Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Jane Austen

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From volume III of the work.
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AUSTEN, Jane, one of the most distinguished modern. British novelists, was born December 16, 1775, at the parsonage of Steventon, in Hampshire, of which place her father was for many years rector. Her life was singularly tranquil and void of incident, so that but few facts are known concerning her from which an idea of her character can be formed. She was tall and attractive in person, and of an extremely kind and gentle disposition. Under her father s care she received a sound education, though she had few of the modern accomplishments. She had a fair acquaintance with English literature, her favourite authors being Richardson, Johnson, Cowper, and Crabbe ; she knew French well and Italian slightly, had some taste for music, and was noted for her skill in needlework. She was a particular favourite with all her younger relatives, especially on account of her wonderful power of extemporising long and circumstantial narratives. At a very early age she seems to have begun to exercise her faculty for composition, and wrote several short tales and fragments of larger works, some of which have been found among her papers. These first essays are written in a remarkably pure and vigorous style, and are not unworthy of her later reputation. In 1796 her first large work, Pride and Prejudice, was begun and completed in about ten months ; Sense and Sensibility and Fort hanger Abbey were written soon after, during 1797 and 1798. Many years elapsed before these works were published, for the first attempts to introduce them to the public were badly received. Pride and Prejudice was summarily rejected by Mr Cadell; Northanger Abbey was sold for 10 to a Bath publisher, but was never printed, and, many years after, was bought back by the author. From 1801 to 1805 the Austen family resided in Bath, they then removed to Southampton, and finally, in 1809, settled at Chawton. There Miss Austen, who for some years had written nothing, resumed her pen, and began to prepare for publication her early novels. Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, Emma in 1816. These four were anonymous. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion appeared together under Miss Austen s name in 1818, after her death. Early in 1816 her health had begun to give way; her strength gradually declined, and on the 18th July 1817, she died at Winchester, whither she had removed for change of air and scenery. She was buried in the cathedral of that town. Miss Austen s works at the time of their appearance were on the whole well received, and brought her considerable reputation, more, indeed, than she had herself anticipated; but their full merits were not then so generally recognised as they have since been. The novels most popular at that time belonged to the class of which Mrs Radcliffe's Udolpho, Godwin's St Leon or Caleb Williams, and Lewis's Monk are the best known representatives. Against thus style of fiction Miss Austen from the first set her face ; she had a remarkably keen sense of humour, and the ludicrous aspect of these thrilling incidents, mysterious situations, and unnatural characters, presented itself very strongly to her mind. Northanger Abbey, one of her earliest productions, is a clever and well-sustained parody on romances of this type. She did not, however, confine herself to mere negative criticism, but resolved to show that the interest of readers could be roused and sustained by a story absolutely free from the whole machinery of romance and exaggerated sentiment, but presenting an accurately-drawn picture of quiet, natural life. This task she accomplished with complete success; she was the first to introduce the novel of domestic life, "and her writings are still the best specimens of that class of fiction. It could hardly be expected that such works would become immediately popular ; the characters, the motives of action, and the plot itself were too ordinary, one may say too common place, to appeal strongly to the sympathies of the general mass of readers. Her colours were not showy enough to strike the vulgar eye. It is probable, indeed, that her admirers will always be few in number j for not only does it require a somewhat cultivated taste to appreciate the rare skill with which the scanty materials of her tales are handled, but the author s experience of life was so limited that her works are entirely wanting in certain elements such as depth of feeling and breadth of sympathy which are indispensable before a work of fiction can exercise any considerable influence on the public mind. The framework in nearly all Miss Austen's novels is the same, taken as they are from ordinary English middle-class life; her characters are in no way distinguished by any remarkable qualities, they are such persons as one would readily expect to meet in every-day life ; the plot is exceedingly simple, and the incidents, never rising above the level of the most common-place occurrences, flow naturally from the characters of the actors. In the hands of most writers such materials would infallibly become monotonous and tiresome ; but from any danger of this Miss Austen is completely freed by her wonderful power of exciting interest in the "involvements and feelings of ordinary life," and the skill with which, by a series of imperceptible but effective touches, she discriminates her characters, rounds them off, and makes them stand out from the canvas real and living personages, Her gallery of portraits is certainly small, and the same character appears over and over again, but each figure is so distinctly drawn, and has such marked individuality, that one is never struck with a sense of repetition. A warm admirer of her works, Archbishop Whately, has compared them to the carefully-executed pictures of the Dutch school; perhaps the analogy of miniature painting, suggested by the author herself, is more happy and expressive. Miss Austen s life has been written by her nephew, Rev. J. Austen-Leigh (1870, 2d ed., 1871), who has also published some extracts from her papers, including a short tale, Lady Susan, written in the form of letters; a fragment of a larger work called The Watsons; the first draft of a chapter in Persuasion; and the beginning of a novel, on which she was engaged at the time of her death.