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Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony and social commentary have gained her historical importance among scholars and critics.
Adhering to a common contemporary practice for female authors, Austen published her novels anonymously. Her novels achieved a measure of popular success and esteem, yet her anonymity kept her out of leading literary circles. Although all her works are love stories, and although her career coincided with the Romantic movement in literature, Jane Austen was not an intensely passionate Romantic. Passionate emotion usually carries danger in an Austen novel and the young woman who exercises moderation is more likely to find real happiness than one who irrationally elopes with a capricious lover. Her artistic values had more in common with David Hume and John Locke than with her contemporaries William Wordsworth or Lord Byron. Among Austen's influences were Samuel Johnson, William Cowper, Samuel Richardson, George Crabbe, and Fanny Burney. It should be noted that excessive calculation and practicality also tends to result in disaster in Austen novels.
Her posthumously published novel Northanger Abbey satirises the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, but Austen is most famous for her mature works, which took the form of socially astute comedies of manners. These, especially Emma, are often cited for their perfection of form, while modern critics continue to unearth new perspectives on Austen's keen commentary regarding the predicament of unmarried genteel English women in the late 1790s and early 1800s, a consequence of inheritance law and custom, which usually directed the bulk of a family's fortune to eldest male heirs.
In 1816, the editors of this publication didn't think that Emma was one of the more important novels of the day.Her novels received only moderate renown when they were published, though Sir Walter Scott in particular praised her work:
"That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements of feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with."
In Austen's final novel Persuasion, several characters read a work by Scott and praise it.
Austen also earned the admiration of Macaulay (who thought that in the world there were no compositions which approached nearer to perfection), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Sydney Smith, and Edward FitzGerald. Twentieth century scholars ranked her among the greatest literary geniuses of the English language, sometimes even comparing her to Shakespeare.
Trilling wrote in an essay on Mansfield Park,
"It was Jane Austen who first represented the specifically modern personality and the culture in which it had its being. Never before had the moral life been shown as she shows it to be, never before had it been conceived to be so complex and difficult and exhausting. Hegel speaks of the "secularization of spirituality" as a prime characteristic of the modern epoch, and Jane Austen is the first to tell us what this involves. She is the first novelist to represent society, the general culture, as playing a part in the moral life, generating the concepts of "sincerity" and "vulgarity" which no earlier time would have understood the meaning of, and which for us are so subtle that they defy definition, and so powerful that none can escape their sovereignty. She is the first to be aware of the Terror which rules our moral situation, the ubiquitous anonymous judgment to which we respond, the necessity we feel to demonstrate the purity of our secular spirituality, whose dark and dubious places are more numerous and obscure than those of religious spirituality, to put our lives and styles to the question ..."
Negative views of Austen have been notable, with more demanding detractors frequently accusing her writing of being unliterary and middle-brow. Charlotte Brontë criticized the narrow scope of Austen's fiction:
"Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as 'outré' or extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood ... What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death--this Miss Austen ignores....Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless) woman, if this is heresy--I cannot help it."
Mark Twain's reaction was revulsion:
"Jane Austen? Why, I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book."
Austen's literary strength lies in the delineation of character, especially of women, by delicate touches arising out of the most natural and everyday incidents in the life of the middle and upper classes, from which her subjects are generally taken. Her characters, though of quite ordinary types, are drawn with such firmness and precision, and with such significant detail as to retain their individuality intact through their entire development, and they are uncoloured by her own personality. Her view of life seems largely genial, with a strong dash of gentle but keen irony.
Some contemporary readers may find the world she describes, in which people's chief concern is obtaining advantageous marriages, unliberated and disquieting. In her era options were limited, and both women and men often married for financial considerations. Female writers worked within the similarly narrow genre of romance. Part of Austen's prominent reputation rests on how well she integrates observations on the human condition within a convincing love story. Much of the tension in her novels arises from balancing financial necessity against other concerns: love, friendship, honor and self-respect.