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Jane Austen was born in the winter of 1775 in the Hampshire County of southern England. The second-youngest of seven children born to George Austen, rector of Steventon, and his wife, Cassandra Leigh, Jane composed short stories, novellas, and amateur theatricals with her siblings. Jane Austen was extremely close to her sister Cassandra, two years her elder. The sisters maintained a lively correspondence, although only a fraction of their letters remains. Austen's letters, like her novels, describe the intricate details of social interaction within early-nineteenth century British middle-class life.
As a child, Jane Austen read extensively from the library at Steventon, including the works of Johnson and Richardson. Although the influence of eighteenth-century prose is evident in her style, Austen's novels contain many of the hallmarks for which nineteenth-century realism would later be known, such as attention to the domestic spaces of everyday life and free indirect discourse.
Austen's first published novel was Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. Her novels garnered high praise from her contemporary, Sir Walter Scott. Later in the century Victorian critic G.H. Lewes deemed the author unsurpassed in "economy of art," and Virginia Woolf would praise Austen in The Common Reader as "the most perfect of artists among women." Austen's works include Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. Her final project, Sanditon, was in progress when she died in 1817.
Written by Deborah Aschkenes, Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
Kastan, David Scott, Ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Southam, B. C. Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1968