Sense and Sensibility
The first of Jane Austen's novels ever to be published, Sense and Sensibility (1811) is above all else a story about the bond between two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and their contrasting dispositions. When their father dies, they, along with their widowed mother, are left without any fortune or claim to inheritance.
Forced to move from their estate at Norland Park to a small cottage in Devonshire, the Dashwood sisters learn to adjust to a new life with different expectations. The young and lively Marianne meets and falls in love with the handsome Willoughby, a gentleman who shares her admiration for romance and passionate expression. While not without her own romantic attachment, Elinor occupies herself primarily with the security and well-being of her family, in particular that of her sister, whose romantic inclinations Elinor feels are expressed with too little personal restraint or censure.
In Sense and Sensibility, Austen demonstrates the intimate nature of communication that often exists between sisters but is so rarely examined. She also considers different ways of reacting to hardship and heartache. Should a young woman limited by her financial and social position also restrain her self-expression? Can excessive sensibility be selfish or even dangerous? Can a second love ever truly compare to the first? When both sisters face parallel challenges in romance, they are forced to question their own ideals of morality and strength of character. Through the support of each other, Marianne and Elinor learn that achieving personal happiness requires a complex combination of passion and reason, of sense and sensibility, and that such characteristics need not always be in conflict.
Emma Woodhouse believes she possesses a natural gift for matchmaking. Although unmarried, she reigns as mistress of Hartfield, her father’s estate. Emma’s confidence leads her to interfere in the personal affairs of her social circle. She encourages a relationship between her governess and Mr. Weston, and soon after, the couple marries. Left without a female companion, Emma encounters Harriet Smith. Harriet’s parentage is unknown, indicating that she is probably an illegitimate child. Emma takes Harriet under her wing, seeking to elevate her social standing. Emma encourages Harriet to decline a marriage proposal from Robert Martin, a farmer whom Emma finds unsuitable, in favour of pursuing the vicar, Mr. Elton. Mr. Knightley, Emma’s lifelong friend, disapproves of Emma’s high-handed behaviour and chastises her for it.
Emma soon regrets her actions when Mr. Elton, much to her astonishment, proposes to herself. Harriet is crushed, and Emma realizes how misguided she has been. However, Emma soon resumes her matchmaking when she presumes that Harriet has now fallen in love with Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston’s son, after he had saved her from a group of gypsies. Indeed, Harriet speaks of her gratitude towards a gentleman who recently came to her aid. Emma is shocked to later discover that the gentleman in question is actually Mr. Knightley. Emma, crestfallen, realizes that she has been in love with Mr. Knightley for some time. Believing Emma to be in love with Frank Churchill, Mr. Knightley comes to Hartfield to comfort her. Emma, however, believes that Mr. Knightley has come to reveal his intentions of marrying Harriet. In a classic Austen twist, Mr. Knightley tells Emma that he is in fact in love with her. The joyful ending sees Mr. Knightley married to Emma, and Robert Martin to Harriet Smith.
Published in 1816, Jane Austen’s fourth novel is a sparkling comedy of manners, full of endearing characters, and with an intricate but ultimately satisfying plot.
Pride and Prejudice
Celebrating the bicentenary of its publication in 1813 this year, Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s best-known and most popular novel. It is, first and foremost, the love story of Elizabeth Bennet, one of five daughters of a small Hertfordshire landowner and his middle-class wife, and Mr Darcy, a matrimonial catch with a grand estate in Derbyshire and a staggering annual income of ten thousand pounds. Belonging to very different social circles in the snobbish hierarchy of the Georgian upper class, they only meet because Darcy’s slightly less wealthy friend Charles Bingley is renting a house in the neighbourhood and has brought him along to one of the local assemblies, where he promptly shows himself to be too proud to dance with any of the Hertfordshire girls – including the pretty and vivacious Lizzy who, her own pride hurt, takes an immediate dislike to the rude and haughty stranger.From here develops a battle of wits between Lizzy and Darcy, who is gradually forced to acknowledge that this provincial girl is his equal despite the differences in their wealth and social position.
Strongly influenced by Jane Austen’s love of the theatre, Pride and Prejudicefeatures a cast of caricatures whose character traits are strongly linked to their position in Georgian society, but are still immediately recognisable to the modern reader. The fast-paced and witty dialogues between them, subtly set down by an author with a keen eye for the ridiculous in the social norms of her day, make this one of Jane Austen’s funniest novels.
Although Jane Austen’s revised version of this novel wasn’t published until 1818, the year after her death, Northanger Abbey was her first completed novel to be sold to a publisher. A parody of the Gothic fiction popular in the Georgian period, it can be seen as a bridge between Jane Austen’s ‘Juvenilia’ and her mature, complete novels. But, whilst it mercilessly takes down the far-fetched plots and hysterical style of Georgian Gothic fiction and plays with the popular contemporary fears of its harmful influence on impressionable young ladies, it also offers a passionate and well-argued defence of the novel as suitable reading matter for men and women of all ages.
Northanger Abbey is the story of how Catherine Morland, the young and impressionable daughter of a thoroughly mundane rural clergyman, becomes a heroine. In typical Georgian fashion, she is invited for a visit to Bath with her kindly neighbours. Here, she makes some unsuitable acquaintances in the form of the vulgar Thorpes. Isabella Thorpe shares Catherine’s love of Gothic fiction, and Catherine is in danger of being swept away by Isabella’s giddy ways, but meets a sobering influence in Miss Tilney and her clever brother Henry. Mistakenly believing Catherine to be an heiress, the Tilneys’ father invites her to stay at their family home, Northanger Abbey, the Gothic potential of which place threatens to go to Catherine’s head. Fortunately, Henry Tilney is always at hand with sobering or amusing remarks as required.
A product of its time in slightly more complicated ways than the airy Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey is at once a clever pastiche and an engaging coming-of-age story, and a very entertaining and rewarding read.
Published posthumously in 1818, in a single volume alongside Jane Austen’s first completed novel Northanger Abbey, Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last complete novel, and combines a greater sense of maturity with the enduring hopeful outlook of the earlier novels, whilst retaining the wit and social satire that charms Jane Austen readers worldwide.
The protagonist, Anne Elliot, has a high social standing in her local community as one of the three daughters of a baronet, but, still unmarried at 27, she is past her prime and her family are accustomed to making her interests second to their own as they call upon her to nurse, support and advise them. In her early youth, Anne fell in love with a promising young naval officer, but broke off her engagement at the recommendation of an old family friend, Lady Russell. Now the family has fallen on hard times financially and are forced to let their country seat while they remove to Bath for the winter. The new tenants of Kellynch Hall are the sister and brother-in-law of Captain Wentworth, the man Anne refused to marry all those years ago. He has made his fortune at sea and returned an eligible bachelor, whilst Anne is dismissed as an old maid down on her luck.
Carefully crafted by Jane Austen at the height of her writing talent and experience, this story is among the most touching and ultimately satisfying of her novels.
Appearing in 1814, between the sparking wit of Pride and Prejudice and the flawless craftsmanship of Emma, the subject matter of Mansfield Park is unexpected, but anyone interested in the social laws of the Georgian period and in those characters who tend to be marginalised, both during the period itself and in modern-day historical romantic fiction, will be fascinated by the story of Fanny Price and her home at Mansfield Park.
Fanny is a poor relation. Her mother left her upper-class home for an ill-judged marriage, and the large family is under financial strain, causing Sir Thomas Bertram, the husband of Mrs Price’s most advantageously-married sister, to take the child into his home. Fanny’s relatives do not adopt her as their own, however. She becomes a helpmeet to her mother’s last remaining sister as she manages the house on Lady Bertram’s behalf, and her cousins are instructed always to bear in mind that she is not their equal.
The only cousin to take a real interest in her is Edmund, the younger son who aspires to become a clergyman. Then the neighbourhood is shook up by a pair of fashionable strangers. Mary Crawford enchants Edmund, whilst her brother Henry uses his position as a favourite at Mansfield Park to draw Fanny into the social circle as an equal.
Mansfield Park stands out because of its unusual premise and the fascinating interaction between the characters in a setting both well-chosen and superbly executed.
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