Jane Austen lived in a world that was often focused around the events and impacts of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of France. The politics of Europe were frequently in the news during the time in which Jane Austen lived but she chose not to refer to these events very much in her books. Instead, her focus was on writing about aspects of ordinary relationships across different classes of people, from those with modest incomes to those who were quite wealthy. However, there was one social issue that Austen was clear in expressing her concern about and that was slavery and she took an abolitionist stance and in her novels Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion there are hints at this.
Born in 1775, Jane Austen, as a young, middle-class woman, had very little chance to pursue any kind of career that would allow her an income and the independence that would go with it. 18th century, and early 19th century, England was a world in which middle class women did not enjoy the opportunities that many now have to work. How interesting, though, that during the time that Jane Austen lived in some female novelists, such as Mary Wollstencraft, found ways to write about the difficulties of living an independent life.
It is not only Jane Austen’s novels that endure, but also the image we have of Austen herself as a hero in her own right, resisting the expectation for marriage and working to shape her own identity.
Our sense of Jane’s life and times comes largely from surviving correspondence that she wrote. In her biography of Jane Austen, Claire Tomalin explains that Jane kept no “autobiographical notes, and if she kept any diaries they did not survive her.” (1) As such, the earliest known correspondence to survive was written when Jane was twenty. Through her novels it seems that many readers feel that they come to know Jane in some ways through her novels.
The Regency period in England lasted from about 1790 until 1820 and we use the term to refer to the reign of the Prince of Wales who took to the throne when his father George III was deemed unfit to rule. The Regency period is important, too, for the ways in which art and architecture developed and in the timeline of history the Regency period occurs just after the end of the French Revolution and just before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. It might even surprise you to know that towards the end of the 18th century, women novelists outnumbered male novelists.
Austen’s novels were published between 1811 and 1817, right in the heart of the Regency period, a time that’s often described as being very focused on civility and good manners between people. These qualities are certainly important to the stories and characters of Jane Austen’s novels and her psychologically realistic characters partly reflect a wider interest at the time in the idea of self-knowledge. (2) Indeed, Austen’s female characters are especially reflective and Elizabeth Bennett, the hero of Pride and Prejudice, goes through a great emotional journey of self-knowledge in order to arrive at a moment of real contentment. In chapter twenty one Elizabeth and her sister Jane speak intently about relationships and happiness and in chapter fifty we read a brief insight into the economics of family life and marriage in the early nineteenth century.
Jane Austen’s novels deal with subjects as relevant to us now as they were two hundred years ago.
Each of Jane’s novels explores the relationship between emotion and reason, and the importance of how remember and think through recent events and how we have rightly or wrongly judged people that have been introduced to. Jane Austen’s novels also dramatise how our personal desires fit with the needs and expectations of society. Jane was committed to writing about the detail and rhythms of home life in and around a country village. Whilst that might not sound like a very exciting subject that was not the point: the excitement for her was in the drama of the human relationships that provide the emotional power of her novels.
1. Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life, Penguin, 2000.
2. Janet Todd, The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen, 2006.