Jane Austen is credited with creating the modern “novel of manners,” depicting everyday people with ordinary lives in the early 19th century. She is as much a novelist as she was a historian and social critic, documenting the customs, values and social mores of the time. The four novels published during her short lifetime, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma, are classics in the English literary canon and remain extraordinarily popular today. All were published anonymously between 1811 and 1815, but were so fashionable at the time that a young George IV was said to keep a set of Austen’s novels at each of his residences. Austen’s identity was only revealed after her death at age 41 from Addison’s disease, upon publication of her posthumous novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Her protective older sister destroyed many of her letters and manuscripts after her death, so much of her personal life remains a mystery.
Austen was born in a small Hampshire village, the 7th of 8 children. She left school until age 9 to be homeschooled by her father, a rector, and older brothers. The family was known for its creativity and wit, performing sketches (written by Austen and her mother) in their barn for the neighbors. By age 12 she was writing manuscripts, but would not publish a novel until age 35, with her father and brother acting as agents. Her work often centred around themes of love and marriage, though she herself never married. She was thought to be attractive with hazel eyes and curly hair, and won the romantic attention of several prominent men over her lifetime, but her middle-class status stood in the way. She did agree to marry the 21-year-old heir of a prominent family, only to change her mind the next day.
Austen’s trail-blazing writing style was entertaining and lively, infusing wit, irony, and character development into less melodramatic plot lines than was common at the time, defining the “realist” genre. She was a keen observer; the landed gentry of the surrounding bucolic countryside providing context for her novels, documenting a simpler time. It’s no wonder there have been so many film adaptations of her work, starring actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma), Emma Thomson and Kate Winslet (Sense and Sensibility). Less well known is that Brigette Jones’ Diary is a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and Clueless was inspired by Emma. Pride and Prejudice’s intelligent and high-spirited Elizabeth Bennett (thought to represent Austen herself) remains one of the most beloved and important female characters of the English literary canon.