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Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, in the village of Steventon in Hampshire. She was the seventh of eight children, and was educated mostly at home. As a young woman, Austen enjoyed dancing, reading, and walks around the Hampshire countryside—all of which activities appear in many of her novels. She had many friends in Hampshire and was upset when her parents announced their intention to move to Bath in 1801. Austen never warmed to the town. In 1805 Austen's father died, leaving his wife and two daughters to depend on the Austen sons for financial support.
After her father's death, Austen, her mother, and her sister spent several years in dire financial straits. In 1809, Austen's brother Edward gave his mother and sisters his old estate in Chawton, Hampshire, where Austen spent the rest of her life. Austen revised three of her novels and wrote three more while at Chawton: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). In 1816, Austen contracted Addison's Disease, a tubercular disease of the kidneys. She died on July 18, 1817. Two of her novels were published after her death: Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (both 1817).
Austen was one of the earliest British female novelists, and became the most well-known in her time. Her novels were (and are) popular for their satirical portrayal of upper class England. Austen's chief weapon was her ironic wit, which she honed to a razor-sharp edge as her career progressed. Her books were published anonymously, since at the time she wrote, women who became public figures often lost respectability. Austen wrote during a time of political turmoil. In the early 1800s, the Napoleonic Wars were making many monarchies nervous, and government censorship of literature sometimes occurred.
Austen's life as a writer often took a backseat to the more practical details of her life, at least until the move to Chawton. As a teenager, Austen had written several small satirical pieces, and in the late 1890s she had started her first novel, originally titled Susan, the name of the main character. By the her earliest novel was published in 1817, Austen had published almost all of her other novels. In revising Susan, she renamed the protagonist "Catherine," and ultimately changed the title of the novel Northanger Abbey.
In her later novels, Austen perfects her distinctive style, satirizing the world of the British upper classes, using ironic humor to expose their follies, and creating enjoyable, ostensibly romantic plots. Northanger Abbey, as Austen's earliest novel, is not always as masterfully executed as Austen's later work. Her trademark irony is often relatively obvious, and exaggerated so that it becomes light sarcasm. Northanger Abbey also differs from Austen's other novels in its explicit derivation from other works. Book II contains two elaborate parodies of The Mysteries of Udolpho, a novel by Gothic writer Anne Radcliffe, who was very popular when Austen wrote her novels. Northanger Abbey is generally an ironic parody of both Gothic novels and unsophisticated romances that were popular in this period. It also satirizes the conduct books of the 1700s, books that informed children and young people how to behave in society.
In terms of British literary development, Jane Austen occupies no one position. She does not belong to the Neo-Classicist movement, which was the major literary movement of the 1700s. She is too early to be a Romantic, and her plots are too involved with society and human interaction to fit tidily within the Romantic genre. Austen's emphasis on manners and on the positive and negative aspects of rigid British social norms, is similar to the emphasis of the Victorian authors half a century later. Austen's novels, while part of the progressive development of British fiction, cannot be classified as belonging to any particular literary movement.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Northanger Abbey!