AUSTEN, Jane (1775–1817) British novelist
Austen loved the theatre, and the nearest equivalents to her novels, for pace and verve, are the social comedies of such writers as Sheridan or Goldsmith. The kind of novels popular at the time were epic panoramas (like those of Sir Walter Scott), showing the human race strutting and swaggering amid stormy weather in vast, romantic landscapes. Austen preferred a narrower focus, concentrating on a handful of people busy about their own domestic concerns. Her books are about the bonds which draw families together and the ambitions and feelings (usually caused by grown-up children seeking marriage partners) which divide them. Her plots fall into ‘acts’, like plays, and her dialogue is as precise and witty as in any comedy of the time. But she offers a delight available to no playwright: that of the author’s own voice, setting the scene, commenting on and shaping events. She is like a bright-eyed, sharp-tongued relative sitting in a corner of the room watching the rest of the family bustle.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813)
Genteel Mr and Mrs Bennet and their five grown-up daughters are thrown into confusion when two rich, marriageable young men come to live in the neighbourhood. The comedy of the story comes from Mrs Bennet’s mother-hen-like attempts at matchmaking, and the way fate and the young people’s own inclinations make things turn out entirely differently from her plans. The more serious sections of the novel show the developing relationship between Elizabeth Bennet, the second daughter, and cold, proud Mr Darcy. Although secondary characters (henpecked Mr Bennet, snobbish Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Elizabeth’s romantic younger sister Lydia, the dashing army officer Wickham and the toady Mr Collins) steal the limelight whenever they appear, the book hinges on half a dozen magnificent set-piece scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy, the two headstrong young people the reader longs to see realizing their love for one another and falling into one another’s arms.
Austen’s completed novels are: Northanger Abbey (a spoof of romantic melodrama, unlike any of her other books), Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. She also left a number of unfinished works, including The Watsons (completed by Joan Aiken) and Sanditon (finished by Marie Dobbs).
Thematically & Stylistically Similar Books for Further Reading:
Emma (about a young woman so eager to manage other people’s lives that she fails, for a long time, to realize where her own true happiness lies); Mansfield Park (a darker comedy about a girl brought up by a rich, charming family who is at first dazzled by their easy brilliance, then comes to see that they are selfish and foolish, and finally, by unassuming persistence, wins through to the happiness we have hoped for her).
to Pride and Prejudice: Emma Tennant, Pemberley (ripely romantic sequel, not terribly Austenish but fun for Elizabeth/Darcy lovers); Mrs Gaskell, Wives and Daughters.
to Mansfield Park: Joan Aiken, Mansfield Revisited – the best of many attempts to use Austen’s characters and equal Austen’s style.
to Austen’s work in general: William Thackeray, Vanity Fair; E.M. Forster, A Room With a View; Alison Lurie, Only Children; Barbara Pym, Excellent Women; the short stories of >> Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield.
Source Credits: Nick Rennison, Good Reading Guide: Discover Your Next Great Read, Bloomsbury Publishing, Seventh Edition