xxxxxThe English novelist Jane Austen is famous for her six novels, published (save for one) in the last seven years of her life: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. All provided a comedy of manners centred around the genteel life of a middle class community in rural England, and the plots were virtually the same: the entry of a young lady into society, seeking a suitable but happy marriage. But this study of ordinary country folk in their ordinary humdrum lives was made to come alive by Austen’s extraordinary ability to observe and describe in subtle, comic and often sardonic terms the characters that occupied her little world, and made up this privileged section of society. Far removed from the romantic melodrama then in vogue, these works may be seen as the forerunners of the “modern novel”. They were published anonymously, and although appreciated, especially by the Prince Regent and the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, they did not gain wide popularity until the 20th century. Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is her best known work.

JANE AUSTEN 1775 - 1817  (G3a, G3b, G3c)


Austen: 1873, artist unknown, based on a drawing by her sister Cassandra c1810 – University of Texas Libraries, USA. Staël: by the French artist Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842), 1809 – Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva, Switzerland. Coppet: date and artist unknown. Byron: detail, by the English portrait painter Thomas Phillips (1770-1845), 1824 – private collection. Vigée-Lebrun: self portrait, 1782 – National Gallery, London. Récamier: by the French painter François Gérard (1770-1837), 1805 – Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

xxxxxJane Austen was one of England’s greatest fiction writers. Her six major works, produced in the last seven years of her life, played a significant role in the development of the English novel. Far removed from the romantic melodrama then in vogue, their realistic portrayal of ordinary people in ordinary situations made them the forerunners of the “modern novel”. Brilliantly constructed, keenly observed, and written in an elegant, witty and softly sardonic style, they all created, each in their different way, a fascinating comedy of manners, centred around the genteel, country life of middle-class England.

xxxxxShe was born in the small village of Steventon (near Basingstoke, Hampshire), where her father was the rector. The seventh of eight children, she attended school at Reading for a while, together with her elder sister Cassandra, but she received most of her education at home. She paid visits to friends and relatives, as well as the occasional trip to Bath or London, but, for the most part, the first twenty-five years of her life were spent in the depth of the countryside. Here, surrounded by a loving and lively family, and immersed in the dull and, at times, not so dull events of an ordered, refined society, she found not only the setting, but also the subject matter and the character studies for her illuminating novels.

xxxxxWhen her father retired in 1801, the family moved to Bath - much to her regret - and then, following her father’s death in 1805, took up residence in Southampton. Finally, in 1809, they returned to the countryside, living in the village of Chawton, Hampshire, in a house provided by her brother Edward. It was here that she spent the remainder of her life and produced the novels that were to make her famous.

xxxxxAusten began writing as a child, and her Love and Friendship, light and burlesque in style, was published when she was only 15 years old. While at Steventon she worked on three novels, though none was published until the last seven years of her life. All were alike in their comic portrayal of society and its members, and each used satire to make a particular point. Sense and Sensibility (then “Elinor and Marianne”) told the story of the two Dashwood sisters and their love affairs, and provided the means of poking fun at the current tendency to give vent to excessive emotion. Northanger Abbey (then “Susan”) was a skit on the current Gothic novel, with its emphasis on the sensational and macabre. Pride and Prejudice (then “First Impressions” and eventually published in 1813) centred around the attempts to find suitable husbands for the five Bennet sisters. This last work, perhaps the most popular of her novels, has as its heroine the attractive Elizabeth, a witty, strong-willed young woman who, in a male-dominated world, more than holds her own against the arrogant but troubled Mr Darcy.

xxxxxIt was after moving to Chawton in 1809 that she wrote here three later novels. Having published Sense and Sensibility at her own expense in 1811, she then produced in quick succession Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), and Persuasion (published after her death). These, like her earlier works, were centred around the love affairs of their heroines, but their themes had a greater social awareness, highlighting the repressed and restricted nature of woman’s place in society. And developed in these works, too, was a deeper, almost psychological study of character. Mansfield Park, touching on religious duty, is her most serious work, whilst Emma is the lightest of the three.

xxxxxThe compass of her work was slight indeed, as were the plots themselves. Her novels were confined almost entirely to the amorous pursuits of young ladies, and the snobbery and social prejudices born of class distinction within a confined and privileged rural community. The Napoleonic Wars, then engulfing the continent, and the social unrest at home - culminating in the so-called Peterloo Massacre of 1819 - were not allowed to impinge on her little, middle-class world. But her novels are none the worse for that. Her strength lies not in her choice of subject matter or plot, but in her extraordinary ability to observe and describe, often in subtle, comic terms, the characters that occupied her little world, revealing thereby the very nature of the society to which they belonged. The result is an astute observation of human behaviour, not in exceptional circumstances - where the appraisal can be distorted - but in the humdrum, ordinary events of every day life in a closed and highly structured society. And she exposed the hypocrisy, jealousies, and machinations of this outwardly well-mannered and conventional world by means of a lucid, satirical style which was as precise and polished as the dialogue she so accurately recorded. The theme adopted was but a variation of the standard - a young lady’s entry into society, ending in married bliss - but the treatment of that theme marked her out as one of the greatest of all novelists.

xxxxxJane Austen’s novels were published anonymously, and though they were quite widely read, they did not prove particularly popular in her day, admired in the main by a small group which included the Prince Regent, the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, and the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. It was not until the 20th century, in fact, that their worth came to be fully appreciated, both for their penetrating appraisal of a selected segment of English society, and for their brilliant creation of a host of realistic, often amusing, character studies. Early in 1817 she fell seriously ill - probably suffering from Addison’s disease (a glandular disorder) - and in May of that year she was taken to Winchester for treatment. She died there in the July, and was buried in the city’s cathedral.

xxxxxIncidentally, the novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion contain amusing, tongue-in-cheek descriptions of social life in the fashionable spa-resort of Bath at the turn of the century. And we have to thank this city for bath buns and bath chairs.


Madame de Staël and

Madame de Récamier

xxxxxAnother outstanding woman writer at this time was the French novelist and literary critic Madame de Staël (1766-1817). She, however, was a woman of the world. Apart from her significant contribution as a theorist of Romanticism, Staël took an active part in politics and, as a consequence, ran foul of Napoleon on a number of occasions. Regarded as a danger to the state, she was eventually banned from Paris, but continued her subversive propaganda from a lively literary and political salon she had set up at Coppet on Lake Geneva, Switzerland. From here intellectuals from all over Europe put forward their progressive ideas, and sought the overthrow of Napoleon’s autocratic empire.

xxxxxAnne Louise Germaine Necker was born in Paris of Swiss parents. Her father, Jacques Necker, was the finance minister to the ill-fated King Louis XVI. At the age of 20 she was married to the Swedish ambassador to France, Eric Magnus, baron de Staël-Holstein (hence her name), but the marriage was one of convenience and ended in separation. In 1793, to escape the French Revolution, - which she had initially supported but was fast becoming a threat to her safety - she fled to Switzerland. It was at this stage that she established her international salon at Coppet and, as mistress of Louis de Narbonne, one of Louis XVI’s ministers, paid her first visit to England. There she met the diarist Fanny Burney.

xxxxxShe returned to France in 1794, at the conclusion of the Reign of Terror, and gained her reputation as a writer in 1800 with the publication of The Influence of Literature upon Society, a work which championed the cause of women writers and comprehensively set out the theories of European Romanticism. Like the German writer Johann Gottfried Herder, she argued that morally and historically a work must be seen as the product of the nation in which it was conceived. By this time, however, her political essays, her open support for the English system of constitutional monarchy, and the liberal and radical ideas of her band of fellow intellectuals, had turned her into a dangerous political embarrassment. She became regarded as Napoleon’s most effective opponent in France, and the First Consul did not disagree. In 1803 he banned her from Paris, and it was from then that she began writing her “Ten Years’ Exile”, using her salon at Coppet as the intellectual centre from which to launch her attacks upon Napoleon’s arbitrary rule.

xxxxxIt was in the early years of this period of exile that she travelled through Germany and accumulated the material for her most important literary work. Entitled On Germany and published in 1810, this was a critical study of German culture, noted particularly for its appraisal of the romantic movement known as Sturm und Drang. Such was her esteem for all things German, that Napoleon regarded the work as a sleight against the French and banned its publication in France, destroying some 10,000 copies! In the meantime, she also published her two semi-autobiographical novels, Delphine in1802 and Corinne five years later. These focused on two intelligent, talented women (like herself) who were obliged to struggle against the practices and prejudices of an outmoded society. Corinne in particular, who pursued a successful literary and artistic career and was based on her close friend Madame de Récamier, provided a role model for aspiring women for many years to come.

xxxxxShe returned to Paris following the restoration of the monarchy, but found the city occupied by foreign troops and saw little or no prospect of a liberal form of government emerging. She travelled in Italy for a short while and then returned to Coppet in the summer of 1816. Here she was joined by Lord Byron - having left England in disgrace - and the two struck up a close friendship. By now, however, she was failing in health. She went to Paris for the winter, and it was there that she died in July the following year.

xxxxxA woman of immense intellect and wide ranging interest, she wrote plays, novels, political tracts and numerous critiques. Her writings included Letters on the Works and the Character of J.-J. Rousseau (1788), A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations (1796), and Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (1818). In these and other works she played a significant role in the development of romanticism and the art of modern literary criticism. Well travelled and educated, talented and articulate, politically aware, and with an independence born of wealth, she is seen by many as the first example of a “modern woman”.

xxxxxIncidentally, Staël had numerous love affairs, including a long, passionate relationship with the Swiss novelist and political writer Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). It is said that she had admired Napoleon early on in his career, and had written to him when he was in Italy offering - in as many words - to be his mistress. By all accounts Napoleon turned her down. Madame de Staël was a genuine liberal radical, but, being a woman scorned, this may well account for a little of the fervour with which she denounced him later on in his career! ……

xxxxx…… Thexportrait (above) of Madame de Staël is by the fashionable French artist Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842). She produced over 600 portraits and some 200 landscapes. Among those who sat for her were Marie Antoinette (at least 25 times!), Lady Hamilton, Lord Byron and the Prince of Wales. She was forced into exile during the French Revolution and spent twelve profitable years picking up lucrative commissions as she travelled around Europe. Her portraits proved popular, because they combined the simplicity and dignity of neoclassicism with the grace and charm of the rococo style. A student at one time of Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Claude Joseph Vernet, she was one of the first woman to achieve any real standing as an artist. Most of her paintings are in the Louvre, Paris. Illustrated here is a self-portrait.

xxxxxAnother successful hostess in France at this time was Madame de Récamier (1777-1849). Her salon attracted many of society’s leading figures, a number of whom were opposed to Napoleon’s dictatorship. In 1805 she too was banned from Paris and, for a time, stayed with her good friend Madame de Staël in Geneva before going to live in Italy. After the fall of Napoleon, she reopened her salon in Paris, where the French romantic novelist François Auguste René Chateaubriand became her greatest admirer and closest companion. Renowned for her beauty, today she is mostly remembered for the portrait taken of her seated on a chaise longue in 1800, the work of the French artist Jacques-Louis David. The portrait here is by his assistant François Gérard (1805), famous above all for his historical paintings, such as the Battle of Austerlitz.

xxxxxAnother woman writer at this time was the French novelist and literary critic Madame de Staël (1766-1817). Both were brilliant writers but there the comparison ends. Staël, wealthy daughter of Jacques Necker, financial minister to Louis XVI, took an active interest in politics and, from her literary and political salon in Switzerland, carried out a war of words against Napoleon’s autocratic rule. Banned from Paris in 1803, she spent ten years in exile. She met Fanny Burney during her travels, and Lord Byron visited her at her salon in 1816. Two of her books in particular, The Influence of Literature upon Society of 1800, and her On Germany, published in 1810, had a marked influence on the development of European Romanticism. Her two sentimental novels, Delphine and Corinne, focused on two talented women who had to struggle against the prejudices of an outmoded society. Stael herself, independent, articulate and a talented intellectual, is seen by many as the first “modern woman”.