With one of the most recognized and respected names in English literature, with six volumes still in print after nearly two hundred years, and not having to be recovered into the modern literary canon, Jane Austen presents an anomaly in the field of feminist literature. She was born in 1775, as the seventh of eight children, to the Reverend George and Cassandra Leigh Austen and lived a quiet life with her family. The Austen family enjoyed reading novels in a time when many scorned the genre as frivolous at best or immoral at worst. Jane's writing provided much entertainment in her family circle as her novels were passed around and read aloud within the group. Her brother Henry reports, “She read aloud with very great taste and effect. Her own works, probably, were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth; for she partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic muse” (259).
By chronology of production, Austen's six novels fall into two natural groupings: As Brian Southam notes, “Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey were begun in the 1790's and were rewritten and revised before their eventual publication; whereas the three later novels—Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion—belong entirely to Jane Austen's years of maturity.” The novels reveal a growing perfection of style and restraint, and had not Austen died at the early age of forty-one, doubtless her craft would have only continued to sharpen. What she has left us nonetheless is a body of work that reaches a level of perfection etched, as she says, on “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush.”
When her niece Anna writes to Jane Austen requesting suggestions for success in writing, Austen recommends that “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.” In another letter to her novel-writing nephew, Edward, Austen comments on the loss of two-and-a-half chapters of his work. She jokingly assures him that she has not “purloined” his work. She says, “What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow?” While perhaps she understates the vigor of her own writing, she likewise acknowledges that she has circumscribed a very small world in which she works.
Named in its early drafts First Impressions, Pride and Prejudice is a much revised work allowed to steep long in Austen's possession before this, her “own darling Child” was published in 1813. Perhaps Austen's most widely read and taught novel, it is greatly admired for its balance and symmetry. The novel opens with one of the most famous of all opening lines, “It is a truth universally acknowl-