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NAX27412 - AUSTEN, J.: Novels (Complete) (Unabridged)
Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 at Steventon in Hampshire, where her father George Austen was rector of the parish. Jane was the seventh child, the youngest but one of a talented and enterprising family. Of her six brothers, two inherited wealth from childless relatives, a third was at various times scholar, banker, bankrupt and clergyman, while the two youngest both reached the rank of admiral in the navy. Like herself, Jane’s only sister Cassandra remained unmarried. Together with Cassandra, Jane was sent to good boarding schools in her early years, before continuing her education at home with her father.
The Austens belonged to that upper-middle class which is described in her novels. Its fortunes depended on owning land (to which marriage was often the key) and on the professions. It was respectable, conventional in its manners and had few if any dealings with the aristocracy, which belonged to a different world. To augment his income as rector, George Austen took pupils, and the family circle at Steventon was thereby enlarged. There was plenty of opportunity for the group to create amusements with dances, visits and little dramatic shows which they used to put on inside a barn.
In 1801 George Austen retired to Bath with his wife and daughters. When he died only 4 years later, they went to live in Southampton, where they endured a rather lonely and uncomfortable life until in 1809 Edward, one of Jane’s brothers, lent them Chawton Cottage on the estate where he and his family now spent part of each year. Edward had come into money on the death of Thomas Knight, a wealthy but childless distant relative who had become his adoptive father, and it was this wealth that provided security for Jane, her mother and Cassandra.
In Chawton Jane lived happily for the few remaining years of her life, leading a calm and unremarkable existence whose routine was varied by visits from nieces and nephews and by long visits to her brothers in Kent and London. However, much of her life consisted of nothing more exciting than conversation (or, more accurately, gossip), needlework and reading—often aloud, in her own drawing-room or in those of other people. Private dances or balls and occasional visits to fashionable seaside towns would have provided the only real highlights. In spite of having two brothers in the Navy, she makes no references in her work to significant events of the time, notably the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
The period following her father’s death had been largely unproductive, for reasons we can only surmise, but Chawton’s rural setting was very much to Jane’s taste and her writing blossomed there. She was very modest about her gift, describing her work as ‘that little bit (two inches wide) of ivory, in which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour’. Her style does not really fit in with much of the literature of the period. This was the time of the Romantic movement, in which writing often took on a more personal feel—something particularly apparent in poetry. Works by poets such as Keats, Byron, Coleridge and Shelley often include references to their own feelings, loves and sorrows, whilst highly imaginative and dramatic Gothic novels were also becoming fashionable. Consequently Austen received some criticism for the more realistic nature of her writing, although writers such as Macaulay, Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott were full of praise for her work.
Her first novel to reach publication was Sense and Sensibility in 1811. Pride and Prejudice followed in 1813 and Mansfield Park in 1814; the last to be published in her lifetime was Emma, in 1816. All these four were published without the name of the author being revealed. The other two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were both published soon after Jane had died, through the efforts of her brother Henry, who at the same time formally revealed her authorship of the first four titles. When Sense and Sensibility first appeared Jane was in her mid-thirties, but had already been writing for many years. Her earliest pieces, written when she was just a girl, were for the amusement and entertainment of her family, and she particularly enjoyed penning burlesques of popular romances. A History of England by a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian was one of her early, unpublished works and suggests her natural gift for gentle irony. It is thought that the work entitled The Watsons, which Jane wrote as early as 1803, probably provided the basis for Emma.
Our knowledge of Jane Austen’s life and character depends mainly on her letters, of which about 150 survive. Yet interesting as these are, they leave much unsaid. Though the majority are to her sister Cassandra, they were intended for general consumption by all members of the family; in addition, it is certain that all the letters of an intimate nature were destroyed by Cassandra after Jane’s death. There are some letters to her nieces and a nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, who late in his life wrote a short memoir of his aunt. This was published in 1870, and a second edition included three texts that had not previously merited the world’s attention: Lady Susan, The Watsons and brief extracts from the fragmentary Sanditon.
Jane Austen never married although she was reputed to have had several romantic attachments, first to a young man called Tom Lefroy, then in 1802 to a man whom Jane and her sister Cassandra met at the seaside. Unfortunately the latter died in 1803 before he could propose, although in that same year Jane did receive a proposal of marriage from a wealthy Hampshire landowner. She accepted his proposal, only to retract it the following morning.
In 1816 Jane Austen became increasingly exhausted and found it difficult to work. It was clear that she was seriously ill. In May of that year she visited Cheltenham with her sister, but the spa waters there offered little relief and Persuasion was written whilst her health was rapidly failing. Given her habit of reticence in relation to bodily symptoms, the exact nature of her complaint remains a source of controversy. In May 1817 she was taken to Winchester to be under the care of the best doctors. However, within two months of arriving there she died, on 18 July, at the age of 42.
Sense and Sensibility
‘I am never too busy to think of Sense and Sensibility. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child’. So joked Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra about the work which was to be her first published novel. Sense and Sensibility is said to have begun its life some time in the 1790s, when Jane was still a very young woman. At this point it was written in the epistolary style under the title Elinor and Marianne. By 1799 a maturing Austen had redrafted her work into the form we know today, though further revisions followed between 1809 and 1810.
The ‘sense’ of the title is a reasoned or practical response to a situation, whilst ‘sensibility’, a common theme in that period, is the emotional perception of it. Sense and Sensibility might well be seen as a story of two sisters who are representative of these two characteristics, Elinor of sense and Marianne of sensibility. However, we must in addition consider the development of these two characters as the story unfolds. In Elinor we can see a degree of sensibility as well as sense, since this includes the commendable emotion of sympathy, and it is this balance between the two which makes her such a worthy character. A maturing of this balance is evident in Elinor as the novel progresses, whilst Marianne learns, as the story unfolds, to control her emotional behaviour through the development of sense. This complements her sensibility, thus making her actions more socially acceptable.
Events and situations in the novel are viewed through Elinor’s eyes, but Austen nevertheless directs the reader’s sympathies towards Marianne. Many people consider that Jane Austen saw herself (the younger sister) as Marianne, an emotional girl with a natural talent for music and a love of poetry, and her older, more staid sister Cassandra as Elinor.
Austen also uses both sense and sensibility to colour the other characters in the story; thus we note, for example, that Lucy Steele, having only sense, can see the suffering she causes Elinor but has no sensibility to allow her to sympathise with, and temper, the pain she inflicts. John and Fanny Dashwood are also characters who have no sensibility, and who ill-use sense, whilst Willoughby and Mrs Dashwood are, like Marianne, governed by sensibility. In Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars, as in Elinor, sense and sensibility achieve a happy balance.
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen began work on Pride and Prejudice in 1796 when she was 21, although at that time she entitled it First Impressions, not an inappropriate choice since the story is an account of how initial perceptions and judgments often need revising when things eventually become truly apparent. Jane’s father approached the publisher Cadell in 1797 with the work but it was rejected. She conscientiously revised and rewrote the novel, and it was accepted for publication by Thomas Egerton in 1813.
Jane Austen herself called Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, ‘as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print’, and many of us could not fail to agree with her. She is spirited, courageous and witty, and we are attracted to these qualities whilst also admiring Elizabeth’s outspokenness and critical judgement. We admire, too, her honesty with herself when, as the story progresses, she reproaches herself for her early attitude to Darcy and gradually overcomes her prejudice to develop warmer feelings towards him.
‘It is universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ So runs the famous opening sentence, and marriage duly provides the main theme for the novel. A variety of examples of love are illustrated during the course of the story. The affair of Lydia and Wickham exemplifies love at its most base, utterly different from the pure attachment of Jane and Bingley. Elizabeth and Darcy’s love is altogether deeper and more complex, arising as it does out of her prejudiced opinion of him and his proud attitude towards her. The unlikely pairing of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins, although causing Elizabeth some shock at the outset, subsequently appears to be quite successful, whilst a happy pairing between older people appears in the marriage of Mr and Mrs Gardiner (the oddly-matched Mr and Mrs Bennet demonstrating a less successful older partnership).
As always in Austen, humour plays an important part, particularly in the figures of Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins. The former amuses us by her exaggerated rejoicing when happy and the extremity of her despair when faced with a few minor problems. Mr Collins is presented as pompous, stupid, clumsy and conceited, and we are led to believe that Jane Austen is illustrating her own dislike for these qualities through his character. The language is carefully chosen to suit each character: noting Lydia’s grammatical errors, Mr Bennet’s curt remarks, and the excessive rudeness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, we expand our store of knowledge about these individuals.
Whereas its predecessors, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, had been revisions of her juvenile writing, Mansfield Park, published in 1814, was Jane Austen’s first completely original work. Like its heroine Fanny Price, who develops during the course of the story to reach maturity, Jane Austen’s third published novel was a much more mature work from a writer of increasing experience.
Mirroring her own experience, in Fanny Price she creates a heroine who is dependent on the generosity of her relatives to provide her with a home at Mansfield Park. Here, Fanny becomes increasingly fond of Edmund Bertram who, in becoming a clergyman, parallels Jane Austen’s father as well as two of her brothers. Jane also had two brothers in the Navy, and she provides Fanny with a brother William, a Navy man whose advancement Henry Crawford assists in order to win Fanny’s gratitude and admiration.
Morality in Regency England is closely examined in Mansfield Park. Jane Austen gives us Sir Thomas’s behaviour as an example of the traditional 18th-century morality, whilst the start of early 19th-century social conscience is exemplified by Fanny, and Regency England’s superficiality is demonstrated in the Crawfords’ moral ambiguity. Another of the themes in Mansfield Park is that of growing up. Fanny is immature at the start of the story, but we see her develop from a timid girl to a young woman who has acquired self-knowledge. This is achieved through her growing integration into the world of Mansfield Park and her experiences of relationships with Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford.
Mansfield Park is structured in three parts. The first, which takes the story up to the non-production of the play, highlights Fanny and the group of individuals who form the cast, and with whom she does not mix. Fanny’s courtship by Henry Crawford is the focus for the second part, whilst her visit to Portsmouth and subsequent return to Mansfield Park form the final part. The story is told by a narrator who frequently sees through Fanny’s eyes, telling us her thoughts, and is written in Jane Austen’s typically precise and analytical style, with humour a marked feature.
Jane Austen herself wrote of her heroine Emma, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,’ and in so doing she set herself a difficult task. Today the resulting work is often regarded as her finest, and some are of the opinion that Emma is not only her most accomplished creation but also one of the greatest of all English novels. One of Jane’s main themes in the book is growing up. At the start of the novel Emma is immature and she only reaches maturity by undergoing painful experiences and receiving the guidance of Mr Knightley. A second main theme is marriage, together with Emma’s plotting to achieve it for others. The story begins with the marriage of the Westons, whilst the Eltons’ marriage illustrates one which is made for the wrong reasons. The John Knightleys merely tolerate each other, and Miss Bates exemplifies the fate of the spinster.
This was a time when highly imaginative and dramatic Gothic novels were becoming fashionable. Austen includes her own parody of wild settings with the Box Hill location, and there is a spoof elopement scene, another play on the Gothic style. Generally, however, this is an anti-romantic work, with a demonstration of how excess and uncontrolled imagination such as Emma’s can lead to problems. Emma’s misinterpretation of evidence regarding relationships concerning Mr Elton, Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax and Mr Dixon, together with her blindness with regard to her own feelings for Mr Knightley, not only provide us with the bulk of the plot but also much comedy.
We quickly learn that Emma is a spoilt, powerful and interfering young woman. Throughout the story, in order to win readers’ sympathy for her, Jane Austen cleverly gives us, as well as narrative dialogue, Emma’s limited and often incorrect viewpoint, including an idea of her thoughts. This frequently leads readers to make the same mistakes in deduction as Emma herself. The novel can, in fact, almost be likened to a detective story since clues are provided for readers and Emma alike, but are easily missed or misinterpreted. Austen achieves great economy of narrative and there is always a purpose for what is included: everything written is intended to inform the reader. We learn about the characters mainly from what they themselves say and the way in which they say it, though what is said about them by others also informs us.
In 1816, while Northanger Abbey still lay unpublished, Jane Austen wrote of it: ‘The public are entreated to bear in mind that 13 years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.’ Her concerns arose from the fact that the popularity of the sentimental and Gothic novels which she was parodying in Northanger Abbey might have declined, and thus the point of her work could be lost. Similarly for us today, it is essential that we have some knowledge of those works, whose excesses Austen was quietly mocking, in order fully to understand and enjoy Northanger Abbey.
The work that Jane tells us was completed in 1803 was then entitled Susan, and this was purchased for £10 by Crosby, publishers of Gothic romances—works which added the elements of melodrama and fear to the romance of sentimental novels. Crosby, however, did not publish Jane’s work and in 1816 the manuscript was bought back, by which time she had made changes, which included the renaming of her heroine. Catherine Morland is a young woman about to enter adult life. In Bath, as later at Northanger Abbey itself, she is placed in a new situation, where the way in which she handles the people and situations she meets allows readers to judge her.
Austen feels no need to provide lengthy descriptions of the appearance of Bath or the pleasures available there, no doubt confident that readers would have experienced the place for themselves. Similarly, she assumes a familiarity with the sentimental and Gothic novels of the time, and makes reference to Mrs Radcliffe’s novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, expecting readers to appreciate her parody. Northanger Abbey is a modern, comfortable home, yet the name suggests some sort of mysterious Gothic ruin. Catherine herself is a parody of the heroines of sentimental novels. She is not prone to excesses of emotion, apart from her rather out-of-character behaviour when her imagination allows her to become somewhat deluded regarding the fate of General Tilney’s wife. Even the typical abduction of the heroine is parodied, as Catherine is ‘abducted’ by John Thorpe for a carriage ride she does not really wish to accept, and then by General Tilney who whisks her off to Northanger Abbey. A further element of parody comes from his mistaken belief that she is an heiress.
Shortly before starting work on Persuasion, Jane Austen wrote in 1815 to her niece, Fanny Knight, who was about to embark on a long engagement: ‘you must not let anything depend on my opinion. Your own feelings and none but your own, should determine such an important point.’ Having previously voiced her approval of the man in question, Jane’s anxiety about her own role as persuader may well have been uppermost in her mind when she began working on this novel, the work which was to be her last.
Unlike many of Austen’s previous heroines, Anne Elliot is too gentle a character to provide the required criticism of others; hence though we learn of events in the story through the eyes of Anne, Jane also provides us with information by means of a narrator. We thus learn that Sir Walter Elliot is a vain man, that Lady Russell is a good and charitable woman and that Anne’s sister Mary is unable to handle lack of attention. We are also told that, unlike Austen’s other heroines, Anne herself is a mature woman, who, from the start of the novel, is already capable of mature judgement.
Anne has been persuaded by the well-meaning and much respected Lady Russell to end her engagement to Frederick Wentworth due to his uncertain financial situation, and the consequences of this are examined during the course of the novel. Further, Anne herself is seen by other characters in the novel to be a successful persuader: her brother-in-law wishes her to persuade her sister Mary that she is not unwell, whilst Mary herself comments on Anne’s superior ability to persuade Mary’s child to adopt a particular course of action. Sometimes it is the ability to withstand persuasion which Austen illustrates for us, such as when Anne cannot be persuaded to attend an evening function where she fears she might encounter Captain Wentworth.
Jane Austen was meticulous in refining her work, and she dramatically reworked the end of Persuasion. Replacing her original final chapter with two new chapters, she brought about a more believable reconciliation between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth than she had originally conceived. The words and actions of characters in this final version reflect far more the personality traits with which readers have become familiar during the course of the novel and also communicate to us the maturity of the love between Anne and Wentworth, providing them with the happiness which is shown to be their moral right.
Three texts of Jane Austen were first published in 1871, contained in the second edition of the Memoir by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. Of these Lady Susan could be regarded as complete, though its author was presumably not satisfied with the result. The other two works are fragmentary: these are The Watsons, which she began writing in around 1803 and abandoned probably in 1805, after her father’s death, and Sanditon, a projected novel which Jane worked on for just two months in 1817, the year of her death.
In 1805 Jane Austen herself made a ‘fair copy’ of Lady Susan, which she almost certainly wrote about 10 years earlier: its form, the letter novel, places it firmly in the 18th century. The decision to publish, taken by her nephew, was made against some family opposition. Despite their doubts, there is no doubt that the work has an innate charm. For a start, the character of Lady Susan herself is sharp, consistent, and totally believable as she charms and manipulates those around her. Here is an unquestionably attractive, intelligent 35-year-old widow, intent on making sure that the right consorts will be ensnared both for herself and for her 18-year-old daughter Frederica. It is as much her energetic duplicity and singular amorality which delights us as the melodrama in which she becomes involved. Even as the net around her is drawn more closely, and she can see her target is slipping away, she maintains a dignity that is more pragmatic and direct than arrogant.
That wise social smile, so lightly touched on the lips, which is the principal expression of Jane Austen, is perceptible in this early work. The language alone has an elegance and fleetness of foot that demands publication. Cast in the form of letters, it becomes a perfect candidate for presentation on audiobook, enabling the characters to become instantly flesh and blood. And it deserves, without doubt, the ultimate accolade of 21st-century approbation—a film.
We can never know why Jane Austen, having started The Watsons, felt no inclination to return to it in later years, as she did to some other works. (The title is not hers but was provided by Austen-Leigh.) As it stands, the work has five chapters and is less than 18,000 words long. Though there is some evidence of revision, it still has the feel of a first draft, with abrupt shifts in the action and some holes in the plot. Had Jane gone back to it she would certainly have provided linking passages and dialogue to fill in the perceived gaps. Also absent are the spirit, the keen observations and wit that give so much pleasure in the completed novels. If nothing else, the work gives a fascinating insight into the novelist’s craft by showing how much still remains to be done after the first outline has been drawn.
Mr Watson is a widowed clergyman with two sons and four daughters. The youngest of these is Emma, who has been brought up by a wealthy aunt and is better educated and more refined than her sisters. When her aunt contracts a foolish second marriage, Emma is forced to return to her father’s house, where she witnesses the crude designings of two of her sisters, both intent on finding husbands. Living nearby are the Osbornes, a great titled family, and Emma herself attracts some notice from the boorish young Lord Osborne, while an arrogant friend of his is determinedly pursued by one of Emma’s sisters. In the midst of this, she finds comfort in the kindness of her eldest and most responsible sister, Elizabeth.
Sanditon is the most fragmentary of the two pieces left unfinished by Austen. What we have amounts to perhaps a sixth of a complete novel, enough to provoke speculation as to how Austen’s genius might have developed while leaving the answer still tantalisingly uncertain. Unlike The Watsons, this is not a work set aside in favour of different projects. Jane Austen was seriously ill when she started on Sanditon, and indeed had less than six months to live. With six complete, almost flawless examples of her art to savour, we can hardly complain. Yet we must remember that she was only 42 when she died, scarcely even middle-aged by modern standards; who knows what further developments may have been germinating in her mind?
Sanditon, or what we have of it, certainly hints at the possibility of a new quality of atmosphere. In that respect the book appears fresh, innovative, and original. Jane Austen is writing here not about an old-established community but a new and rising world in the form of a modern seaside commercial town (based on Eastbourne). This is a society that is still in the process of being formed, described by her as ‘a young and rising bathing-place, certainly the favourite spot of all that are to be found along the coast of Sussex; the most favoured by nature, and promising to be the most chosen by man.’
Written and compiled by Hugh Griffith, with original notes by Helen Davies
The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue
Romberg Flute Quintets 8.554765
MOZART Five Divertimenti 8.553585
MOZART Piano Sonatas Vol 1 8.550445
Music programming by Sarah Butcher
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