Jane Austen was born in Hampshire in 1775. At age 7, she got a bad case of typhus which nearly killed her. She was home schooled after her fortunate recovery and never again lived beyond her immediate family home. She read abundantly, and through family productions of various plays, she developed a satirical gift which is often seen in her writing. She wrote throughout her teenage years, creating shorter works that were later compiled into Juvenilia.
By the time Austen seeked publication, she was a married woman and was unable to sign contracts as such. Her work had to be published anonymously, or simply under “a lady.” Her name was never printed on a novel in her lifetime; after Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, the rest of her manuscripts and the money she made was simply addressed to “the writer of Sense and Sensibility.” She died in 1817, and both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously that same year. Read on for a list of Austen’s greatest novels.
Pride and Prejudice is not only Austen’s best novel, but one of the most famous novels in the English language. Beginning with the equally famous first line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” this novel focuses on the affairs of men and women, and how they negotiate power and status through marriage. The Bennett family wishes to marry off their daughters, much to the second eldest Elizabeth’s disgust. At a ball meant to match them with suitors, she encounters Mr. Darcy, a wealthy man whom Elizabeth instantly dislikes. Austen’s notes on the trials of men and women and the hypocrisies of her own time period never come through as strongly as they do in Pride and Prejudice. It was made into a popular film starring Keira Knightley in 2005.
Sense and Sensibility follows the Dashwood family as they are forced out of their estate when their father dies. Two of the daughters, Marianna and Elinor, strive to find husbands and battle with the obstacles that come with finding someone suitable to marry. While Marianne is torn between two suitors, Elinor is crushed to discover the subject of her affections is already engaged. This is another wonderful tale of misunderstandings and middle class life in the 19th century. Since its publication in 1811, there have been many adaptations of the novel on the stage, the television, and the silver screen.
Persuasion follows Anne Elliot, a young woman whose family opens their home for rent to an Admiral and his wife. Unbeknownst to Anne, the wife’s brother is Captain Wentworth, a man she was meant to marry seven years prior. The pair are thrust back together after a long hiatus, with the idea of a second chance at love hanging in the air. This novel was published posthumously in 1818 by Jane’s brother Henry Austen. Like in her other novels, Austen comments on the morality of English society and puts a lens on society’s expectations of men and women in the 19th century. It was the last work she completed before she died.
This 1815 novel focuses on the titular character of Emma Woodhouse, a spoiled but well-intentioned girl who lives with her hypochondriac father and hopes to never marry. Her friend Miss Taylor marries a family friend, and Emma takes the credit, deciding playing match-maker is a fun activity. When she befriends Harriet, a girl with a weak social status due to the mystery behind her parentage, Emma decides to play matchmaker once more, and the consequences are disastrous. Emma is a witty tale about confusion and terrible timing, and one of its largely successful film adaptations most recently hit cinemas in 2020. It was the last of Austen’s novels published in her lifetime.
Mansfield Park focuses on Fanny Price, a young woman who joins her aunt and uncle at their home in Mansfield Park. Her aunt and cousins live in wealth, a life Fanny is not accustomed to at all, and she finds it difficult to assimilate. As if this isn’t difficult enough, matters complicate further when the minister’s son and daughter come to stay at Mansfield Park, and much to her dismay, the son vies for Fanny’s affections. This is your typical bildungsroman, a term that originates from the German words bildung, meaning education, and roman, meaning novel. This is a coming of age novel full of first time blunders and crossed wires amongst the characters, with the inevitable marriage plot being, as always, a complete nuisance to the young men and women. The major themes of the novel involve complicated relationships and the draw of temptation.
Catherine Morland is our protagonist in Northanger Abbey. She is one of 10 children to a clergyman and has an obsession with gothic novels. At 17, she accepts an invitation to visit Bath with her wealthy neighbors where she attends a variety of balls and other social gatherings. There she makes the acquaintance of Henry Tilney, with whom she forms a connection. This is much to the despair of John Thorpe, who is also pining for her affections. As with all of Austen’s novels, there is a strong theme of miscommunication, which is only heightened by Catherine’s love of gothic literature. Catherine’s overactive imagination, and fears about what lies behind the door of the room no one is to enter only creates more struggles in her attempts to come of age in this wealthy society. In this way, Northanger Abbey is a parody of the gothic novels of the time.
Austen wrote several shorter novels when she was only a teenager which were compiled to create her juvenilia, works written by a young author. This collection consists of The Beautifull Cassandra [sic], a story about a rebellious young girl who escapes the family home to partake in often illegal mischief, Love & Freindship [sic], which is a parody of romance stories of the time, and The History of England, a cutting depiction of the English monarchy and its rulers. These works should assist in reading Austen’s longer adult novels to grasp a deeper understanding of her interests and opinions on the society in which she lived. Much of the humour and wit that can be seen in novels such as Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility is first seen in Juvenilia. These stories were full of spelling errors as she began writing when she was only 12 years old, but the observations she makes are as sharp and witty as her later novels. There are three volumes of Juvenilia.