Jane Austen has become a pillar of the Western Canon, rising from modest fame during her lifetime to sweeping popularity in the twentieth century and today. Yale literary critic Harold Bloom notes, “We read Austen because she seems to know us better than we know ourselves, and she seems to know us so intimately for the simple reason that she helped determine who we are both as readers and as human beings.”
Though Austen is sometimes unjustly reduced to romantic fodder by contemporary readers, she has been adored by writers and critics from Walter Scott to Henry James. In fact, the original Janeites were a group of male scholars devoted to her genius. Charles Darwin’s son Francis describes how his father would request Austen be read to him during the afternoons in his later life; “[My father] was extremely fond of novels . . . and would anticipate the pleasure of having a novel read to him. . . . Walter Scott, Miss Austen, and Mrs. Gaskell were read and re-read till they could be read no more.”
Austen’s six novels—presented here, complete and unabridged—are rife with sharp irony, sparkling wit, and savvy social commentary. Setting her stories among the landed gentry in England, Austen had a special talent for stitching grand themes into everyday circumstances. More than mere marriage plots, her stories of flawed and ordinary characters explore the plight of nineteenth-century women, romantic choice, and individual’s relationship to society. Her elegance, insight, and subtle humor have continued to attract readers from all walks of life for over two centuries.
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Read again, for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements 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 common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.
—Walter Scott, Scottish novelist, playwright, and poet
No novelist has approached her in what we may style the ‘economy of art,’ by which is meant the easy adaptation of means to ends, with no aid from extraneous or superfluous elements.
—George Henry Lewes, philosopher and critic
Among the writers who . . . have approached nearest the manner of the great master [Shakespeare], we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, commonplace—all such as we meet every day. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings. . . . And all this is done by touches so delicate that they elude analysis, that they defy powers of description, and that we only know them to exist by the general effect to which they have contributed.
—Thomas Babington Macaulay, historian, essayist, and critic
Jane Austen (1775–1817) was an English novelist who lived among the lower landed gentry in Hampshire, England. She was one of eight children born to an Anglican rector. She and her sister Cassandra were sent to be educated by Mrs. Ann Cawley in Oxford and Southampton, before being sent to boarding school. After the family could no longer afford to send both girls to school, they returned home. Austen continued her education at home, reading widely from the libraries of her father and uncle, Warren Hastings. She began writing poems, stories, and plays from an early age, with the full support of her family, who supplied her with paper and writing materials. She often entertained the family and other guests with readings from her works in progress, many of which would become her immensely popular novels. She continued living with her family and writing into adulthood, publishing four well-received novels in her lifetime. Tragically, she died of illness at the age of 41, before making her final revisions to her last novel, Persuasion.