Jane Austen was a spinster about whose life we have little information. Her popularity as an author has survived 200 years. What was special about her and her novels?
Watch some or all of the following trailers from films based on Jane Austen's novels and find out:
- to which level of society the characters belong
- what seems to be the main setting
- if the main character is male or female
- what seems to be the main theme
- what the plot might be
Jane Austen was born on 16th December 1775 – the year after the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, over ten years before the French Revolution, and in the early years of industrialization. Her world was still that of the traditional English village with its landed gentry and its agricultural labourers. However, great social, economic and political changes were underway which would change the face of England and the world. Britain as a great trading nation was spreading its influence to the far corners of the globe.
Jane Austen was the seventh of the eight children of the Reverent George Austen and Cassandra Leigh Austen. Mr Austen was a clergyman from a middle class background, while Mrs Austen’s family was landed gentry. The family lived at the time of Jane’s birth in the rectory in the village of Steventon in Hampshire. During her lifetime, Jane also lived in Bath (1801 – 1807), Southampton (1807 – 1809) and finally Chawton village, Hampshire, from 1809 until her death in 1817; it was the countryside which she preferred and which inspired her writing. In a letter to her niece, Anna, who had asked her advice on a story she was writing, Jane comments:
"You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; --- 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on -----" (Letter to Anna Austen, September 1814).
She drew on her knowledge of society in the places she lived for the settings of her novels. Do you think her books reflect and comment on this society or are they purely romantic novels?
Jane had six brothers, James (clergyman), George (mentally handicapped), Edward (inherited an estate from a distant cousin and became landed gentry), Henry (banker and clergyman), Francis (navy - became Admiral of the Fleet), Charles (navy - became Rear-Admiral) and one sister, Cassandra, her closest friend. Jane Austen started to write when she was quite young, in her early teens, but her well-known novels were all completed and published between 1810 and 1817. These were Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.
Women at this time had little choice in life. They would hopefully make a good marriage, but if not they were dependent on financial support from their family or perhaps they could work as a governess or companion. For Jane Austen and the protagonists in her novels, it was desirable to climb the social ladder and certainly not to marry below their social and economic class. Do you see any parallels to this in our society today?
Jane met and enjoyed the company of Tom Lefroy, later Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, when she was about 20, but neither had any money, so a match between them was out of the question. Later, she first accepted, but then changed her mind and refused an offer of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither whom she had known for many years. According to her sister, she had another admirer later in life, but she never married. She and her sister lived with their parents and after their father died, they were dependent on their brothers, especially Edward, for support.
What we know of Jane Austen comes from her letters. She was an avid letter writer both to her sister when they were apart and to her nieces, Fanny, her brother Edward’s daughter, and Anna, James' daughter. Many of her letters were destroyed by the family after her death, but since then several letters to friends and others have been found. Her letters with acute observations of people she met, descriptions of minor everyday events and other references to society in general, give an insight into the daily life of the Austen family, to England in the early 19th century and to Jane herself.
Based on the information above, do you see any autobiographical elements in the film trailers?
Romantic or Realist
Make a table with two columns. Note down the Romantic and Realist elements you find in the film trailers. (Refer to The Romantic Period - An Introduction for what was meant by romantic.)