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Jane Austen: A Timeless Nonpareil

Although Jane Austen lived and wrote 200 years ago, she is as popular as ever. Popular culture has kept her books and her life alive through new movie adaptations of her books, continuances of her stories, biographies of her life, and fictional accounts with Austen or her works as a source of inspiration.

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 in Steventon, Hampshire, England, to the Reverend George and Cassandra Austen. She was the seventh of eight children and the younger of two girls. Jane's academic education was largely informal and done at the family home where her father had a large library and live-in pupils.

Until her mid-twenties, Jane lived a happy life in the Hampshire countryside. Jane's love for the English country is reflected in her novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, which were both written during her time in Steventon. However, at the age of 25, Jane's father retired and decided to move his wife and two unmarried daughters to the city of Bath. Bath, which was a fashionable seaside resort at the time and which Jane did not enjoy, was not a productive place for the author. Jane started and did not finish one work, The Watsons, during her time in Bath. Jane's father passed away while the family was living in Bath. The Reverend's death put considerable financial strain on the Austen women, but Jane's brothers helped the family out financially. In 1806, Jane's mother, sister, and she moved to Southampton to live with Jane's brother Frank and his family. Then in 1809, the three women moved into a cottage, which was provided by Jane's brother Edward, in Chawton.

Captain Wentworth as portrayed in the film, PersuasionIt was while Jane lived at Chawton Cottage that she had one of her most successful and productive times of her life with the publication of her books and the completion of three more novels. Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, and Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Jane also wrote and published Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Persuasion (1817), which was published posthumously with Jane's first novel Northanger Abbey. In each of the novels published while Jane was alive, the author credit read "by a lady" as in the novel Sense and Sensibility or the title page referenced earlier works, as in Pride and Prejudice. It wasn't until a biographical note in the posthumously published Persuasion and Northanger Abbey that for the first time, identified Jane as the author of these works and her previously published novels.

Jane's health began to fail in 1816, and in 1817, Jane and her sister Casandra moved from Chawton Cottage to Winchester to be near Jane's doctor. Unfortunately, Jane did not survive her illness, which is now believed to be Addison's Disease, and passed away in Winchester on July 8, 1817 at the age of 41. She is buried in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral, and like the works published during her lifetime, Jane's gravestone does not mention that she was an author.

Jane Austen's Major Works

Northanger Abbey (written in 1794, finished in 1799, published in 1817)
Catherine Morland is spending the social season in Bath when she is invited to Northanger Abbey, the family home of the Tilney family. Her love for Gothic novels leads her imagination to run wild while at Northanger Abbey.

Sense and Sensibility (finished circa 1795, published in 1811)
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood's father passes away, leaving his daughters with the need to make good marriages in order to secure financial support. Throughout the novel, many people, including dishonest cads, controlling matriarchs, and devious women, try to thwart their plans.

Pride and Prejudice (finished in 1797, published in 1813)
This novel focuses on Elizabeth Bennett, who is the second of five girls, and her life as a young woman whose only chance at financial security is to marry well. Elizabeth meets and almost instantly dislikes a wealthy young man, Mr. Darcy, who appears full of pride. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have many encounters, and Elizabeth's opinion slowly changes.

Mansfield Park (1814)
As a child, Fanny Price is taken to Mansfield Park by Sir Thomas Bertram and his wife as an act of charity. As she grows up, Fanny encompasses the virtues of a lady in early 19th-century England: modesty, principles and kindness. However, Fanny is surrounded by people, such as her cousins and Henry Crawford, who tries to marry Fanny, who do not share her virtues.

Emma (1815)
Emma Woodhouse delights in playing matchmaker for her friends after she introduces her former governess to her husband. Emma, against the advice of her friend Mr. Knightley, decides that she enjoys matchmaking and tries, unsuccessfully, to set up her friend Harriet with the vicar. Emma disappointed by her failure, is even more disappointed when Harriet confides that she loves Mr. Knightley, because Emma realizes that she loves Mr. Knightley too!

Persuasion (1817)
Anne Elliott has resigned her hopes of ever being married or happy after she broke off her engagement seven years prior to a naval captain who possessed no fortune, status, or prospects, because her family did not approve of the match. However, when she is reunited with her former fiancé, Captain Wentworth, she begins to hope that she may have a second chance at happiness.

While these are the major works of Jane Austen, she did write or begin to write other works, including The History of England from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st. A handwritten copy of this title can be viewed at the British Library's site.

Austen-Inspired Fiction

Austenland: A Novel by Shannon Hale
Jane Hayes is in love with a man who doesn't exist. To Jane, Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy (specifically Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy in the BBC production of Pride & Prejudice) is the perfect man and no man she has met has lived up to Mr. Darcy (she frequently compares her boyfriends to Mr. Darcy and finds them lacking). To help fix her problem, Jane's great-aunt leaves her a trip to Pembroke Park where Jane will live for three weeks like a character in Austen's novel. While skeptical at first, Jane decides over the course of the vacation that Pembroke Park (or Austenland as she refers to it) will be the best therapy to get over her obsession of Mr. Darcy.

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler
After spending some time with Jane Austen novels and Absolut after her engagement is broken, Courtney Stone awakens in the body of a woman in Regency England.

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron
In the first of a series, Jane Austen stars in this mystery about the murder of Frederick Payne, Earl of Scargrave. Isobel, the young bride of Payne, is accused in an anonymous note of murdering her late husband. As Austen sets about trying to find the murderer, she discovers a second body, which lands Isobel and Fitzroy (the new earl who is also in love with Isobel) to trial before the House of Lords.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
Five women and one man form a book club devoted to discussing Jane Austen's novels. Over the course of the book club, their lives transform through infidelity, love, and the novels.

Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure by Emma Campbell Webster
In Webster's novel, you are Austen's most famous heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, and your mission is to marry both prudently and for love. The outcome of the story is entirely up to you, the reader!

Also check out the booklist titled "Pride and Prejudice continues . . ." to find sequels to Austen's books.

Austen-Inspired Films

Austen Country: The Life and Times of Jane Austen
Still shot from Becoming Jane with James McAvoy and Anne HathawayA documentary of Jane Austen's life and of Georgian England. The film will show you the English countryside and some of the locations that were Austen's inspirations.

Becoming Jane
This film tells the life of a young Jane Austen, who takes inspiration for her novels from her own life. A young suitor and wealthy suitor proposes marriage to her, but only the wild Thomas Lefroy can win Jane's heart.

Bride and Prejudice
A Bollywood adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It is set in the present day and includes songs and dance numbers.

The Jane Austen Book Club
Five women and one man form a book club devoted to discussing Jane Austen's novels. Over the course of the book club, their lives transform through infidelity, love, and the novels.

For more information concerning Jane Austen and her novels, check out these books, which are part of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library's collection, and Web sites:

Becoming Jane Austen: A Life by Jon Spence
Jon Spence, professor emeritus English literature at Doshisha University, Kyoto, uses letters and Austen's juvenilia writings to craft a portrait of the author.

Jane Austen: A Companion by Josephine Ross
Ross's book explains the world of Jane Austen and Regency England to the reader, allowing for a better understanding of Austen's books and terms that may be unfamiliar to modern readers.

Jane Austen Centre
www.janeausten.co.uk/
Located in Bath, the Centre has a permanent exhibition about Jane's time living in Bath and the effect that had on her life and her writings. The Centre also publishes a magazine titled Jane Austen's Regency World.

Jane Austen Society of North America
www.jasna.org/index.html
A scholarly group based in North American that is solely dedicated to Jane Austen. The society holds an annual conference, organizes an essay contest, and publishes the peer-reviewed Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line. The Jane Austen Society of North America has a local chapter run by Martha Hutzel, who can be contacted by phone at (540) 370-4251 or email at mhutzel@crrl.org.

Jane Austen's World: The Life and Times of England's Most Popular Author by Maggie Lane
Maggie Lane, a Jane Austen scholar and former committee member of the Jane Austen Society, focuses on the social and historical period that Austen lived in and how those times affected her life and writings.