I, 2 and vol 2, 1). She was however “acutely conscious of her sales (as well as the possible future value of her copyright) and eager to increase her profits“. Jane Austen was a reclusive woman with subversive literature. She typified what it meant to scream out from imposed silence called the lower echelons of society, and to defy status quo merely by seeking self-determination. Her mere eighteenth century existence will be a symbol of resistance for generations to come. Her works were known to have failed to conform to the traditional romantic and Victorian expectations courted by many writers at the time, that incited powerful emotion “authenticated by an egregious display of sound and colour” (Duffy, 98–99).
She died at forty-one, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Her epitaph composed by her brother praised the “extraordinary endowments of her mind” but did not explicitly mention her achievements as a writer (Fergus, 26-27; Le Faye, 10-11). Her works are incredibly successful today and have been re-created countless times through literature and film, in ways that they could never have, during her lifetime. Feminist values which we consider standard today – a worker earning her own wages – were simply abominable during Jane Austen’s era! She is a symbol of self-determination and independence. The write-up below is a reblogged tribute to Austen’s life and character. Written by “Chris Jones” (University of Medicine and Dentistry; Rutgers University Alum).
©2013. Secular African Society. All Rights Reserved.
A Look into the Life of Jane Austen: Her Passions and Inspiration.
Some people write to create an alternate world of fantasy, and others write in hopes of changing the existing world of reality. In the 18th century, no one wrote for the financial benefit, with the possible exception of journalists, but all wrote for a purpose.
Living during a time when women of intellect were considered unattractive, Jane Austen had a purpose (Hawkridge 23). Austen was driven by her burning desire to change the nature of eighteenth century fiction, which Austen believed to be unrealistic depictions of human interactions (Pinion 135). Austen wanted to write stories that were as true to life as possible, and to accomplish this goal, Austen began a thorough analysis of human behavior, especially analyzing character and conduct (Pinion 136). For subject matter, Austen drew from her own life. Jane Austen was most influenced in her works by her own life experiences with eighteenth century society as well as by the many authors whose works Austen was exposed to throughout her life.
Jane Austen’s family greatly impacted her early life and the beginnings of her writing. Austen’s father, George Austen, was the rector of a parish as well as a farmer (Pinion 6). He married Cassandra Leigh Austen, who was actually of a higher social status. The marriage was only permitted due to George Austen’s education and distinction as a clergyman (McMahon 2), and Jane Austen, number seven of eight children, was born on December 16, 1775. Austen was inseparable from her only sister Cassandra; they were the only two girls among six boys (Pinion 8). Austen’s six brothers were George, James, Henry, Edward, Francis, and Charles. The two youngest sons, Francis and Charles became much decorated admirals in the navy during the Napoleonic Wars (McMahon 3). Audrey Hawkridge remarks that since Austen did draw most of her writing material from her life, the heroes of her major works were interestingly noted as being two landed gentlemen, two clergymen, and one naval officer, which were all positions that at least one member of her family obtained (51).
Considering the literary techniques that Jane Austen used in her later works, Jane Austen actually learned more about writing from her home library than at the schools Austen attended. Austen received some of her early education under the supervision of her aunt Mrs. Anne Cawley, who lived in Oxford at the time, but Austen was removed after a bout of typhus to the Abbey School in Reading, where etiquette, sewing, and embroidery took precedence over academics. Austen informal education was headed by her father who utilized the five hundred books that he owned. Jane Austen read mostly English fiction and poetry, including the works of Frances Burney, William Cowper, Samuel Johnson, John Milton, Alexander Pope, Samuel Richardson, and William Shakespeare (McMahon 3). The home book collection exposed Austen to many of the authors whose ideals would shape the content of her writing and whose texts would teach her narrative techniques and other literary skills.
Jane Austen spent most of her early life living in the house by the countryside since her father was originally a farmer; however, her family moved to Bath in 1800 when her father resigned from his position in the church. Jane Austen had a difficult time changing from country life to city life and ultimately was happier when they moved back to the country in 1809 (McMahon 5-6). Jane Austen did spend much of her time in the city of Bath attending parties. Austen loved dancing, laughing, conversing, and flirting. In fact, Jane Austen was even accused of being “silly” and going “husband-hunting,” which paints a very different picture of Austen when compared to the description of the serious, satirical author Austen later became; however, experiences from the parties and city life allowed her to later write such deep insights about girls who were flirtatious socialites (Hawkridge 22-23).
The family returned to a house by the countryside when they moved to Chawton, Kent after the death of George Austen in 1809. The Austen women had to be supported by Jane’s brother, Edward Austen. Due to financial constraints, they had to give up the extravagant lifestyle they led in Bath. The women of the family became less social and more self-reliant (Hawkridge 31). Because money was such a big issue, especially during this time of her life, Austen eventually established money and marriage as two prominent themes in her writing. At the time, women relied completely on men for status and comforts, so marriage was very important both socially and economically (Hawkridge 16). Although all of her books focus on matrimony, Jane Austen never married.
During her lifetime, Jane Austen published four major works: Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815. After her death, two other major works were published: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (Gillie 3). Although the publication dates were very close together, many of Austen’s works were actually revisions of early pieces Austen had written in her late childhood. Austen’s love for writing stemmed from her earlier days as did her lifelong disgust of unrealistic fiction.
Jane Austen actually began by writing for entertainment with scripts for the family theatre (McMahon 4). A few childhood incidents spurred this occupation forward to a more serious craft. As Pinion points out in A Jane Austen Companion, the Comte de Feuillide would sometimes take Austen to private theatrical performances, which led to her first small pieces that poked fun at the “sentimental excesses and sensation unrealities of popular fiction” (9). Jane Austen’s writing style was also shaped by periodical essays named “The Loiterer” authored by her brother James, from whom Austen learned straightforward parody and moral commentary, which resulted eventually in her ability to craft complex narratives (Litz15).
Litz comments in Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development that her satiric and ironic tone was refreshing during a time when the quantity of books was increasing and the quality decreasing (5). During the eighteenth century, books were expensive and most people went to libraries. Since authors wanted to appeal to the broadest of audiences, works became conventional and imitative of one another (Litz 6). The scene was thus set for Jane Austen and her social and moral commentary.
The goal of Austen’s books was often to ridicule the unrealistic fiction of the eighteenth century. In her earlier works, small pieces Austen worked on during her childhood, Jane Austen exposed false literature and attacked novels of sentimentalism (Litz 7). In her piece Love and Friendship [sic] Austen satirizes the intricate and unrealistic plots of existing fiction by making her story exaggeratingly complex and confusing. Jane Austen even included the patent ingredients for a contemporary fiction: “exotic parentage, revolt against authority, fantastic recognition scenes, love-at-first-sight, a propensity for self revelation” (Litz 19). In all of her other works, Austen refused to write about the uncommon or what Jane Austen did not know. Instead, Austen forced herself to create plots dealing with ordinary, daily life (Pinion 135).
Having grown up in a middle-class family, Jane Austen’s characters were almost all of the middle-class society. Jane Austen included no disastrous tragedy or great passion, instead Austen dealt with normal people and their normal lives. Austen began to delve into the psychological aspects of human character and behavior (Pinion 136). Because the material Jane Austen had to work with was limited, most of her artistic development was based on how these relatively similar situations were treated in each book, which shows her deepening psychological insight (Litz 24). Austen is considered the first “modern” English novelist, using the classic form of recording events while including complex personal impressions and expressions along the way (Litz 3). Almost all of Jane Austen’s pieces are characterized by false character impressions. Austen tried to emphasize in her works that in reality, people and events are not recorded as they are but as they are perceived. Utilizing psychological realism, Jane Austen shows the fallibility of first impressions and how people’s perception of life is based on some real and some misleading or partial truths. Her characters learn to slowly adjust their sense of perception (Pinion 144). Edward Rothstein of the New York Times wrote concerning Austen’s characters, that they “learn through ambiguity and pained disclosure, through error and misjudgement. It may be that we are now looking toward them, in hope of doing the same” (qtd. in McMahon 10). Austen’s characters respond to their situations as humans with their flaws and misconceptions, learning and adapting to situations.
In Emma, the main character’s central flaw is her errors of imagination. Jane Austen uses this book to reveal the powers of perception: people see things however they want to see them (Litz 138). Austen also goes on to give an underlying message of freedom through self-restraint and self-knowledge. When Emma is initially unaware of her own emotions, Jane Austen begins to distort reality to fit her views (Litz 136). Readers are able to understand and consequently criticize Emma’s self-deception because of Austen’s ironic qualifications and explicit judgments that disclose her social and psychological errors (Litz 149).
In the time of the late eighteenth century, a lot of moral vocabulary was being used in novels. Characteristics like reason, wit, and wisdom were considered to be good virtues, defining a good character. Bad virtues included callousness and inhumanity. Jane Austen, however, did not use them abstractly, waving words around like the fiction writers of her time did. Instead, Austen gave these virtues flesh and blood; Austen embodied them in her characters, yet without making them seem too perfect or inhuman (Gillie 17).
There were other eighteenth century societal conventions that became included in Jane Austen’s social commentary. Jane Austen existed during a time when women depended completely on men for their very livelihood. A woman’s best assets were her wealth, health, genealogy, and appearance (Hawkridge 16-17). Marriage and money were very closely linked if not synonymous during those times. There was a constant discussion of income and the capital of potential spouses (Hawkridge 43). After her father’s death, the women of the Austen family had to depend on a different male of their household to save them from poverty (Hawkridge 31). During this time in her life, Austen realized the importance of money and therefore marriage to the survival of women in the eighteenth century.
The beginning line of Pride and Prejudice is perhaps one of the most well known in English literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Pride and Prejudice 9). The irony of the sentence is fully realized when the character of Mrs. Bennet is introduced. Austen concentrates on one goal and that is to see her daughters married off. The first sentence of the book is indeed a “truth universally acknowledged” for Mrs. Bennet; her entire reality revolves around this truth. While meant to be ironic, social and personal necessities of the time substantiated the statement. So though irony is used, it does not take away from the fact that during those times the claim was a basic truth (Litz 107).
Marriage, love versus economy, became a running theme throughout all of Austen’s books. During her times, there was immense pressure on young females to marry for wealth, so that Austen would live a long and comfortable life as well as increase the wealth and status of her family. Austen, however, emphasized a balance between the two. Austen understood that love without money was not practical, but also stressed the need for affection in a relationship.
Jane Austen was a chronic letter-writer, and in a letter to her niece in 1814, Jane Austen wrote, “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection,” and then in 1817, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor – which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony” (qtd. in Gillie 91). On the one hand, Jane Austen understood the financial necessity of marriage, but on the other hand, Austen acknowledged a woman’s right to choose her husband. In her writings, Austen united the two ideas and argued that reason and love should be inseparable (Pinion 142-143). Austen criticized eighteenth century English society’s view on marriage, for example, in her book Pride and Prejudice, when Charlotte says, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (Pride and Prejudice 26). Jane Austen uses irony to show her true take on the matter. Her position on marriage may be traced back to her parents, whose marriage was only permitted because her father had earned much prestige as a clergyman (McMahon 2). In all of her books, the heroines always marry and marry well, which shows how much the Georgian society impacted her work (Hawkridge 43).
In another one of her works, Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen comments, “A woman especially, if Austen have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as Austen can” (Northanger Abbey 87). During the time of Jane Austen, intellectual women were considered unattractive. Young ladies were encouraged to be educated in academics, music, and art; they were to be accompliAustend but never scholarly. Women were dissuaded from pursuing academic studies, mostly because men were to be superior to women in every aspect, including mentally (Hawkridge 23).
Jane Austen’s commentary must be based off of her observations during her stay at Bath from 1801 to 1806, where Austen attended party after party. During possibly the most social period of her life, Jane Austen witnessed the suppression of knowledge in women and probably experienced herself as well. At times, Austen would pretend to mold herself to society’s image, hiding her studies and appearing as silly as the other girls (Hawkridge 24). Undoubtedly her experiences during this period of her life provided her personal observations and experiences to later analyze in her works.
Jane Austen also included in her writings the general eighteenth century assumption that a man of good taste equaled a man of sound moral judgment. This connection between moral and aesthetic values was illustrated in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth’s initial negative view of Mr. Darcy was slightly appeased when Austen sees his grand house and “at that moment Jane Austen felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something” (Litz 103-104). Throughout all of her works, Jane Austen consistently included eighteenth century English society concepts, which proves that her life and experience in a middle-class society of her time greatly influenced the material Austen worked with for her books.
The most noticeable theme that ran throughout all of her writings, however, was an argument against sensibility, a concept that ran rampant among people of her time. Sensibility was the belief that people were made in the image of God; therefore, one should always be in touch with deep human emotions which was believed to be morally good and godlike. Jane Austen mocked excessive, ostentatious shows of emotion, which the fiction of the time portrayed (Tyler 93). Lloyd Brown notes in Bits of Ivory: Narrative Techniques in Jane Austen’s Fiction that Austen’s work Sense and Sensibility most clearly mocks excessive emotions. Austen juxtaposes words with opposite meanings like “sense and sensibility” for satiric analysis, which Jane Austen uses to expose the moral contradictions of society and the individual (17). The two main characters of sense and sensibility are the two sisters Elinor and Marianne, who are supposed to symbolize sense and sensibility, respectively. Elinor is rational, reliable, well-mannered, and independent as opposed to Marianne who is a romantic with spontaneous outpourings of emotions (Tyler 90-91). Jane Austen used her novel to expose stories of sensibility as being based on false emotions (Litz 19).
Jane Austen also used her talent for writing to make social and moral observations, including observations on individual responsibility and choice. Austen put an emphasis on intrinsic worth regardless of social status, and in all of her books, a person’s character and moral standards spelled out his or her fate. In Pride and Prejudice, the Gardiners, who are not of the highest social status, are portrayed as loving, cultured, and refined, and they are meant to contradict the societal assumption that those of lower classes were unsophisticated and even uncivilized. The positive nature of the Gardiners is contrasted with Mr. Wickham’s true nature, which, though assumed to be morally decent, turns out to be corrupt. Jane Austen used the contrast between these characters to convey her message of moral reform, not only in society but also within each individual (Pinion 140-142).
Jane Austen would often dramatize the conflicts in a single person’s personality and in the environment as reason versus feeling, restraint versus individual freedom (Litz 13). Her beginning works had characters from opposing life views pitted against each other, but as Austen was able to develop and advance in her writing style and ability, Jane Austen also began incorporating opposing forces in just one personality (24). In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy are initially opposed in nature. Elizabeth is self-reliant, looks to nature for judgments and not society, and holds contempt for all conventions that limit an individual’s freedom. Darcy, on the other hand, is heedful of his relationship to society and aware of the restrictions that his social status brings. Jane Austen uses these two characters to illustrate the common conflict between social restraint and individual will (104-105).
Also in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen shows the maturation of her writing ability by making Darcy more believable and human by encompassing opposing forces within his personality. Colonel Brandon of Sense and Sensibility was a character that readers “believe in what he represented, but not in him” (Litz 99-100). Darcy, however, was more authentic because he had the same virtues of a hero but also went through “the process of self-evaluation, self-recognition” (Litz 99-100), making him relatable. Litz comments in his book Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development that Pride and Prejudice reveals Austen’s “desire to endow human behavior with the order and symmetry of art” and to illustrate an “ideal vision of human possibilities” (103). As with most fiction, Austen’s writings attempt to bring order to human life, and by combining conflicting ideas into one personality, Jane Austen took one step closer to imitating real life and dug deeper into analyzing the human psyche, which is often jumbled with different views and beliefs.
Jane Austen’s life experiences personally within her family as well as socially among the eighteenth century English middle-class shaped her writing immensely. From these experiences, Austen drew situations and characters that Austen later incorporated in her numerous pieces. One cannot, however, limit her influences to just her personal daily life but must also include the works of authors Austen was exposed to throughout her life. Because her father had such a large book collection, Jane Austen was able to come in contact with the famous literature of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Samuel Johnson, Richard Johnson, Cowper and Burney (McMahon 3). All of these authors and others had a great impact on her writing style and use of literary techniques. In essence, by reading their works, Jane Austen learned how to write from these other famous English authors.
F.B. Pinion states in A Jane Austen Companion that Samuel Johnson was one of the authors that influenced her the most with both his positive and negative qualities. From his texts Jane Austen learned rhythm and the use of antitheses, and from his verbose style of writing, Austen learned restraint (160). Her writings also came to share many of the same characteristics and concepts as Johnson’s, who depicted life through strengths and weaknesses like “sense, self-command, disposition, selfishness, pride, vanity, taste, candour, judgment, principle, fortitude” and consequently often included eighteenth century morals in his writings (Pinion 159).
Johnson’s concept of the human condition also closely paralleled Jane Austen’s in that he believed that living should be a striving, and the harder one strives to succeed, the deeper the satisfaction. Examples of heroines in Jane Austen’s novels that started out with an affliction and had to struggle in life include Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility who had the burden of responsibility, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park who had the burden of having poor relations, and Anne Elliot in Persuasion who had the burden of being considered a “missed chance” and having “lost looks” (Gillie 39). Austen used these characters to illustrate the struggle of life, and interestingly, all of the characters mentioned here are women.
Another idea that Johnson and Jane Austen both shared was the belief that fiction should be realistic and should serve as moral instruction. Johnson deemed novels with no moral insight as meaningless and authors who wrote to achieve prominence as harmful (Gillie 44). Although Johnson’s novels were mostly fantasy prose, Austen took his beliefs as part of her foundation to write realistically and unveil the dishonesty of sensibility.
Samuel Richardson was another principle influence. He mostly gave her insight into human psychology and the importance of detail inclusion. Through his works, Jane Austen analyzed characters, their actions and motivations. Her study of how people react to situations and form first impressions eventually led to the special characteristic in all of her novels, which is a plot revolving around misunderstandings and false impressions due to personal perceptions of the environment (Gillie 166-167).
Some of Austen’s technical ability came from studying William Gilpin’s works. Gilpin wrote about how an author should go about with proper character introductions, presenting different principal figures distinctly in either strong shadows or broad light. Jane Austen followed his advice in her writing of Pride and Prejudice and presented Elizabeth Bennet, with her spirited reaction to Mr. Darcy, her wit, and her positive character, in a strong light. Austen then contrasted this light with Mr. Darcy’s shadow, his enigmatic personality with a background of disrepute and uncertainty (Gillie 87-88). Since Austen did not have much formal education, Jane Austen had to study others’ works and writing styles, and Gilpin’s advice when it came to the technical details of writing a novel were essential.
Cowper and Fanny Burney also had held some influence on Austen’s writing. Fanny Price of Mansfield Park was the creation most influenced by Cowper and his beliefs. Not only did Jane Austen represent Cowper’s personality “simplicity, unresentful sense of oppression and warmth of affection” but Austen also had what Cowper believes was the true instinct for living, spontaneous affections (Gillie 53). Some of Austen’s other characters were borrowed from Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, such as Colonel Brandon, Willoughby, Lydia, and Mrs. Bennet. Austen is able to use the materials of different authors and transform the familiar materials into her own work. Her writing is considered a classic art because it is a “discovery of new possibilities within a traditional form” (Litz 100-101). Even after borrowing characters, adopting different writing characteristics from a conglomeration of different authors, and incorporating only common life events, Jane Austen is able to write book after book of captivatingly original depictions of human nature.
On March 18, 1817 in Winchester, Hampshire, Jane Austen died of Addison’s disease (McMahon 10). Her books, however, are now considered classics and are taught in high schools and colleges around the world. In Henry James’ The Art of Fiction he poses the rhetorical question “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” (qtd. in Pinion 147). Jane Austen’s books were all centered on character and incident as Austen played with the idea of what motivates people to act or react in certain ways. One must, however, go back to Jane Austen’s original purpose in writing and that was to create realistic fiction. Her path was impacted by the people Austen met, the situations Austen faced, and the works of authors Austen studied. Along the way, Austen created witty and satirical novels, explored the human psyche, commented on the social and moral concepts of her time, and accompliAustend her goal of changing fiction and turning the tide of sensibility.
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©2013. Secular African Society. All Rights Reserved.