Jane Austen is one of the most important writers in the world. She wrote just six books in her brief life — she died aged forty-one — but it was enough to ensure her worldwide fame. The English novel as an art form had arrived just a few decades before her birth in 1775, with works by writers such as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, but novels only became modern with her books, with their realistic treatment of normal people living ordinary lives.
In her novels she depicted in superb prose for the first time the ordinary life of England’s middle classes. Austen’s funny, cleverly-observed novels have remained critical and popular successes for over two hundred years. The daughter of a rector, she shared her childhood in Steventon, Hampshire, with seven siblings. She was born into the world of the minor landed gentry and country clergy living in villages and local towns, with visits to sociable Bath and the capital London. She used these settings and characters to talk about society, social manners and matchmaking — fundamental in those days.
We know very little about Austen. Did she ever find love, for example? Society dictated marriage for women of her class. She was almost married to a rich heir but called it off. After Austen died in 1817, from unknown causes, dying with her head in the lap of her beloved sister Cassandra, her letters were censored or destroyed.
Austen was a literary genius but she had to publish her novels anonymously in those days because she was a woman. Her brother Henry announced her authorship late in her life. Austen did however receive favourable reviews for her works, with critics emphasizing her morality, entertaining dialogues and character description. More importantly, some praised her concentration on domestic realism rather than the then-current obsession with romantic melodrama. The public loved her literary satire and comic descriptions.
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
Comedies of Manners
Jane Austen is famous for her literary style. Her books were comedies of manners with sharply-written insights. She wrote about young women’s journeys of self-discovery through love to marriage. Witty, realistic, with an effortless prose style, she combined brilliant construction with astonishing empathy and storytelling skills.
When Austen died, she was still unknown to much of the country. There was no recognition that England had lost one of its sharpest observers and analysts of society and culture. Now the world knows her achievements. Jane Austen made women the centre of her books, and she brought the modern, ordinary world into the reading lives of millions of people around the globe.