Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 and into a middle-class family in Steventon, Hampshire. She was the seventh of eight children born to Rev. George Austen and his wife Cassandra.
Austen was taught briefly by Mrs. Cawley in 1783, and later, accompanied her sister to the Abbey Boarding School in Reading from 1785-1786 (Pemberley); Aside from one year of formal schooling, she was educated at home. Her father’s library consisted of about 500 books, which she regularly perused, and reputedly, she was particularly fond of works by Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney (Biography, Pemberley) and William Cowper (Literature Post).
Austen started writing at an early age and completed her first novel, Love and Friendship, at age 14 (JASA). The book was succeeded by A History of England by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian (JASA), which was never published. Although her father greatly encouraged and supported her writing, Austen was very self-conscious and, supposedly, hid pages under the desk plotter if anyone came into the room and discovered her writing (JASA).
When Austen wasn’t engaged in reading and writing, she frequently attended parties and balls in Hampshire, and she visited London, Bath and Southampton to see concerts and plays. Although she never married, Jane did have love interests–most noteworthy Thomas Lefroy. A law student, who later became the Chief Justice of Ireland, Lefroy is frequently mentioned in Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra. However strong the attachment was between them, Lefroy couldn’t afford to marry Austen, and the relationship dissolved.
In addition, when Austen and her sister stayed with a friend in Manydown in December 1802, she was proposed to by her friend’s brother, a wealthy landowner named Harris Bigg-Wither. Austen accepted, but a day later, thought better of her decision. She and her sister Cassandra ran away from Manydown and to her brother James, who was residing at the old, family home in Steventon. Austen’s unexpected departure ended the engagement and Austen’s romantic life as viewed by most scholars.
After the death of her father in 1806, Austen, her mother, and Cassandra moved about the country, settling for some time in Bath, Clifton, Southampton, and Portsmouth. Faced with financial difficulties, the women eventually moved in with Austen’s brother Edward at the Chawton Estate in Hampshire. At some point after, she later returned to Steventon and lived with her brother James.
While Jane stayed at Chawton and Steventon, she published the following novels:
- Sense and Sensibility (1810-1811)
- Pride and Prejudice (1813)
- Mansfield Park (1814)
- Emma (1815)
- Persuasion (1816)
- Northanger Abbey (1817)
- Sandition (Unfinished)
Between 1815 and 1817, Jane became increasingly ill and eventually moved to moved to Winchester for medical treatment. Her last novel, Sandition, was left unfinished, the writing interrupted by her death on July 18, 1817 from Addison’s Disease. Her body was buried in the Winchester Cathedral.
Austen’s works were generally well-received by her contemporaries. As Sir Walter Scott wrote in 1846, “‘That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me'” (Jane Austen’s Art, Pemberley). Andrew Trollope was also an admirer of Austen’s work and remarked, “‘Miss Austen was surely a great novelist. What she did, she did perfectly. Her work, as far as it goes, is faultless. She wrote of the times in which she lived, of the class of people with which she associated, and in the language which was usual to her as an educated lady. Of romance, — what we generally mean when we speak of romance — she had no tinge. Heroes and heroines with wonderful adventures there are none in her novels. Of great criminals and hidden crimes she tells us nothing. But she places us in a circle of gentlemen and ladies, and charms us while she tells us with an unconscious accuracy how men should act to women, and women act to men. It is not that her people are all good; — and, certainly, they are not all wise. The faults of some are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered till they are bright as steel. In the comedy of folly I know no novelist who has beaten her,'” (Jane Austen’s Art, Pemberley).
However, as odd as it might seem, Charlotte Bronte detested Austen’s works. In a letter to George Lewes in 1848, Bronte described Austen’s Pride & Prejudice as “An accurate daguerrotyped [photographed] portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck [stream]. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you. but I shall run the risk . . . Now I can understand admiration of George Sand . . . she has a grasp of mind which, if I cannot fully comprehend, I can very deeply respect: she is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant” (Jane Austen’s Art, Pemberley).
Perhaps Charlotte Bronte disliked Jane Austen because she wrote “daguerrotyped portraits of the commonplace” and not deep, sentimental novels like the ones Bronte wrote herself. Was Jane Austen a Romantic? This is an issue that needs much exploration and will hopefully be answered, in part, by looking at the outcome of two of Jane Austen’s Romantic heroines: Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.
Sense and Sensibility
Marianne Dashwood, the Hopeless Romantic
In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Marianne –the “sentimental” Dashwood sister– is ridiculed by the narrator (presumably Austen herself) and her sister Elinor for being over-Romantic. In the introduction, Marianne is described in the following way: “She [is] sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows [and] her joys [can] have no moderation. She [is] generous, amiable [and] interesting: she [is] everything but prudent” (5). Marianne is intense and passionate in everything she does, and is so exaggeratingly emotional, that by modern-standards she would be the quintessential “drama-queen.” Marianne has taken the ardent, fiery emotion delineated in Romantic poetry and integrated it into her own personality and life. Marianne has become a living work of Romantic art, but through the course of the novel, Marianne learns that she must be sensible and pragmatic to function in the real-world.
Marianne is not content on just being Romantic herself, she passes judgment on other characters and degrades them for not sharing in her intense passion. As she remarks about Edward Ferrars:
“[H]e is not the kind of young man…who could seriously attach my sister [Elinor]. His eyes want all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence. And besides all this… he has no real taste. Music seems scarcely to attract him, and though he admires Elinor’s drawings very much, it is not the admiration of a person who can understand their worth…He admires as a lover, not as a connoisseur. To satisfy me, those characters must be united. I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both. O mamma! how spiritless, how tame was Edward’s manner in reading to us last night… To hear [Cowper’s] beautiful lines, which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!” (9-10).
Edward is a good-hearted, respectable, but albeit shy young man who earnestly loves Elinor, but he only engages in as much emotion as conventionally proper in 18th century society. This does not satisfy Marianne… but then again, nothing does.
As mentioned in the passage, Marianne could not accept a man as a lover unless he shared her passion for life and her love for Romantic poetry. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for Marianne, she found such a man in Willoughby. Marianne and Willoughby base their relationship on their love of the Romantic, and after their second meeting, Elinor remarks to Marianne, “You have already ascertained Mr. Willoughby’s opinion in almost every matter of importance. You know what he thinks of Cowper and Scott; you are certain of his estimating their beauties as he ought, and you have received ever assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper. Another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty and second marriages, and then you will have nothing farther to ask” (23). Marianne and Willougby both have a preference for the Romantic poets and a mild indifference for the Augustans. Once Marianne discovered that Willoughby was a kindred Romantic, she pulled him into her daydreams and her Romantic world.
However, while Marianne is sentimental, this does not necessarily imply that she is a Romantic. However, Marianne not only has a deep appreciation for Romantic poetry (ie. Cowper and Scott), but what she also creates improvised Romantic poetry in her everyday speech, indicating that she has integrated Romantic ideas into her psyche. An example of this “improvised Romantic poetry” is Marianne’s farewell ode to Norland. “O happy house!” she says, “could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more! and you, ye wellknown trees! but you will continue the same. No leaf will decay because we are removed, nor any branch become motionless although we can observe you no longer! No; you will continue the same; unconscious of the pleasure or the regret you occasion, and insensible of any change in those who walk under your shade! But who will remain to enjoy you?” (14). Like a Romantic poet, Marianne uses Nature to touch on some deeper, transcendental thought– in this case how the trees around Norland continue to exist and time continue to pass after the Dashwoods are gone. In addition, in a conversation with Edward Ferrars and Elinor, Marianne makes an interesting remark which demonstrates that she is a connoisseur of Romantic Poetry and dislikes any amateur attempts at creating it. (See Marianne’s Appreciation of Landscape.) While Edward unknowingly describes the countryside in Romantic terms, Marianne scoffs and says “admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was” (46). Edward, who Marianne has already labeled spiritless and dull, is putting landscape in Romantic poetry to shame by his improvised adaptation of it. Marianne knows good Romantic poetry, and Edward’s landscape descriptions have fallen short of it.
Austen’s final opinion on Romanticism is Sense and Sensibility is ultimately determined by Marianne’s downfall and recovery. Willoughby, who Marianne believed to be the love her life, betrays her and marries a wealthier woman. He never intended to court Marianne, and if she had made sure Willoughby was courting her without sucking him into the Romantic love story she had planned for them, he would not have gotten trapped and had to betray her later. After mourning the loss of her “beloved,” inconstant Willoughby to the point of making herself ill, Marianne falls in love with Colonel Brandon, an older, self-sacrificing, sensible man who stood on the sidelines while Marianne willingly gave her heart to his competitor (Willoughby). Marianne’s experience and the influence of Colonel Brandon transform her into a pragmatic, sensible woman who still has an appreciation for the Romantic, but learns where to separate art from reality.
Is it a coincidence that Marianne can only find happiness when she becomes less Romantic and more sensible? I think not. In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen uses Marianne to show the dangers of Romantic poetry and what happens when people try to live the “Romantic life.”
A Parody of the Romantic, Gothic Novel
One form of art connected with Romanticism is the Gothic novel. After the publication of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto in 1765, which was considered the first English Gothic Novel, this genre became increasingly popular. All of these novels are set in dark, deserted places that were once splendid and beautiful, but have since fallen into states of decay. Examples of Gothic settings are castles, abbeys, the moors, old mansions, ruined buildings, and essentially any dark, shadowy places that evoke feelings of horror and suspicion. The decay of the setting is often representative of the moral degeneration of civilization also supported by the plot. Like the Romantic poets (and Rousseau) who observed Nature and desired to go back to the simple, uncorrupt Golden Age before society, the setting of Gothic literature shows how corrupt the world had become.
The plot of the Gothic Novel tends to follow a specific format: The heroine of the novel — a weak, curious, “damsel-in-distress” type character prone to fainting — becomes isolated in one of the aforementioned dark, mysterious places. She gets seduced by the villain and is either murdered, tortured, or raped. Generally the villain destroys the virtue of the heroine, but she soon gets rescued by the hero of the work– usually a character previously introduced earlier in the novel, but only as a supporting character. The heroine is freed from danger and lives happily ever after with her rescuer.
If Northanger Abbey were a Gothic Novel, here are how two potential Gothic plots would work out:
|THE BLAIZE CASTLE PLOT||THE PLOT OF MRS. TILNEY’S ROOM|
|THE HEROINE||Catherine Morland||Catherine Morland|
|THE VILLAIN||John Thorpe||General Tilney|
|THE SETTING||Blaize Castle||Mrs. Tilney’s Bedroom in Northanger Abbey|
|THE PLOT||John Thorpe and Catherine ride alone in his gig to
Blaize Castle. At some point during the ride or at the
Castle, the two get separated from James
and Isabella. Thorpe isolates Catherine and either rapes or kills her.
|Catherine sneaks into Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom only to find either
a) Mrs. Tilney still alive and held captive by General Tilney or
b) Mrs. Tilney’s corpse and evidence that General Tilney killed her.
General Tilney discovers Catherine in the forbidden room and threatens to kill her.
|THE HERO/ RESOLUTION||James or Henry Tilney rescues Catherine.||Henry Tilney rescues Catherine.|
However, Northanger Abbey is only a parody of a Gothic novel, and all of these potential plots fall through.
From the start, Catherine Morland is set up as the anti-heroine. As Austen writes, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother her own person and disposition, were all equally against her” (3). Catherine’s family was neither rich nor poor, she lived happily with nine other siblings, and nothing about her family’s circumstances would nurture the characteristics of a heroine. Austen also writes:
“She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features; -so much for her person;- and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind . . . [she] greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a doormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush . . . [and] for with all [the] symptoms of profligacy at ten years old, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper; was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with a few interruptions of tyranny; she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house” (3-4).
These are not the characteristics of a weak, Gothic heroine. As Catherine grew older, she became more like a heroine –beautiful, feminine, and fine– but despite the transitory moments of brainlessness and curious nature, but she doesn’t quite fit into the mold of the classic, gothic heroine.
Unlike Marianne Dashwood, Catherine is more interested in the Augustan writers than the Romantic ones. Among her favorites Augustans are Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, and James Thompson (5). It was only after becoming acquainted with Isabella Thorpe that Catherine becomes interested in Gothic novelists like Anne Radcliffe. This new interest leads to a series of conversations about gothic novels and novels in general, which may be Jane Austen voicing her opinions through her characters and the narrator. The narrator writes that while the public considers novels inferior art forms and guilty pleasures, they are really works of genius that say a great deal about the human condition. In addition, they aren’t just for women, and the more “horrid” the novel, the better. To look at specific passages on Gothic novels, please see the Northanger Abbey and the Discussion of Novels page.
When General Tilney asks Catherine to stay with his family at Northanger Abbey, Catherine is enraptured and thinks that circumstances have thrown her into a Gothic plot. The Abbey’s “long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun” (115). Henry Tilney, knowing Catherine’s interest in the Gothic, raises her expectations and frightens her with a mock-Gothic story about what her stay will be like. (See Tilney’s Description of Northanger Abbey).
However, upon visiting Northanger Abbey, Catherine’s hopes to find a Gothic setting are let down. “[S]o low did the building stand, that [Catherine] found herself passing through the great gates of the lodge into the very grounds of Northanger, without having discerned even an antique chimney” (133). The lodges were “of a modern appearance,” the road a “smooth, level road of fine gravel,” and “the breeze had not seemed to waft the sighs of the murdered to her; it had wafted nothing worse than a thick mizzling rain… The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fire-place, where she had expected the ample width and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain though handsome marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china. The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence . . . were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure, the pointed arch was preserved–the form of them was Gothic–they might be even casements–but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt and cobwebs, the difference was distressing” (133-134). Northanger Abbey lacked all the haunted corridors and secret passages that Catherine expected; instead, it was an average, modern dwelling. In this, Austen is making the statement that ordinary, unheroic people like Catherine Morland shouldn’t fear Gothic-novels or long to be in them. Realistically, finding onself in a Gothic-setting is highly unlikely.
However, some of Catherine’s Gothic expectations do come true. For instance, she becomes alarmed by a mysterious chest near to the fireplace similar to the one Henry described (136). After struggling to open it, even being caught in the act by a maid-servant, Catherine finally opens the chest only to find a far-from-ghastly, white, cotton counterpane. A few nights later during a thunderstorm, Catherine discovers an old-fashioned black cabinet that also met Henry Tilney’s description. Frightened out of her wits and with her heart pounding, Catherine manages to open the cabinet to find “a roll of paper pushed back into the furthest part of the cavity, apparently for concealment” (140). This manuscript which caused Catherine so much alarm was merely a washing-bill (142). Once again, Jane Austen parodies the gothic novel and allows the potential gothic-plots to fall through to Catherine’s embarrassment.
The climax of this novel and Austen’s final statement about the unreality of Gothic-plot surrounds Catherine’s investigation of Mrs. Tilney’s room. After receiving a tour of the house from Eleanor and the General, Eleanor leads Catherine to “a narrower passage, more numerous openings, and symptoms of a winding staircase” (154). The General prevents Eleanor from showing Catherine the room, and this, to Catherine, suggests there is some deep-secret associated with the room that General Tilney wants to hide. It turns out that the room in question is the late Mrs. Tilney’s room. Catherine has suspicions about the circumstances of Mrs. Tilney’s death, for Eleanor was away from home at the time, and the General seems very adamant about preventing Catherine’s examination of it. This leads Catherine, who’s mind is already prone to Gothic-ideas, to believe that Mrs. Tilney may still be alive and held captive in her room. “Could it be possible?,” she wonders to herself, “Could Henry’s father?—And yet how many were the examples to justify even the blackest suspicions!–And then when she saw him in the evening, while she worked with her friend, slowly pacing the drawing-room for an hour together in silent thoughtfulness, with downcast eyes and contracted brow, she felt secure from all possibility of wronging him. It was the air and attitude of a Montoni!” (155). Montoni is villain in Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, and it is no coincidence that that Catherine makes the comparison between the two characters. The gothic novel, like Romanticism for Marianne, has shaped Catherine’s perception. While it is absurd and very unlikely, Catherine really believes General Tilney capable of imprisoning his wife!
A few nights later when the General retires to bed early to look at pamphlets, Catherine’s becomes even more suspicious. “To be kept up for hours, after the family were in bed, by stupid pamphlets, was not very likely,” she notes. “There must be some deeper cause; something was to be done which could be done only when the household slept; and the probability which could be done only while the household slept; and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed” (156). Assured that Mrs. Tilney is locked in her bedroom, Catherine decides to explore the room the next day when General Tilney is on his walk.
Catherine explores Mrs. Tilney’s room (See Climax and Dissolution of Gothic Plot) only to find great disappointment, and even greater embarrassment. There is nothing out of the ordinary about the room, and contrary to what she thought, the room is not hidden –Henry Tilney enters it while walking from his stables to his room. Even worse, Henry dissolves Catherine’s suspicions about Mrs. Tilney being alive. Although Eleanor was away from home at the time, Henry was present when Mrs. Tilney died. Offended that Catherine could think that his father could harm his mother, Henry puts Catherine straight and tells her that the atrocities found in Gothic novels do not happen in England. Catherine has let herself be too swayed with what she has read, and as a result, has lost her sense of reality and passed judgment on an (at that point) blameless person. Catherine is ashamed at herself, and at this point, the final, potential, Gothic-plot is dissolved. The narrator concludes:
“Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for . . . in the central part of England, there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist” (166).
This is Austen’s final statement on Gothic novels, and the end to which all of Catherine’s misadventures have led. While they may be entertaining, Gothic novels are an allegorical, not a realistic, reflection on life. To a person who cannot see the line between fact and fiction, Gothic novels can even be dangerous once innocent people get blamed for monstrous crimes they did not commit.
Both Marianne and Catherine must learn to be sensible, rational women in order to achieve happiness. Both must give up their Romantic fantasies and settle into an unspectacular, banal existence. This may lead one initially to believe (myself included) that Austen was opposed to Romanticism and more interested in realistic “daguerrotyped portraits of the commonplace.” However, I think Austen may have had other thoughts in mind– She admires Romanticism and the Gothic novel so long as they remain in their medium, but once their motifs leap off the page and into the minds of sensitive readers and alter their perceptions of reality, they become dangerous. Austen’s is neither Romantic nor Un-romantic; she is a Mock-Romantic. Austen creates Romantic plots only to satirize them, making her more like an Augustan Age writer than a Romantic one.
Portrait of Jane Austen. 1873. Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America, New York. 4 May 2008 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Jane_Austen
Hugh Thomson, “He cut off a long lock of hair.” Project Gutenberg. 31 May 2008
About Jane Austen- Her Life and Her Novels.” Jane Austen Society of Australia. 4 May 2008 http://www.jasa.net.au/jabiog.htm
“Biography: Life (1775-1817) and Family). The Republic of Pemberley. 4 May 2008 http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/janelife.html
“Jane Austen’s Art and her Literary Reputation.” The Republic of Pemperley. 28 May 2008
“Jane Austen Biography.” Literature Post. 4 May 2008 http://www.literaturepost.com/authors/Austen.html
Jane Austen and Romanticism:
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. New York: Modern Library: 2002.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. In The Works of Jane Austen. Ann Arbor, MI: Borders Classics, 2000.
Information on the Gothic Novel:
Melani, Lilia. “The Gothic Experience.” Brooklyn College Website. 24 Oct. 2002. 30 May 2008 http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/gothic/gothic.html
De Vore, David, Anne Domenic, Alexandra Kwan, and Nicole Reidy. “The Gothic Novel.” University of California Davis. 30 May 2008