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Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 in a town called Steventon, Hampshire, near Basingstoke, England. In a family of eight children, she was the second eldest. Her mother was called Cassandra, as well as her older sister and her father was George Austen, the local rector (clergyman). When her sister Cassandra, who was only three years older and to whom she was really close, wanted to go to Oxford, she followed, but the two girls had to come back home after only a few months. They were inseparable. Their mom even declared once, "If Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate." Despite the Oxford drop out, Jane did not lack education. Her brother James helped her study and with his help, she could afterwards "lay claim to a good knowledge of history as well as a little Latin, Italian and musical training." However, Jane decided in 1787 to dedicate all her spare time to writing. She wrote mostly in her parents' living room, accompanied by all her family. Her very first work consisted of three volumes of "Juvenilia," a series of parodies and satirical stories, which was only published after her death. At the age of only 19 she started working on "Lady Susan," who was going to be later known as "Northanger Abbey." In 1795 she started working on "Elinor and Marianne," which eventually became "Sense and Sensibility." Only a year after, she began "First Impressions," which later turned into the much appreciated, and the author's personal favourite, "Pride and Prejudice."
The surroundings of Steventon impressed Jane Austen immensely, which is why a lot of the landscapes in the outdoor scenes of her novels, resemble the gardens and walkways of her hometown. Unfortunately, Jane did not live in Steventon her whole life. In 1800, her family moved to a small town called Bath. Later, when her father died in 1805, Jane, Cassandra and their mother moved to a small village from southern England, called Chawton. After her father's death, they became very poor, as the funds that came from her father's clerical affairs stopped when he stopped breathing. This resembles the situation that Austen describes in "Pride and Prejudice," where it is explained that if Elizabeth Bennet's father died, her whole family's money, house and furniture would go to the closest male relative of the family.
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Jane was somewhat popular in her adolescence. Like every lady in those times, she used to go to balls and dances, properly escorted and occasionally flirted with eligible young men. She had many proposals, one that she even accepted, from Harris Bigg-Wither. However, she though better of it the next day and changed her mind. This sudden change of heart created quite a scandal and both her and Cassandra had to move back to Bath. The refusal of the proposal of a very admired clergyman of high society also resembles Elizabeth's situation in "Pride and Prejudice," when, out of self-respect she denies Mr. Collins' proposal. Not only that, but also this experience of Austen's life influenced the chapter of "Mansfield Park," where Fanny Price finally accepts her suitor's proposal and ultimately changes her mind, this causing a scandal in her family.
Although there are flirtations and proposal records, Austen was only truly in love once in her life. It happened one year when her family went to the sea-side, south of Devonshire, west of Lyme. In a letter, Cassandra speaks highly of the gentleman and refers to him as a "successful suitor." Unfortunately, he died a while later and Austen's emotions about this tragic experience are reflected in her novel, "Persuasion," in which the mail character, Anne Elliot is 27, same age as the author, and the "crucial scene" takes place in Lyme. After the disappointment suffered, Jane and her sister Cassandra, who had also lost her fiancé Tome Fowle, to yellow fever in 1795, both slipped into quite spinsterhood. Mrs. Mitford, a close friend of Jane's, called her once in a famous quote, "the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly."
Jane's personal life seemed to really influence her work. In the decade of 1790, there was an emphasis on courtship and marriage. It is in this same time frame that Austen started writing her most famous novels, which are also based on courtship, romance, and marriage. Further more, the time period in which she lived in Bath reflect into her works. She never liked it very well and so she was unable to write as well or as consistently as she did in her hometown. Her writing patterns were disrupted. However, her writing seemed to profit from this experience. Both "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion" rely on the Bath settings. As well, she paid more attention to details within her novels, while living in Bath.
The times in which Jane Austen lived also reflect into her novels. It was a time when families sat together in the evening, women practiced needlework, while others read out loud in the background, visiting neighbours was a form of entertainment, there were occasional balls at houses belonging to people higher up the social ladder and the happiness of women depended solely on "making a good marriage." All these elements are evidentially present in all of her novels, particularly "Pride and Prejudice" and "Mansfield Park."
The basic etiquette in those times included proper introductions and social conduct. We observe this in "Pride and Prejudice," when the inferior Mr. Collins wants to introduce himself to the respectable Mr. Darcy without a proper introduction ("Mr. Darcy would consider his addressing him without introduction as an impertinent freedom..."). The habitual food served at a ball consisted of biscuits and soup spiked with negus, as it is also described in Austen's "Mansfield Park," when little Fanny Price goes to her room after a dance, "feverish with hopes and fears, soup and negus." The morals in Austen's times were quite warped. Until 1823, a woman under 21 could not marry without parental permission and when she did, she could even marry her own cousin or cousin-in-law, as also present in "Pride and Prejudice." Because Lydia was too young, she eloped with Mr. Wickham; Lizzy's cousin, Mr. Collins had asked her before that for her hand in marriage, through her father, who had accepted. Marriage was also done sometimes through special licenses that allowed one to marry at any place and time. "You must and shall be married by a special license," Mrs. Bennet tells Elizabeth when she finds out that she was going to marry Mr. Darcy at last. Because there was a major focus on marriage in the 1800's, most of Austen's novels talk about marriage and the problems that young adults encountered in those times, whenever they were confronted with the law. For example, Lydia runs with Mr. Wickham to Retna Green to get married, which in those times, was a town where young people went to do exactly and only that - elope and get married.
Also, in the 1800's, as strange as it may seem, houses had names that referred either to the owner's name or to the owner's social status. We see this element present in Jane Austen's major novels as well. Sometimes, these residences even gave her novels, their titles, like "Northanger Abbey" and "Mansfield Park." It is also in this time period that people referred to their residences as houses rather than castles or manors, thus the Netherfield House, which Mr. Bingley had rented in "Pride and Prejudice." Rich people however lived in "parks." A park in those days represented and area, which the king permitted a large landowner to enclose for the sake of chasing deer. Mansfield Park, from the novel carrying its name, is property of baronets, and having a park connoted gentlemanly status in those times. In that era, the dwelling of one was often called either by its political or by its social function. That is why, in "Pride and Prejudice," Bingley's residence is referred as either Netherfield House or Netherfield Park.
Jane Austen was the first author to give the novel its distinct modern character, through her wit, realism, sympathy and prose style. She basically jump-started the Victorian era and its novel. She bases her style on wit and irony and she gives the hero a new definition. The Victorian hero is still a man from a big, wealthy family. However, this becomes of secondary significance. What is more important for a character right now, is how he proves himself worthy of admiration of a Victorian heroine and how he humiliates himself when punished, and eventually comes back as a changed and reformed man (ex: Darcy is proud and conceited, Elizabeth is not prepared to accept him, he is punished by her indifference but eventually proves himself as worthy of her love through the noble deeds he performs for her sister - "Pride and Prejudice"). Jane Austen's characters are identified with their provincial background; they are "recognizable people whose lives fit their surroundings." "Mansfield Park reflects the boredom present in a respectable country estate, while "Pride and Prejudice" shows that "marriage is the sole purpose of maturity" in a society where women are often, if not all the time objectified by men.
Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817 in Winchester and was buried six days later at Winchester Cathedral. A disease, which was not yet known, but which now is called Addison's took her soul away at only 41 and left not only a novel unfinished, "The Watsons," but a whole England empty of romantic and at the same time ironic novels, and eventually a whole literary world in mourning.
Even though most of Austen's works did not get recognized until after she was dead, they are non the less, exquisite pieces of art, unique masterpieces of the Victorian style, which should really be called the Austen era because her work dominates it and prevails over all other women writers of that time.
Jane Austen's novels continue to delight millions of literary minds even centuries after, because, even though her novels are reflective of her time period, her style is still way ahead of itself. She will continue to live through time, with the help of generations and generations to come. Even though she is no longer physically present, her star still shines brightly on the sky of literature and her soul continues to travel through each and every person that sheds a tear while reading the last words of one of her magnificent novels.
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