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THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES
Jane Austen was a country parson's daughter who lived most of her life in a tiny English village. She began writing her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, when she was still in her late teens. When she wrote the original version of her second and most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice (originally entitled First Impressions), she was not yet twenty-one. At that time she had never been away from home, except for a few years at a girls' boarding school before the age of ten. And yet, although she had seen almost nothing of the world beyond Steventon, the town where she grew up, she was able to write a witty, worldly novel of love, money, and marriage.
Jane Austen's world seems very narrow to us today. The year she was born, 1775, was an important one in English as well as American history, but to the people of the little village of Steventon, the American Revolution was something very far away that hardly touched their lives at all. Years later while Austen was writing her novels, England was involved in the Napoleonic Wars, but you won't find much mention of them in her work. One reason these wars did not affect the English at home very much was that they were fought entirely on foreign soil or at sea, and they did not involve very large numbers of Englishmen. (Two of Jane Austen's brothers did see combat as naval officers and both reached the rank of admiral, and a naval officer who did well in the wars is one of her most attractive heroes in her last novel, Persuasion.) Another reason is that-without television, radio, telephones, automobiles, or even railroads-news traveled slowly.
People traveled very little, and when they did it was on foot, by public coach, or-if they could afford it-by private carriage. In the evenings they sat together around the fire, mother and girls mending or embroidering by candlelight and often someone reading aloud. For entertainment, they might visit a neighbor or go to a dance in the village public hall. At these so-called assemblies, young people were chaperoned by mothers and aunts, and only the most correct behavior was tolerated. If there was a large estate in the neighborhood, the squire or lord of the manor would give evening parties and occasionally a ball, to which his lady would invite the leading families of the countryside.
Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice in the family sitting room while her six brothers and a sister, her father's pupils, and visiting neighbors swirled around her. She would cover her manuscript with a blotter during interruptions and take up her pen again when the room was quiet. All the while, she was watching, listening, and thinking about the world around her. The novel reflects her understanding of and active involvement with "ordinary" people.
The plot of Pride and Prejudice is based on the concerns of people in early nineteenth-century country society. One of these concerns is money. Austen could observe the money problems of a middle-class family right in her own home. As a clergyman of the Church of England, her father was an educated man and a gentleman. But his parish consisted of only about three hundred people, and his income didn't provide well for his family, so he had to take in students in addition to his church duties. Even so, he could send only one son, the oldest, to Oxford, and he couldn't give his daughters attractive dowries or an income if they remained unmarried.
Like other young women of their social class, Jane and her sister Cassandra were educated, mostly at home, in the "ladylike" subjects of music, drawing and painting, needlework, and social behavior. Thanks to her father and her own literary tastes, Jane was also very well read. Tall and graceful, with dark hair and beautiful hazel eyes, she enjoyed parties, liked to dance, and had numerous suitors. As it turned out, however, neither Jane nor her sister Cassandra ever married. After their father died in 1805, they and their mother were cared for by a brother who had been adopted by a wealthy childless couple and had inherited a sizable estate. (Such adoptions were a fairly common custom of the time.)
Such realities of middle-class life are central to Pride and Prejudice. Critics of a hundred or so years ago called Jane Austen "vulgar" and "mercenary," because she writes so frankly about money. One of the first things we learn about her characters, for example, is how much income they have. Her critics considered it bad taste to talk about money, either one's own or someone else's.
But in the middle class of Jane Austen's time, the amount of your income could be a matter of life and death. What is more, it was not money you worked for and earned that mattered, but money you were born to or inherited. People who worked-businessmen, manufacturers, and even some professional people, such as lawyers-were not accepted as members of the "gentry." They were "in trade," and the gentry looked down on them.
While Austen was writing, a great change was coming over England. The industrial revolution was reaching its height, and a new middle class of prosperous factory owners was developing. Yet in the midst of this change, one ancient English tradition still survived, and that was that the true gentry were not the newly rich in the cities but those who lived on their inherited estates. The new middle class, who had become rich "in trade," were therefore buying manor houses and estates in the country, and setting up their heirs as members of the landed aristocracy.
In Pride and Prejudice the two leading male characters represent this social change. Mr. Darcy's aristocratic family goes back for generations, and he draws his income from his vast estate of tenant farms. His friend Mr. Bingley, however, is heir to a fortune made "in trade" and is looking for a suitable country estate to establish himself in the upper class.
Notice how different characters in the novel react to these social distinctions. Jane Austen herself, through her heroine Elizabeth, expresses her contempt for snobbery. You'll find that she pokes fun at the snobs and makes them her most comical characters.
Still, there was a very serious side to all this, and that was the situation of young women. In our time, women have many other choices in addition to marriage. In Jane Austen's time it wasn't so. A young woman of her class depended for her happiness, her health, in fact the whole shape of her life, on her making a good marriage. If her husband was poor or a gambler or a drunkard, she and her children could suffer genuine privation. A girl with no fortune of her own often could not attract a husband. Then she might have to become a governess, living in other people's houses, looking after their children and subject to their whims.
The necessity of making a good marriage is one of the major themes of Pride and Prejudice, but that doesn't mean the novel is old fashioned. In fact, you may find that you can make a good argument for calling Jane Austen a feminist and her novel a feminist novel. It's a serious novel in many ways, but also a very funny one.
Jane Austen began writing novels simply to entertain herself and her family, with no idea of having her stories published. In her time, novels weren't considered a respectable form of literature, rather the way murder mysteries and Gothic romances are looked down on in our own time. Ministers preached and social critics thundered against the habit of reading novels. Meanwhile, hundreds of novels were being published-most of them trashy romances or wildly exaggerated adventure yarns-and people went right on reading them.
Most of these novels, including some of the better ones, were written by women. Writing was one of the few possible occupations for an intelligent, educated woman. Women could write at home while fulfilling their traditional role of running a household and bringing up children. They could stay out of the public eye, hiding behind an assumed name. George Eliot's real name was Mary Ann Travers, the Bronte sisters wrote under the name of Bell, and George Sand in real life was Madame Dudevant. When Jane Austen's books were finally published, thanks to her brother Henry who acted as her agent, the title page just said "By a Lady." Her novels were read by a small, exclusive audience during her lifetime. She lived a quiet life and never yearned for celebrity.
Austin was working on her sixth and last novel, Persuasion, when Henry fell ill and she moved to London to nurse him. Soon afterward her own health began to fail. With Cassandra as her nurse and companion, she moved to Winchester to be treated by a famous surgeon there. He apparently could not help her, and on July 18, 1817, she died, just five months short of her forty-second birthday.
Judging from her letters, which radiate good humor and laugh off minor misfortunes, Jane Austen's life, although short, was a busy and contented one. If the lively, witty Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice was modeled on any living person, the model must have been Jane Austen herself.