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Jane Austen

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Jane Austen lived from 1775 until 1817, a span of four decades that saw significant changes in English social, political, and economic life. At the time her birth, England was embroiled in a bitter struggle with its American colonies, the loss of which, several years later, proved to be a tremendous blow to English political and military prestige. Under the rule of George III, England's political climate became increasingly unstable with constant struggles between the King and Whig politicians. Ireland received its independence in 1782, although the violence that had long plagued the country continued to rage. Across the Channel, the French Revolution had begun and the English aristocracy watched in horror as royal heads began to roll. Between 1804 and 1814, (the period in which Austen did most of her writing) England was consumed by a fight against the power-hungry Napoleon.

Although Austen was undoubtedly aware of these external events, they remain notably absent from her writing. She made it a point to write about only what she knew from first-hand experience and, having never left the South of England, her experience was rather limited. While some find this cultural myopia disturbing, others feel it to be one of Jane Austen's greatest strengths. By avoiding the pretense of discussing matters that fell outside of the realm of her daily experience, she could focus on what she knew best--the society of 19th-century English country families. Jane Austen's novels are, in this sense, highly autobiographical. Her characters share this insular view of their world, carrying on with dances and amateur theatricals, seemingly oblivious to any outside concerns.

Jane Austen's world began in Steventon, where Jane's father held a post as rector. Born 16th December, 1775, Jane lived in the family's small parish house for the first 25 years of her life. Here, she led a quiet but pleasant existence, spending time at home, or visiting with local families of similar social status. She attended parties and dances at many of the local grand houses, including The Vyne, now owned by the British National Trust, a registered charity founded in 1895 to preserve places of historic interest. She also visited with her siblings in adjoining counties--Kent, in particular, became one of Jane's favourite places. Although she did not write any of the six main novels during these years, much of the juvenilia, including her satirical The History of England was composed during this period.

Bath, where Jane's family moved after her father's retirement in 1801, provided Austen with a different view of 19th-century social customs. Although her family's social standing did not enable her to travel in the most elite circles, she was a frequent visitor to Assembly Room events and made regular trips to the Pump Room, another of the city's centres of social life. Bath serves as the locale for scenes in two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and both draw heavily on her experiences there. Jane apparently used her time in Bath primarily to gather material for future novels, or to infuse into revisions of her previous ones; she did not begin any of her six novels during the five years she lived in Bath.

Although Jane's travel experiences never took her out of the immediate area, she travelled quite a bit within the South of England. During the years they lived in Bath, she and her family often spent intervals of time at the seaside--most often the beaches on the Devon and Dorset coasts. These locales worked their way into her writing, as did most others with whom Jane came into contact. Pride and Prejudice, in particular, contains scenes based directly on her experience in the small fishing village of Lyme Regis, which she uses as the scene of Louisa Musgrove's frightening



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