Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, one of eight children. She briefly attended school, but this proved too expensive for her father. So she educated herself in his library instead.
It is believed that she received a marriage proposal, yet chose the financially precarious option of remaining single. She completed six novels – two of which were published posthumously—but they brought little income. Austen died at 41, and was laid to rest in Winchester Cathedral.
But her uniqueness lay in combining realism with a new narrative style, one which moved deftly between the narrator’s voice and the characters’ innermost thoughts. This “free indirect speech” allowed the reader to see, think and feel exactly as the character did while also maintaining a critical distance and the ability to move between various points of view. It was radically inventive.
In the early 20th century the suffrage movement claimed her as one of its icons, marching with her name emblazoned upon its banners as proof of women’s intellectual prowess.
Austen’s novels were prescribed reading for shell-shocked soldiers who would not be reminded of their trauma by her gentle, seemingly insular narratives. In the dark days of the Second World War, Winston Churchill found it comforting to reread “Pride and Prejudice”. Austen’s novels were held up as offering sanctuary, a refuge from reality; in her pages readers could find a portrait of England before the fall.
If Austen’s work is perceived as quintessentially British, it has found resonance across the world. Bicentenary events are being hosted all over Europe. The Jane Austen Society of North America boasts more than 5,000 members; reading groups exist across Latin America.
In “The Genius of Jane Austen” (Harper; William Collins), Paula Byrne writes that Austen is seen as having a particular affinity with Chinese culture, where “manners matter” as they did in Georgian England. There have been more than 50 written versions of “Pride and Prejudice” in China alone.
Western readers may no longer empathize with the urgency that surrounds marriage or the idea that a relationship can be stopped in its tracks by monetary circumstance. But everyone has encountered a flirty, shallow Isabella Thorpe or a suave but seedy Henry Crawford. Two hundred years on, Austen’s sniping observations of human vanity and folly still hit the mark.1
1 This blog was taken from “Jane Austen, 200 years on”. The Economist, July 17th 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21724975-how-unremarkable-englishwoman-became-literary-juggernaut-jane-austen-200-years.