Article

Jane Austen

Katherine Halsey

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0081
Jane Austen

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Jane Austen (b. 1775–d. 1817) was the author of six novels and a number of juvenile and unfinished works. Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Persuasion (1817), and Northanger Abbey (1817) are often considered some of the most perfectly realized novels in the English language, combining superb characterization, sophisticated plotting, elegant style, and a dry and ironic wit. Austen’s novels unite social realism, comic satire, and romance in a formula that has proven both durable and highly successful. Although her works enjoyed only modest success in their own time, Austen now occupies an unusual position among literary figures, as she is both a popular writer, with a large and sometimes fanatical fan base, and a “classic” writer, with a secure position in the literary academy. Her works have been subjected to every kind of critical, historical, and theoretical analysis, but they have also been adapted for television, radio, theatre, and film, and her works have generated hundreds of sequels, prequels, and other spin-offs. Austen’s earliest critics, accustomed to the more melodramatic Gothic novels then in vogue, focused on the unusual degree of verisimilitude in Austen’s novels, commenting on the fact that Austen was able to make everyday incidents and characters interesting. They also praised the “pure morality” that the works embodied and frequently commented that Austen’s novels provided an excellent example to other female writers because they dealt with matters within the sphere of what the author knew (domestic life in the country) and did not deal with matters then considered unsuitable for female knowledge. Over the course of the 19th century, Austen’s reputation developed slowly, and she remained a novelist beloved largely by elite highbrow readers but one without a wide popular readership. In critical and private writing of the mid-19th century, Austen was often characterized as a miniaturist whose art was perfect within a tiny compass (the famous “little piece of ivory two inches wide” as Austen called it herself) but who did not aspire to deal with the larger or more spiritual side of life. Criticism of this period largely attempted to make a case for an undervalued novelist. Austen’s popularity grew exponentially from 1870 onward, after the publication of the Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew. This work gave rise to a renewed popular and critical interest in Austen’s novels, as well as a spate of critical articles on her works. From the 1870s onward, Austen’s reputation rose steeply, her cause championed by a group of influential literary men (including E. M. Forster, George Saintsbury, and William Dean Howells) who came to be known as “Janeites.” Austen’s position was consolidated by the work of her first scholarly editor R. W. Chapman, who produced the first textually significant edition of Austen’s works. In 1948 F. R. Leavis made Austen’s place in the English literary canon absolutely secure by naming her as one of England’s great novelists.

Article.  13592 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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