[Illustration: JANE AUSTEN. From an original family portrait.]
Life and Works.—While Sir Walter Scott was laying the foundations of his large family estates and recounting the story of battles, chivalry, and brigandage, a quiet little woman, almost unmindful of the great world, was enlivening her father’s parsonage and writing about the clergy, the old maids, the short-sighted mothers, the marriageable daughters, and other people that figure in village life.
This cheery, sprightly young woman was Jane Austen, who was born in Steventon, Hampshire, in 1775.
She spent nearly all her life in Hampshire, which furnished her with the chief material for her novels. She loved the quiet life of small country villages and interpreted it with rare sympathy and a keen sense of humor, as is shown in the following lines from Pride and Prejudice:—
“’Oh, Mr. Bennet, you are wanted immediately; we are all in an uproar! You must come and make Lizzy marry Mr. Collins, for she vows she will not have him; and if you do not make haste he will change his mind and not have her!’
“‘Come here, child,’ cried her father ... ’I understand that Mr. Collins has made you an offer of marriage. Is it true?’ Elizabeth replied that it was. ’Very well—and this offer of marriage you have refused?’
“‘I have, sir.’
“’Very well. We now come
to the point. Your mother insists
upon your accepting it. Is it not so, Mrs. Bennet?’
“‘Yes, or I will never see her again.’
“’An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do!’”
She began her literary work early, and at the age of sixteen she had accumulated quite a pile of manuscripts. She wrote as some artists paint, for the pure joy of the work, and she never allowed her name to appear on a title page. The majority of her acquaintances did not even suspect her of the “guilt of authorship.”
She disliked “Gothic” romances, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, and she wrote Northanger Abbey as a burlesque of that type. In this story the heroine, Catherine Moreland, who has been fed on such literature, is invited to visit Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire, where with an imagination “resolved on alarm,” she is prepared to be agitated by experiences of trapdoors and subterranean passages. On the first night of her visit, a violent storm, with its mysterious noises, serves to arouse the most characteristic “Gothic” feelings; but when the complete awakening comes and the “visions of romance are over,” Catherine realizes that real life is not fruitful of such horrors as are depicted in her favorite novels.
Pride and Prejudice is usually considered Jane Austen’s best work, although Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion have their ardent admirers. In fact, there is an increasing number of discriminating readers who enjoy almost everything that she wrote. During the last five years of the eighteenth century, she produced some of her best novels, although they were not published until the period between 1811 and 1818.