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Jane Austen, whom some critics consider
England’s best novelist, was born in 1775 in
Steventon, England. The seventh of eight children, Austen lived
with her parents for her entire life, first in Steventon and later
in Bath, Southampton, and Chawton. Her father was the parish rector
in Steventon, and, though not wealthy, her family was well connected
and well educated. Austen briefly attended boarding school in Reading
but received the majority of her education at home. According to
rumor, she had a brief love affair when she was twenty-five, but
it did not lead to a marriage proposal. Two years later she accepted
and then quickly rejected a proposal. She remained unmarried for
the rest of her life. Austen died in 1817,
at age forty-one, of Addison’s disease.
Austen began writing stories at a very young age and
completed her first novel in her early twenties. However, she did
not publish until 1811, when Sense
and Sensibility appeared anonymously, -followed by Pride
and Prejudice (1813) and Mansfield
Park (1814). Emma, which
appeared in 1816, was the last novel published -during
Austen’s lifetime. (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion appeared
Austen’s novels received little critical or popular recognition
during her lifetime, and her identity as a novelist was not revealed
until after her death. As admired as Austen’s novels later became,
critics have had a difficult time placing them within literary history.
She is known for her gently satirical portraits of village life
and of the rituals of courtship and marriage, but she wrote during
the Romantic period, when most major writers were concerned with
a very different set of interests and values. Romantic poets confronted
the hopes and failures of the French Revolution and formulated new
literary values centered on individual freedom, passion, and intensity.
In comparison, Austen’s detailed examination of the rules of decorum that
govern social relationships, and her insistence that reason and moderation
are necessary checks on feeling, make her seem out of step with
the literary times. One way to understand Austen’s place in literary
history is to think of her as part of the earlier eighteenth century,
the Age of Reason, when literature was associated with wit, poise,
and propriety. Her novels certainly belong to an eighteenth-century
genre, the comedy of manners, which examines the behavior of men
and women of a single social class.
Rather than dismiss Austen as a writer who shuns the
artistic and political movements of her time, it is perhaps more
useful to think of her as an early feminist. Critics have pointed
out that the Romantics, who were almost exclusively male, offered
a poor model of literary fulfillment for the ambitious woman of
the time. While male writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord
Byron possessed the freedom to promote their own individuality through
wide travel and sexual and military adventurism, women were largely
denied these freedoms. For women, the penalty for sexual freedom
was social ostracism, poverty, and worse. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen
describes explicitly the danger that cultivating emotion posed for
women of her time.
In this social context, Austen’s commitment to reason
and moderation can be seen as feminist and progressive rather than
conservative. The intelligence and resourcefulness of her heroines
stand in constant contrast to the limits of the constricted world
of courtship and marriage defining their sphere of action. While
reading Emma it is interesting to consider to what
extent Austen accepts or questions the idea that marriage represents
a woman’s maturity and fulfillment.
Some consider Emma Austen’s best and
most representative novel. It is also her longest novel, and by
many accounts, her most difficult. Long praised for its rich domestic
realism, Emma also presents puzzling questions:
how can a character as intelligent as Emma be wrong so often? When
does Austen expect us to sympathize with Emma, and when does she
expect us to criticize her? Is the ending as genuinely happy as
it is presented to be, or does Austen subtly inject a note of subversive
irony into it? That these questions are on some level unanswerable
ensures that Emma will be read again and again.