Jane Austen Jane Austen

Jane Austen, whose name itself has become a totem of civility, manners, and etiquette, received little public recognition in her lifetime. The four novels which were published while she lived -- Sense and Sensibility (1811); Pride and Prejudice (1813); Mansfield Park (1814); and Emma (1816) -- appeared without her name on the title page; usually their authorship was attributed only to "a lady."

Austen was born at Steventon, her father's vicarage in Hampshire, into a well-off family. There she wrote her first three published novels. (The first was actually Northanger Abbey, not published until 1818, a year after her death). Between 1801 and 1809, the Austens moved frequently. In 1801, the family moved from the Steventon vicarage to Bath, between the Cotswold Hills to the north and the Mendips to the south. Bath played a prominent part in Austen's last novel, Persuasion (published jointly with Northanger Abbey in 1818). After six years, the family relocated to Southampton; two years later, in 1809, Austen went with her family to Chawton, near Winchester, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Austen wrote of the genteel society she knew in these places, of what we would now call the upper middle class -- those with some land and some money, generally without titles, and always with the pressure of navigating the treacherous waters of social codes and expectations. The world of Austen's novel of manners was a limited one; Mansfield Park is unique among the six novels in that it spends an extended episode in the urban home of a poor family.

Although Austen is now often revered for her handling of romantic love, her social conservatism was actually at odds with the Romantic sensibility. With her advocacy of reason over fancy and moderation over excess, Austen wrote of marriages and social relations based on rational companionship rather than on the feverish emotionality espoused by the Romanticism that was dominant when she wrote. Her deft irony and subtle but firm morality refined the genre of the novel, which was really still in its early childhood at the turn of the 19th century. Austen, the great narrator of courtship and marriage, never married, and she died among her family in Winchester at the age of 42.