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Jane Austen (b. 1775–d. 1817) was the author of six novels and a number of juvenile and unfinished works. Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Persuasion (1817), and Northanger Abbey (1817) are often considered some of the most perfectly realized novels in the English language, combining superb characterization, sophisticated plotting, elegant style, and a dry and ironic wit. Austen’s novels unite social realism, comic satire, and romance in a formula that has proven both durable and highly successful. Although her works enjoyed only modest success in their own time, Austen now occupies an unusual position among literary figures, as she is both a popular writer, with a large and sometimes fanatical fan base, and a “classic” writer, with a secure position in the literary academy. Her works have been subjected to every kind of critical, historical, and theoretical analysis, but they have also been adapted for television, radio, theatre, and film, and her works have generated hundreds of sequels, prequels, and other spin-offs. Austen’s earliest critics, accustomed to the more melodramatic Gothic novels then in vogue, focused on the unusual degree of verisimilitude in Austen’s novels, commenting on the fact that Austen was able to make everyday incidents and characters interesting. They also praised the “pure morality” that the works embodied and frequently commented that Austen’s novels provided an excellent example to other female writers because they dealt with matters within the sphere of what the author knew (domestic life in the country) and did not deal with matters then considered unsuitable for female knowledge. Over the course of the 19th century, Austen’s reputation developed slowly, and she remained a novelist beloved largely by elite highbrow readers but one without a wide popular readership. In critical and private writing of the mid-19th century, Austen was often characterized as a miniaturist whose art was perfect within a tiny compass (the famous “little piece of ivory two inches wide” as Austen called it herself) but who did not aspire to deal with the larger or more spiritual side of life. Criticism of this period largely attempted to make a case for an undervalued novelist. Austen’s popularity grew exponentially from 1870 onward, after the publication of the Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew. This work gave rise to a renewed popular and critical interest in Austen’s novels, as well as a spate of critical articles on her works. From the 1870s onward, Austen’s reputation rose steeply, her cause championed by a group of influential literary men (including E. M. Forster, George Saintsbury, and William Dean Howells) who came to be known as “Janeites.” Austen’s position was consolidated by the work of her first scholarly editor R. W. Chapman, who produced the first textually significant edition of Austen’s works. In 1948 F. R. Leavis made Austen’s place in the English literary canon absolutely secure by naming her as one of England’s great novelists.
Jane Austen’s works have attracted significant critical interest, and monographs and collections of essays on every aspect of her life, times, and writing abound. Good general overviews are, however, rarer. Modern criticism of Austen’s novels is generally thought to begin with Bradley 1998 (originally 1911), a lecture, followed by Lascelles 1939 (cited under Style ), the first full-length study of Jane Austen’s literary technique, in which Lascelles outlines the bond of friendship created between author and reader through Austen’s style. Bradley began the tradition of Austen criticism by outlining what he saw to be the major themes in her work. Tanner 2007 and Litz 1965 are scholarly and accessible introductions to the novelist and her works. Todd 2006 provides a very good introduction to Austen’s life and times, the literary context within which Jane Austen wrote, and chapters on each of the novels. Todd 2005 contains a large number of short essays that introduce key aspects of Jane Austen studies, while Copeland and McMaster 1997 and Lambdin and Lambdin 2000 comprise a smaller number of essays that cover their topics in greater depth. Watt 1963 is a helpful critical compendium.
Bradley, A. C. “Jane Austen: A Lecture.” In Jane Austen: Critical Assessments. Vol. 2, The Social Background; The Intellectual Background; The Twentieth-Century Response. Edited by Ian Littlewood, 199–217. Mountfield, UK: Helm Information, 1998.
Identifies two main strains in Austen’s work: humor and morality. Explores for the first time her 18th-century literary influences, Johnson and Cowper, and her debt to stage comedy. Originally published in Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association 2 (1911):7–36.
Copeland, Edward, and Juliet McMaster. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
An important and influential collection by experts in their fields, covering a number of important contexts for Austen studies and including chapters on all the major novels, the short fiction, and the letters.
Lambdin, Laura Cooner, and Robert Thomas Lambdin. A Companion to Jane Austen Studies. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.
Contains essays by both established scholars and early-career researchers. Presents new and interesting research, rather than aiming for comprehensive coverage of key topics.
Litz, A. Walton. Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Synthesizes and brings into focus much previous scholarship. Lucid and readable. Recommended to undergraduates.
Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Full-length study with chapters on all six novels and Sanditon. Also includes an introduction that covers Austen’s relationship to the novel genre, her society, education, and language. Very useful and readable overview. Originally published in 1986.
Todd, Janet, ed. Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Collection of essays by leading Austen scholars. Very wide variety of key topics covered, but briefly. Historicist in emphasis. Valuable to scholars but useful also to introduce undergraduates to particular areas of interest.
Todd, Janet. The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Recommended to undergraduates. Well-written introduction that outlines important areas of critical inquiry and provides accomplished readings of each of the novels. Covers life and times, literary context, and readings of all the novels.
Watt, Ian, ed. Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays .4 vols. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.
Contains a number of important essays on Austen by writers such as C. S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf, and D. W. Harding. Also critical essays on each novel.
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