Jane Austen was one of the most famous English authors of the early 19th century. Though not considered particularly famous during her own lifetime, her works have endured the test of time and remain widely beloved today. She is revered for her witty prose and ability to capture the nuances of social class and courtship within Regency era England. Jane Austen wrote six major books that are now regarded as classics of English literature.
Austen was born in 1775 in Hampshire, England. She came from a upper middle class family and lived a relatively quiet life. However, through her novels she was able to keenly observe human nature and social norms. While Jane Austen wrote amusing books focused on topics like love and marriage, her stories also commented on class, social mobility, and gender roles during the time period. Though set over 200 years ago, Austen’s tales remain remarkably relatable even today.
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
This novel follows the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, after they lose their family home and must relocate due to their father’s sudden death. Elinor represents “sense” – she is logical and reserved with her emotions. Marianne represents “sensibility” as she is passionate and romantic. Both sisters face challenges in love – Elinor becomes engaged to a man but later learns he is married, while Marianne has her heart broken. The sisters demonstrate two different philosophies of life, and how to find fulfillment both emotionally and financially in the world at that time. Their story examines finding practical security versus following one’s heart. Austen also subtly critiques societal norms around marriage, money, and gender expectations.
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
This novel tells the story of the Bennet family and their five daughters who must marry well to avoid ending up in poverty. The story focuses on the romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Initially they dislike each other, with Darcy looking down on Elizabeth’s family and she finding him to be arrogant and proud. However, over time their views change as they come to understand each other better and see past their mistaken first impressions. The witty banter and will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Elizabeth and Darcy makes this one of Austen’s most enduring love stories. It also pokes fun at societal vanity and preconceptions through the characters.
Mansfield Park (1814)
Fanny Price is a shy, introverted young woman who is sent at a young age to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle. Though not part of the actual family, she is expected to fit into their lifestyle. Fanny faces social awkwardness and struggles to find her place within her adoptive family. She disapproves when some members of the household put on a play, seeing it as inappropriate. Through Fanny’s perspective, Austen examines complex issues of social norms, family, romance, and personal integrity. This novel is perhaps her most intricate commentary on social morality and expectations of the time.
Emma Woodhouse is a wealthy, beautiful young woman who resides in the fictional village of Highbury with her hypochondriac father. Lacking responsibilities of her own, Emma takes it upon herself to play matchmaker in the village, sure of her own skills and abilities. However, she proves inept in managing her own romantic affairs. Emma convinces herself she is in love with her family’s new neighbor Mr. Elton, not realizing he is interested in her friend Harriet Smith – a poor orphan girl whom Emma sees as a project. Her smug views gradually face humbling challenges. Emma features Austen’s brilliant wit and subtle social satire, as she portrays Emma’s “hand at match-making” backfiring comically before she recognizes her own feelings for Mr. Knightley, the genuine and steadfast family friend. Through the story, Austen scrutinizes social prejudices regarding wealth, status, and marriage.
Northanger Abbey (1817)
Though written in 1798, Northanger Abbey was not published until after Austen’s death. It tells the story of Catherine Morland, a young woman who possesses a creative imagination shaped by gothic fiction novels, which were very popular at the time. She envisions mystery and suspense in everyday events, especially during visits to the fashionable city of Bath. The main plot follows her subsequent visit to Northanger Abbey, where she expects to find intrigue and dark secrets. This introduces a playful deconstruction of gothic tropes and parodies of the genre. Through the naïve but likeable Catherine, and her tendency to let fantasy override reason and experience, Austen mockingly comments on societal fascinations. While lighthearted in nature, it also acknowledges the private doubts and anxieties of being a young woman navigating society during the era.
Published posthumously in 1818, Persuasion was Austen’s last completed novel. It tells the story of Anne Elliot, an unmarried woman nearing 30 who lives with her vain, snobby father Sir Walter and her friend, Lady Russell. Eight years ago, urged by Lady Russell, Anne broke off her engagement to a naval officer named Frederick Wentworth because he was poor and of uncertain future prospects. The story takes place years later, after Wentworth has since risen in rank and wealth. A chance meeting re-ignites their love, though obstacles from their shared history of being persuaded otherwise must be overcome. The novel examines the difficulties of missed opportunities and second chances at love later in life, during a time when women had very limited independence. It demonstrates Austen’s development as a writer in crafting one of her most moving romantic tales.
Jane Austen, in addition to above books, penned two more novels, namely Lady Susan and The Watsons, both of which were published after her demise. She, too, had penned a compilation of short stories, titled Love and Friendship, and a handful of other youthful compositions.
Her novels are renowned for their clever discourse, incisive societal critique, and examination of the subjects of affection, marriage, and familial ties. Books by Jane Austen are esteemed as classics of English literature and have been transformed into countless films, television shows, and theatrical spectacles.
If you’re new with the works of Jane Austen, I would humbly recommend commencing your literary journey with either Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. These esteemed works of literature, which have garnered much admiration, serve as a splendid introduction to the eloquent prose and captivating storytelling that define her literary oeuvre.
Which one would you like to read?
Here are some additional insights into Jane Austen’s books:
- While her stories focused on romance and relationships, Jane Austen was also keenly aware of the economic realities for women during her time period. Marriage was essentially the only acceptable social and financial option. Her books often commented on the marriage plotlines.
- Jane Austen was a master of subtle social satire. She skillfully used wit, irony and subtle digs to poke fun at societal follies like pretension, hypocrisy and foolish obsessions, without direct attacks. This style of humor has kept her books entertaining.
- Recurring themes in her work include the pressures women faced to marry, uphold class expectations, navigate complex social norms, and deal with restrictions on independence. However, Jane Austen also celebrated independent female spirits like Elizabeth Bennet.
- Books by Jane Austen contain timeless commentary on human nature, from vanity to pride to misunderstandings. Readers continuously find new aspects that resonate, keeping Austen relevant.
- While set during the English Regency period of the early 1800s, Austen’s stories before her time with progressive views on strong female characters, education of women, and critiques of patriarchal society.
- Her writing was underappreciated in her lifetime, but her works grew steadily more popular after her death. Now she is widely considered one of the greatest authors in English literature and her books are cherished worldwide.
Austen combined wit, social insight, nuanced characterization and romance in a way that has endured. Her tales offer both entertaining diversions and thoughtful commentary still appreciated today.