Portrait of Jane Austen
(image: WikiCommons)

by Lily Hallam

To me, one of the most important dates in history is the 28th of January 1813. This is because on this day Jane Austen published her second novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Not only was this the first ever Austen novel that I read, but it was the first ever book I read that was written before I was born. Watching the film and then the BBC miniseries (the miniseries is better!) opened up a brand new avenue for me into the world of classical literature. This was clearly a very pivotal moment in my life, as I have been hooked on her work ever since.

Jane Austen was born on the 16th of December 1775 and was one of eight children. She started writing when she was a teenager and kept three journals from the age of 11 to 18. These were part of her juvenilia and, at the time, were just to entertain her family with short stories and poetry but it allowed her to develop her wit and use of parody, irony and realism. Her three notebooks were only privately published at the time but many, including myself, have read them today and there is evidence in them of early versions of her more famous novels. 

Austen’s personal life is also an inspiration to her novels. The young Jane Austen took up a flirtation with Thomas Lefroy however, it soon came to an end as Austen had no dowry and she never ended up marrying. Marriage in the late 18th century was more often than not an economic negotiation, not as Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet would have us believe, and this is a common trope in her writing. It’s believed that Thomas Lefroy’s character influenced that of Mr Darcy as Austen began work on ‘Pride and Prejudice’ within the year of their separation.

When it comes to her publishing story, her father tried to get one of her works published in 1797 but he was unsuccessful. It took Austen years to revise the drafts of ‘First Impressions’ and ‘Elinor and Marianne’ as they were called before publishing. ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and the rest of her novels were only published in the last six years of her life, ‘Sense and Sensibility’ being the first in 1811. After that it was her most famous novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in 1813 followed by ‘Mansfield Park’ in 1814 and ‘Emma’ in 1815. All of these novels were published anonymously. When she became ill in 1816, she tried to finish her outstanding work; however, she couldn’t get to them all. 

Jane Austen died on the 18th of July 1817 at the age of 41. ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’ were published together after her death in 1818 and were her last completed novels. The only one left outstanding was ‘Sanditon’ which she wrote 11 chapters of during a 7 week span before her death. 

Even though she only wrote six well known novels, Jane Austen has had a very significant impact on culture and literature. This is mostly because she created characters that people can still relate to today and those characters experienced problems that are similar to modern day ones. People have dysfunctional families, like the Bennets, that you love but are almost always embarrassed by. She also gives both the characters and readers a collective dislike for other characters that could easily fit in a book and real life. I think Mr Collins is a very good example of this. 

Austen’s lasting impact is also down to her style of writing. Many other authors have written about the same topics that Austen did but not nearly half as well. Austen had a distinct style of writing that didn’t emphasise what the characters were wearing or what the room looked like, but rather the psychology of the characters and what they thought of each other. She also has a witty style of writing which makes her stand out from other writers of the time as the reader is drawn to how she writes, not necessarily what she writes about.

All of her main six novels have all been adapted for TV. Pride and Prejudice is obviously the overall favourite. The BBC’s version, starring Colin Firth, was a huge hit with audiences. Those of a certain age firmly associate Mr. Darcy with the image of a damp and tousled Firth emerging from a swim. Younger audiences are more in tune with the abridged film version Kiera Knightly, but this is just the latest in film versions stretching back to 1940. Hollywood has visited Austen with popular versions of ‘Emma’ starring Gwyneth Paltrow and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ with Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant, the latter being a firm favourite among Austen fans but Pride and Prejudice is still number one.

Even if people haven’t read the books or seen the films, who hasn’t heard of Pride and Prejudice or Jane Austen? Heard of ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’? It was based on ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ There are numerous spin- off films, TV and novels. For a writer with such a short career, Austen is incredibly famous and has had such an enormous impact on literature, popular culture and anyone who has heard of the books.