Great European of the Week: Jane Austen

The year 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous classical romantic novels of all times, Pride and Prejudice. The author of the book, Jane Austen, is one of the most important, yet controversial figures of British literature, was born on December 16th 1775 in Hempshire, England. The seventh child of a poor but well-respected intellectual family, Austen was raised in an environment which encouraged her to develop an interest in literature. Her father had an extensive library, where Jane spent hours reading. In order to acquire further education, Jane and one of her sisters were sent to study in boarding schools, but financial constraints forced the family to bring the girls back home where they spent their youth afterwards. Thereafter, Jane’s life revolved around frequenting social events, such as church ceremonies and cotillions.

Jane Austen.

Jane Austen.

Austen started to write her own novels in the 1790s, which were usually set in a middle-class or landed gentry class. She depicted the social events and romantic interactions of her characters in an unconventional way, putting the emphasis on witty, even sarcastic situations aimed at criticizing the usual enthusiasm for the romantic hysteria. Her main novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma were published at the beginning of the 1810s. She signed her first novel as “By a Lady”, and remained anonymous until her death in 1817. After her death her brother revealed Austen’s identity and started to publish many of her work. While today being among the most significant pieces of English literature, her novels gained popularity only in the second half of the 19th century, and reached its apex in the 20th century.

Austen’s unique style and the fact that she was an anonymous female writer in the 18th century drew admiration as well as harsh criticism from both the public and the academic circles. In the 19th century, her works were criticized for lacking passion and being too cynical, while later on her writing skills and plots became subjects of criticism. Attacks came from many angles. Mark Twain, for example, was proud of not having any Austen novels in his library, and claimed that he hates the characters of Pride and Prejudice so much that every time he reads it he wants to „dig her (Austen) up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Another branch of negative comments on Austen’s work usually comes from the feminist literary criticism, which denounces Austen’s description of women’s dependence on marriage or their chosen one’s money and their inability to protect themselves from male sexual advances. Yet in some instances, she was also lauded by feminism, for giving a moral autonomy to her heroines, which was both unusual and brave in her time.

Despite the criticism, most literature lovers praise Austen’s work. In 2002, as part of a BBC poll, British people chose her to be number 70 on the list of the “100 Most Famous Britons of All Times.” Moreover, several movements and associations are dedicated to Austen’s work, which regularly organize programs related to the author’s legacy. The group of Janeites was launched at the end of the 19th century, when the literary elite felt that they should distinguish themselves and their enthusiasm about Austen’s work from that of the masses. Since then, several groups and societies are devoted to her all over the world (e.g. Jane Austen Society of North America, Jane Austen Society of Australia etc.). Famous authors also praise her genius, such as Rudyard Kipling, who wrote a book on the Janeites, and even wrote a poem praising “England’s Jane”. Her legacy is kept alive in several movie adaptations of her novels, sequels written to her books, and movies describing her life. The appreciation surrounding the author culminated in the decision of the Bank of England in July 2013 to replace Charles Darwin’s face on the 10£ bill to Austen’s figure.

It does not matter if one is fond of Austen’s books or does not feel close to her work; Austen’s popularity is not accidental. Starting up as an amateur writer, she posthumous became the ‘mother’ of English romantic novel writing. With her sharp intelligence and bold insights in the 18th century gentry society, she created an inimitably enchanting atmosphere of the Georgian England. Being a female author at her time, and creating powerful women characters in her novels distinguishes her from other writers of the époque. Perhaps the biggest value of her legacy is the mixed picture she described about the social order of her time. One can see her as a political conservative, protecting the traditional values of society. To some she might also seem radical, challenging the existing patriarchal order of society. Whichever impression we have, Jane Austen’s impact both on the high and popular culture makes her one of the most influential European novelists of all time.

Image: “Jane Austen”, courtesy of Ben Sutherland. Published via Flickr under Creative Commons license 2.0. 

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