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Charles Dickens Introduction

Charles Dickens did not invent the urban poverty that we now call "Dickensian." He
did not dream up the poor Victorian orphans that populate his fiction. Nor the
appalling conditions in factories characterizing the Industrial Revolution. Nor the
injustice of the debtors' prisons. Nor the class system that kept the poor trapped in
wretched circumstances. He simply saw these things unfolding around him in midnineteenth century London, and then he thoroughly documented them in the form
of truer-than-true novels such as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and Bleak House.
Dickens became one of the most popular and prolific writers of his time, and he
remains the gold standard of English novelists. Charles Dickens knew how to write a
page-turner. Almost all of his novels were written in the form of monthly
installments in popular magazines. But he also had a keen eye for social injustice.
While everyone else was yammering on about how super the Industrial Revolution
was, Dickens made sure that the public remembered the middle class the very
class squeezed between industrial progress and its dark underbelly.
For all of his success, Dickens's personal life was like something out of . . . well, a
Dickens novel. Dickens's cash-strapped parents sent him to work at a boot-blacking
factory when he was just twelve years old, an experience that left a deep and
painful impression upon him. His father was thrown into debtor's prison, a
completely legal practice at that time when people could not pay their debts
(declaring bankruptcy was not an option then). His mother was neglectful. Dickens
and his wife had ten children before separating bitterly. And Dickens didn't seem to
like being a father any more than being a husband.
By the time he died at age 58 in 1870, Dickens seemed always to be striving for
some happiness just out of reach, very akin to his fictional characters. "Why is it,"
he wrote near the end of his life, "that as with poor David [Copperfield], a sense
comes always crushing on me now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness I
have missed in life, one friend and companion I have never made?" 1 Charles
Dickens was a complicated character. Could a novelist of his insight and talent be
any other way?
Charles Dickens: Biography
He was the most famous writer in England in his lifetime. Yet the historical details of
Charles Dickens's biography were largely unknown when he was writing his insanely
popular novels in mid-nineteenth century London. Profiles of Dickens neatly skipped
over the tragedies of his childhood, including his stint as a child worker in a
bootblack factory, his father's terms in debtor's prison, and his family's dire poverty.
Public profiles focused instead on his prodigious writing talents and his compassion
for the poor. Few suspected that within the characters of Oliver Twist, David
Copperfield, Pip, and the other inhabitants of Dickens's fiction were remnants of
himself. Dickens's acute sensitivity to social injustice was not a fluke, and the
powerful realism of his fiction was not just guesswork. It was born of his own hardearned experience.
The workhouses and debtor's prisons of Charles Dickens's London are no more. The
importance of Dickens's novels, however, lives on. The gap between the rich and
poor in our country and across the world grows wider every day. Economic progress
and technological advances for some still mean that others are left behind. Our
responsibility to take care of the poor, sick, and vulnerable has not lessened.
There's a reason that Dickens's novels have never gone out of print in the 140 years
since his death in 1870. His social consciousness is as relevant as ever. And best of
all this is the real reason he was so popular he sure knows how to tell story.

Charles Dickens: Childhood

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born 7 February 1812 in Portsmouth, England. He
was the second child of John and Elizabeth Hoffman Dickens. His parents went on to
have five more children to join Charles and his elder sister, Fanny, two of whom died
in infancy.
The Dickens family was on shaky financial ground from the beginning. John Dickens
did not have a particularly good head for numbers or finance, which was rather
unfortunate, since he worked as a clerk in the Naval Pay Office. (He also dabbled in
journalism, which influenced his young son but failed to bring the family much
income.) The family moved frequently. By 1823, things had gotten bad enough that
Dickens's parents were forced to withdraw him from school because they could no
longer pay the fees.
The following year, 1824, was a nightmare for the whole Dickens family. On 9
February, two days after his twelfth birthday, Charles was sent to work at Warren's
Blacking Factory, a London operation that made the polish for boots. That same
month, John Dickens was sentenced to Marshalsea Prison for his failure to repay a
debt. Though young Charles tried desperately to raise the money to keep his father
out of jail, on 23 February John Dickens reported to prison. The entire family with
the exception of Charles, who was still working at the factory, and his older sister
Fanny moved in to John's prison cell.
You don't have to be a Dickens expert or a psychologist to see how deeply this
experience affected Charles Dickens and influenced his fiction. The blacking factory
was a miserable place. Living alone at a boarding house while his family was in
prison was more than the sensitive 12-year-old Charles could bear. His depression
and anxiety contributed to his sickly constitution. In May, John Dickens received an
inheritance and was able to arrange to have the debt paid off. The family moved in
together again at the boarding house where Charles had been living. By June 1824
he was able to go back to school at Wellington House Academy.
Charles Dickens never got over his terror of poverty. Nor did he ever forget the
deprivations he endured during his family's crisis. Scenes from the factory, the
boarding house, and the debtor's prison all peppered his fiction. Even as an adult,
he could not pass the site of the old factory without crying. 2 After his mother
objected to his returning to school, saying that he should continue to work to
support the family, he was never able to forgive her. "I do not write resentfully or
angrily, for I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I
am," he wrote after becoming a successful novelist, "but I never afterwards forgot, I
never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent
Charles Dickens: Early Writing
Just two years later, the family was back on financial hard times. Fourteen-year-old
Dickens withdrew from school for the last time and went to work. He took a job as a
law clerk in London. He also started hanging out around London's theater district,
nurturing what was to be a lifelong love of stagecraft and drama. (He later began
acting in and writing amateur plays.) In 1828, when he was sixteen, Dickens got his
first gig as a professional writer, working as a freelance reporter covering the
courts. His exposure to the legal system and to the disproportionate number of
poor people who became embroiled in it later helped inform novels like Bleak
Dickens also fell in love for the first time. He met Maria Beadnell in 1830. Her wellto-do parents were not excited about the relationship, and they sent her away to
school in Paris to discourage the couple. In 1833, the relationship ended. Maria

Beadnell surfaced again twenty years later in Dickens's thinly-veiled, not-so-nice

portrayal of her in Little Dorrit.
In December 1833, Dickens's first piece of fiction writing, a short story called "A
Dinner at Poplar Walk," appeared in Old Monthly Magazine. The story was published
anonymously, and Dickens did not get paid for it. But his obvious talent for
descriptive writing drew the attention of his editor at the Morning Chronicle, who
suggested that he start writing vignettes, or sketches, of life around London.
Several of these narratives were published together in 1836 as Sketches by Boz,
Dickens's first book. (Boz was his nickname.) A legendary writing career began.
Charles Dickens: Novels by Installments
Right around the publication of Sketches by Boz, Dickens was hired to write a series
of monthly stories to accompany some humorous illustrations by the artist Robert
Seymour. Extremely without humor and quite tragically, Seymour committed suicide
after completing just two drawings.4 Dickens went ahead with the project anyway.
With just a few tweaks, it was published in monthly installments until November
1937. The Pickwick Papers, as the book
later became known, was extremely
popular. Dickens's career as a novelist was off and running.
In 1836, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth. A year later, their first child, a son
named Charles, was born. (The couple went on to have ten children, but,
unfortunately, the marriage wasn't a happy one.) In 1837, Dickens published the
first monthly installment of Oliver Twist, his novel about an innocent orphan and the
seamy underworld in which he finds himself. Like all of Dickens's novels, it was
published in monthly installments. Oliver Twist ran in Bentley's Miscellany, of which
Dickens was also the editor. No matter how much success his novels gained,
Dickens almost always held a full-time job as well. His childhood experience with
poverty left him deeply scarred, and he worked all his life to avoid a similar fate.
Let's talk a little about this installment thing. Generations of bitter students have
looked on these installments (and the enormous novels they eventually resulted in)
as a strange form of torture, especially while they're stuck on what feels like page
6,000 of Great Expectations. Dickens wrote for money! you cry in angry despair. He
was paid by the word! Why should we suffer because this guy was trying to boost
his paycheck?
To that, we say two things.
The first is that, except for the pay-per-word part (Dickens was paid by the
installment, not by the word), the charge that he wrote for money is completely
The second is: Well, duh. Charles Dickens was a professional writer. Novels, stories,
and the like were his means of supporting himself what, did you want him to go
back to the factory? And he did not dream up the installment plan as a way of
bilking publishers for more money. Publishing novels in monthly installments did
result in massive volumes once the books
were completed. But the plan
actually made a ton of sense for publishers and readers alike. By publishing a novel
like Oliver Twist in a series of twelve to twenty-four cliffhanger installments,
magazine publishers could guarantee themselves up to two years of magazine
purchases from readers hooked on the story. Once the book was finished, they could
sell it as a single volume and make money

all over again.

Also, in mid-nineteenth century England, most people could not afford to fork over

the cash for a whole novel, which was an expensive investment. The only person
who partially lost out in this deal was the writer himself. Dickens had to work at a
pretty ferocious pace to keep up with the magazine's schedule, and he didn't really
get too great of a cut from either the magazine or bound-book sales. Add these
factors to his killer work ethic and his deep-seated terror of poverty, and you've got
a guy who is going to be cranking out some serious wordage.
Charles Dickens: Popularity & Later Life
For the next twenty years, Charles Dickens did two things really well: write novels,
and make children (ten altogether). On the novel front, he produced Nicholas
Nickleby (1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Barnaby Rudge (1841), A Christmas
Carol (1843), Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Dombey and Son (1848), David Copperfield
(1850, and by far his most autobiographical work), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times
(1854), and Little Dorrit (1857). He also continued to nurse his love of the theater
by writing plays and occasionally acting in them himself. He was a champion of the
poor and lent his name and efforts to many fundraising efforts for London's needy.
Dickens was a literary rock star. "Mr. Dickens has written so much and so well that
the severest ordeal any thing new that he writes has to undergo is the comparison
with what he has written before," gushed Harper's Weekly in 1860. "His published
stories are so popular that people will hardly admit that they can be equaled." 5
All of his novels shared distinct characteristics that marked them as "Dickensian."
His characters played into popular Victorian stereotypes: the innocent orphan, the
unscrupulous businessman, and the sleazy criminal. They spoke with a strong social
conscience, and reminded everyone that the much-heralded progress of the
Industrial Revolution was also leaving some people in the gutter. Dickens
unambiguously criticized the system of workhouses, debtor's prisons, and
orphanages that kept England's poor virtually enslaved. His writing relied heavily on
cliffhangers and suspense (a function of their publication in monthly parts). They
were also extremely popular. Dickens's descriptions of poverty defined the way that
Victorian England saw poverty. A Christmas Carol defined the concept of the
Christmas spirit. Dickens was a tastemaker in a way few novelists if any have
done before or since.
Families were rarely warm and huggy in Dickens's novels. They were neglectful,
abandoning their children to orphanages and workhouses a la Oliver Twist; abusive,
as in David Copperfield; shrewish and unfaithful, like the women of Bleak House; or
just chronically unable to get their act together, like Little Dorrit's father. The
frequent unflattering portrayals of family life in his novels seemed to reflect
Dickens's frustrations with his own relations. "'Why was I ever a father! Why was my
father ever a father!"6 Dickens once lamented not exactly a Hallmark-worthy
sentiment. Once he became successful, his father hounded him constantly for
money. Dickens complained that his extended family saw him as "something to be
plucked and torn to pieces for their advantage. . . . My soul sickens at the thought of
them."7 His marriage turned sour, and he wasn't all that impressed with his children,
either. He joked near the end of his life that there should be an award "for having
brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do
anything for themselves."8
There was one bright spot in his personal life. In 1857, Dickens met the actress Ellen
"Nelly" Ternan, who was working on a production of one of his plays. The actress
was eighteen; Dickens was 45. Despite this age gap, the two began a romantic
relationship that lasted for the rest of Dickens's life. The two traveled together
frequently, though their relationship was kept a secret from the prim-and-proper
Victorian public. Dickens and his wife Catherine agreed to separate the following

Charles Dickens: Death

Dickens published two of his most accomplished novels late in his career: 1) A Tale
of Two Cities and 2) Great Expectations. A Tale of Two Cities began running in 1859.
It was a gripping saga of the French Revolution and home to the famous "It was the
best of times, it was the worst of times"9 opening lines. The first installment of
Great Expectations appeared in December 1860.
In 1863, Dickens experienced a year of tragedy, losing both his mother and his 22year-old son Walter, who was stationed in India. His health by this time was
beginning to fail, largely thanks to his insistence on overworking himself. He was
still writing prolifically, and editing All the Year Round, and giving lectures and
readings around the United Kingdom.
The last novel Dickens completed before his death was Our Mutual Friend, which
was finished in 1865. He started work on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a mystery
novel intended to run in twelve parts. Halfway through, however, Dickens suffered a
stroke. He died at his London home on 9 June 1870, at age 58, and was buried in
the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey. Just prior to his death, Dickens had recently
performed an emotional reading of the murder of Nancy in the character of Oliver
Twist's Bill Sikes. Friends believed that the strain of this reading brought on his
stroke and killed him. We have no way of knowing all the secrets of Dickens's life,
but we know this: up until the very end, he gave everything he had to his work.

Jane Austen Introduction

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a reader of Jane Austen's novels will
either love the author passionately or despise her with equal force. How did six little
novels written by a middle-class woman in early nineteenth-century England came
to have such worldwide popularity, their author becoming the subject of cult-like
devotion among her fans and shuddering dislike among her detractors? Why is Jane
Austen such a big deal? And why are all of her characters so obsessed with
Let's start with that last one first. Jane Austen's characters are obsessed with
marriage because everybody in Regency England was obsessed with marriage. For
virtually all of English history, marriage had been an economic transaction, one
arranged for the financial benefit for the families involved without much regard to
the couple's feelings (or lack thereof) for one another. Suddenly, during the late
eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century period in which Austen lived, people
began wondering if it might be okay to factor love into the equation as well, making
matters all the more complicated.
Jane Austen knew all too well how marriage defined a woman's life. She never
married, and as a result was dependent most of her life on the charity of her
brothers. She fit her writing into the otherwise dull daily routine of chores, visits,
and "respectable activities" expected of a middle-class lady. She didn't even get to
put her own name on her books
the four novels she published during her
lifetime were described only as being written "By a Lady." Still, from this perch of
relative obscurity she managed to make some of her era's sharpest (and funniest)
observations on human behavior, most of which still apply today.
One thing is certain: Jane Austen fans love their Jane. Film and television

adaptations of her books

proliferate like rabbits, and self-professed Janeites (the
official term for diehard fans) are scattered across the world. Why the adoration for
this author whose entire body of work can fit neatly in a backpack? It might be
because her characters are so charming. It might be because she's so funny. And it
might be because the books really are just that good.
Austen's novels were the first literary works to acknowledge this complex dance of
gender and social convention, in a way that was funny, perceptive, and realistic.
With her elegantly crafted plots and characters, Jane Austen pretty much singlehandedly rescued the novel from the trash heap of the literary world. Before Austen,
all novels were regarded with the same kind of respect we now give to cheap
supermarket romance novels; thanks to Austen, it is now possible to gain a
"serious" literary reputation on the backs of novels alone.
Jane Austen: Biography
There are two types of people in this world: those who are Janeites, and those who
are not.
Janeitesas hard-core Jane Austen fans choose to call themselvescite their idol's
gift for plot, snappy dialogue, well-rounded characters, and love stories that are
believable and heart-melting at the same time. In the six novels Austen completed
during her 41 years, they see the work of a woman who perceived the realities of
eighteenth-century English gender politics and wasn't afraid to tell it like it was, a
writer who single-handedly raised the profile of the novel from trashy entertainment
to literary art form.
Non-Janeites cringe at the thought of yet another movie version of one of Austen's
novels. Aren't all of these books

, they ask, basically about the same thing? Did

she have nothing else to write about? And why is everyone in her books
obsessed with marriage? "I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss
Austen's novels at so high a rate," groused non-Janeite Ralph Waldo Emerson. "All
that interests in any character [is this]: has he (or she) the money to marry with?" 1
Both groups have a point. Readers of even the first editions of Austen's novels were
struck by how realistically she portrayed their world, how "alive" and honest her
characters seemed. While the novel had previously been considered a clichd,
mindless source of entertainment written by and for women, Austen's books
showed that the novel could be an original and thoughtful literary form. It's worth
noting that in her time, men from the future king of England to Sir Walter Scott were
outspoken fans of her work. The novel Emma is among "a class of fictions which has
arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents
introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted
by the former rules of the novel," Scott enthused. Austen is "presenting to the
reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking
representation of that which is daily taking place around him." 2
Austen, who was born in 1775 and died in 1817, wrote solely about the world that
she knew, which happened to be the world of middle-class society in Regency-era
southern England. Yes, her books are obsessed with marriagebut so was everyone
else at that time. In previous centuries, marriage had been far more complicated
than meeting someone special, falling in love, and getting hitched. The institution of
marriage had been, instead, primarily an economic transaction. Selecting a spouse
carried the weight of choosing a college, a profession, and a life partner all at once.

For women, who couldn't work outside the home, live alone, or legally inherit
property (at least not if there was a first-born son around), the only reliable source
of income and security, for herself and for the female relatives dependent on her,
was a husband. For men who were not their family's eldest son, marrying into
money was likely their only shot at a fortune as well. It was only during the Regency
era that love even began to be considered an acceptable motive for marriage.
Jane Austen knew this all too well. "Single women have a dreadful propensity for
being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony," 3 she wrote
to her niece. Her role in life was determined by her status as an unmarried woman.
She, her widowed mother, and her unmarried sister were all dependent on the
charity of her brothers for support. Despite her vast intelligence, Austen was mostly
home-schooled and had no career opportunities. Her novels were published
anonymously, their author listed only as "a Lady," and she never earned enough
money from her writing to support herself. Profound social transitions are always
challenging, and Austen lived during a time of transformation in one of the most
fundamental human institutions. For women of Jane Austen's day, marriage
remained the most important of life's decisions, but the very definition of marriage
itself was in upheaval. This is reflected in characters like poor Elizabeth Bennet,
whose wise father counsels her to find a husband she "truly esteemed," while her
mother carps at her to shut up about love, already, and just get married.
Jane Austen wasn't a radicalshe wasn't suggesting that women burn their corsets
and hold out for a better deal. She was just describing life as she saw it, with
frankness and humor that no one had ever read in a novel before. Austen knew that
relations between men and women could be complicated, messy, and frustrating.
And that's just the way she liked it. For as she told her niece: "Pictures of perfection,
as you know, make me sick and wicked." 4
Jane Austen: Childhood
Jane Austen was born 16 December 1775 in Steventon, a small village in rural
southern England. She was the seventh of eight children (six boys, two girls) born to
William and Cassandra Austen. Her father was a clergyman who also tutored young
male students to supplement his income. The family was not impoverished, but it
would be fair to say they were of very modest means. As a result, the Austen
parents employed some parenting techniques that might be considered unusual
today, but were common for families of their social class. To save room in the
crowded household, each of the children was sent to live with a neighbor woman
from the time they were three months old until they were two. (Their parents visited
them daily.) Austen's brother Edward was adopted by a wealthy, childless cousins.
Jane's visits to her brother's estate exposed her to the world of the English upper
Jane Austen was extremely close to her sister Cassandra, her elder by two years.
The Austen sisters were inseparable and lived together all of their lives. When Jane
was eight and Cassandra was ten, both girls were sent for schooling with a tutor in
Oxford, England. When typhoid fever broke out a few months later and both girls fell
ill, their mother rushed them back to Steventon. A second attempt at boarding
school came two years later. Within a year it became clear that the family did not
have enough money to send both of the girls to school, and they returned home.
From the age of eleven onwards, Austen simply educated herself with books
from her father's library, which he encouraged.
Jane Austen: Juvenilia
By the time she was twelve, Austen had started her literary career. The short
stories, poems, satires and plays that she wrote during this time are known

collectively by Janeites as the Juvenilia. Her biting sense of humor was apparent
even in her earliest writings. She wrote a satiric version of English history with lines
like, "His Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son Henry, whose only merit was his
not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth." 5
In 1793 Austen began writing her first lengthy piece: Lady Susan, a novella told in
the form of letters. She worked on it for two years, though it was never published in
her lifetime. In 1797 she finished the first draft of a novel entitled First Impressions
(which she later changed to Pride and Prejudice), but then set it aside without
publishing it. She read her works-in-progress to her family, who were great boosters
and editors of her work. In 1803 she sold her first manuscript, a novel entitled
Susan (no relation to the story Lady Susan) to a London publisher for 10. To
Austen's chagrin, the publisher did nothing with her manuscript, and it languished
unpublished in his office. Austen bought it back ten years later, after sending him an
angry letter.
Jane Austen: In Love
In 1801, Austen's father retired and decided that the family should move to Bath,
England. Though she was reluctant to leave Steventon, the only home she had
known, Austen agreed to move with her parents to the English resort
town (she
really didn't have much choice; it was unthinkable that an unmarried woman should
live with anyone but family). Austen was by then in her mid-twenties: prime
marrying years. So far, however, she had come up unlucky in love. In December
1795 she had met an Irish law student named Tom LeFroy while he was visiting her
neighbor in Steventon. The two engaged in some gentle flirtationAusten wrote
jokingly to Cassandra that the two had been "profligate and shocking in the way of
dancing and sitting down together" 6 at holiday parties. It's unclear how intense their
feelings for each other were (after Austen's death, her sister burned all of her most
personal letters) or if LeFroy was as interested in Austen as she was in him. Either
way, it was a moot point. Neither had enough money at the time to be considered
suitable for marriage. LeFroy left Steventon a month later and eventually became
engaged to someone else. Some Austen critics suspect that he is the model for Mr.
Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.
Jane Austen never married, but she did have the option. In 1802, she received an
unexpected proposal on a holiday visit to some friends. Twenty-one-year-old Harris
Bigg-Wither, the brother of her friends, was rather unattractive, somewhat of a
dullard, and had the unfortunate habit of a pronounced stutter. However, he had
just graduated from Oxford and was poised to have a successful career. Austen
knew that the marriage would be good not only for her own security, but for the
security of her entire family. She said yes. The next morning, however, she realized
that she just couldn't go through with a marriage to someone she had no feelings
for, and she rescinded her acceptance. "Having accepted him, she found she was
miserable and that the place and fortune which would certainly be his, could not
alter the man," her niece later wrote of the difficult decision. "I have always
respected her for the courage in cancelling that 'yes'." 7
In Pride and Prejudice, the narrator calls marriage "the only honourable provision for
well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving
happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want." 8 In real life, Jane
Austen soon felt the consequences of her decision to remain unmarried. Her father
died in 1805, leaving Jane, her mother, and her sister with no means of support
(Cassandra also never married; her fianc died of yellow fever in 1797). The Austen
women became completely dependent upon the charity of Jane's brothers. First they
moved into a rented house in Bath, and then they moved in with Austen's brother
Frank and his wife. In 1809 they finally got a place of their own when Edward, the
brother adopted by wealthy relatives, offered them a house on his estate called

Chawton Cottage.
With no husband, no children, and no job, Jane Austen spent her days doing the
things that most middle-class Englishwomen did at the time: needlework, letterwriting, the occasional piano playing. Sometimes, she confessed, she got bored. "Do
not be angry with me for beginning another letter to you. I have read [Byron's] The
Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do," 9 she once wrote to
Cassandra. After moving into Chawton Cottage, however, Austen spent more time
writing and less on housework. It suited her far better. "Composition seems to me
impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb," 10 she wrote
her sister.
Jane Austen: Novelist
In late eighteenth-century England, the novel was considered a lowbrow form of
entertainment with not much more literary value than the bodice-ripping harlequin
romances now sold in our supermarket checkout lines. "Where the reading of novels
prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the
mind,"11 thundered the poet Samuel Coleridge, a bit drama queenishly. Part of the
reason that novels were looked down on by serious critics (who were almost always
male) was that they were usually written and read exclusively by women. Also, most
of them sucked. The Regency novel was riddled with clichsswooning women
were rescued by brooding men; the pauper always turned out to be the son of the
duke; one could not swing a dead cat without hitting a dark, foreboding manor or
The Austen family, however, had always been "great Novel-readers," Austen wrote,
"& not ashamed of being so."12 Thus it wasn't much of a surprise that she wanted to
write one herself. She had no intention, however, of writing the type of pseudohistorical romance usually associated with the genre. She wanted to write
something that reflected real life, and that exhibited her humor. "I could no more
write a [historical] romance than an epic poem," she wrote to the librarian J.S.
Clarke in 1816. "I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any
other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up
and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung
before I had finished the first chapter." 13
Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. The book
about the Dashwood sisters, the practical Elinor and the sensitive Marianne. Like the
Austen women, the Dashwood sisters and their mother are left dependent and
financially insecure after their father's death. The nuanced portrait Austen painted
of her female protagonists defied the conventional stereotypes served up by her
contemporaries. Both sisters eventually marry Austen novels tend to happy
endingsbut both end up with unlikely matches, with love and affection triumphing
over superficial concerns. Like all of the novels that appeared during Austen's
lifetime, it was published anonymously.
Two years later, she published Pride and Prejudice. More than any of Austen's other
novels, this one illustrated the pressures exerted upon women by society's shifting
and all-consuming concepts of marriage. This struggle is embodied in the
protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, wholike the authorhas to make the difficult
decision to turn down a marriage proposal from a man she doesn't care for, before
ending up with Mr. Darcy.
Readers were stunned to find themselves enmeshed in a story that they recognized
from real life. "I have finished the Novel called Pride and Prejudice, which I think a
very superior work," a woman named Annabella Milbanke wrote. "It depends not on
any of the common resources of novel writers, no drownings, no conflagrations, nor

runaway horses, nor lap-dogs and parrots, nor chambermaids and milliners, nor
rencontres [duels] and disguises. I really think it is the most probable I have ever
Mansfield Park followed in 1814. Its protagonist, Fanny Price, is so controversial that
Austen fan sites post warnings to those bold enough to enter Fanny-related
message boards. Taken from her impoverished parents and raised among wealthy
relatives, Fanny is strikingly different from Austen's other heroines. She is shy,
weakly and virtuous (sometimes to an annoying degree). Yet despite Fanny's frailty,
the novel was a complex look at class and power, and echoed the realism that
readers had so loved about Pride and Prejudice.
The heroine of 1815's Emma, however, brought Austen back to form. Emma
Woodhouse was independent, intelligent, and sassy, but she was also as flawed as
the next person, with a lack of self-awareness on par with a reality TV star. Austen
exploits this for comedy, of course, but she also made sure that Emma matured in
the course of the book
of social advantage.

, and settled into a relationship based on respect instead

Women's lives were definitely the most important in Austen's books

she rarely
bothered to note what the male characters were doing when the women weren't
around. Rarely were her heroines sweet, saintly figures. They got knocked down a
peg or two when they indulged in pettiness (witness the verbal smackdown Emma
Woodhouse gets for her bratty behavior toward the well-meaning Miss Bates in
Emma). Austen didn't condemn characters who chose to marry for material reasons
she was far too practical for thatbut she did make fun of shallow women who
thought of nothing else. Women triumphed in Austen's books
when they
realized that character mattered more than materialism, and when they admitted
as with the proud Elizabeth Bennet or the practical Elinor Dashwoodthat it was
okay to fall in love.
Jane Austen: Death
In 1816, Austen started to feel ill with what was probably Addison's disease, a
hormonal disorder that doctors at the time hadn't yet learned to treat effectively.
She was working on two novels, Northanger Abbey (the novel previously titled
Susan that she had bought back from the lazy publisher) and Persuasion, but the
disease zapped her energy and slowed her progress. In May 1817, she and
Cassandra moved to Winchester in order to be closer to Austen's doctors. Just two
months later, on 18 July 1817, Jane Austen died. She was buried in Winchester
A few months after her death, Austen's brother Henry published her two final novels
together in a single volume. He included an autobiographical note that identified
Austen for the first time as the author of her work. The novels fell out of popularity
after a few years, until Austen's nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published a
biography of his aunt entitled A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. The memoir sparked
a renewed interest in the writer. In 1883 the first popular editions of her novels were
issued, igniting a widespread fandom that continues to this day. Fans' passion for
her work was such that the literary critic Leslie Stephens (who was also Virginia
Woolf's dad) dubbed it "Austenolatry," whose practitioners eventually began to call
themselves Janeites.
As a woman who wrote in anonymity and never ventured out of southern England,
Jane Austen would probably be shocked by the worldwide following she still claims

nearly 200 years after her death. Her books

speak to people across the
boundaries of culture, class and gender. By reflecting real lifethe "correct and
striking representation of that which is daily taking place," as Sir Walter Scott said
her books continue to speak to people about the one thing that's a constant topic of
interest to everyonelove. "We are teachers and librarians and book editors, as
expected, but also judges, truck drivers, puppeteers, oceanographers, and zoo
keepers," wrote Jeanne Kiefer, who in 2008 conducted a survey of Austen fans. "We
listen to Elvis as well as Mozart while living in Akron, New Delhi, Tokyo, and
Vancouver. There is only one thing that connects everyone in this group: we all have
a special place in our heart for Jane. And in my view, that is the most important part
of the anatomy of a Janeite."15