Ms. Jane AustenBy: Megan Hoinville

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Until recently, the leftmost picture was the only known portrait of Jane Austen. This portrait shows a frivolous and very "Victorian" looking woman looking off into the distance. This portrait has created some consternation for Jane Austen scholars, because they feel that the portrait does not correctly portray Jane Austen's true nature. From personal letters, it can be deduced that Austen was a very serious writer, and desperately wanted to be respected for her writing. The second portrait was recently discovered in a private collection. This portrait of Austen is "the image of Jane Austen so many [people] have been waiting for" (Johnson). It shows a serious, professional writer, who is absorbed by her work.

Novels by Jane Austen:
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Note: The Watsons and Sanditon were unfinished at the time of Jane Austen's death. Lady Susan was written early during Austen's writing career, but was not published until almost sixty years after her death.

Short Biography on Jane Austen: Jane Austen is a literary genius whose work has survived the test of time: "Austen is the only novelist before Charles Dickens who still has a significant popular readership, and her fictional world... has entered into popular literary culture" (Kelley). Austen was born into a somewhat modest household; she was one of eight children, daughter to Reverend Mr. George Austen (at the time, pastors made a respectable living, but were by no means very rich). Her mother was from a higher social class, so Jane was introduced to some families of consequence during her childhood. Despite the fact that all of her novels centered around finding romance, Jane Austen never married; she turned down a marriage proposal from a family friend early in her life (Kelley). As a child, reading was highly encouraged in the Austen household, and Rev. Austen had an extensive library. In her teens, Jane would often write stories to amuse her family, and by the age of twenty-three had completed early versions of three of her novels. After her father's death, Jane's brothers came together to provide for her mother, her sister Cassandra, and her. Originally, the early edition of Pride and Prejudice was turned down by publishers. However, Rev. Austen had encouraged Jane's writing, so after his death, Jane tried to publish her novels again (Klackle). In 1810, Sense and Sensibility was published. It was met with much success, as were her other novels. During her lifetime, Austen was able to earn a respectable income from her writing. She lived to see Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma published. There is much controversy as to the true cause of Jane Austen's death. Speculative diagnoses include Addison's Disease, Hodgkin's Lymphoma, bovine tuberculosis, and Brill-Zinsser Disease. In 1816 Austen developed symptoms of what is thought to be Addison's Disease (the commonly accepted diagnosis), and she died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41. After her death, one of her brothers arranged for Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Aunt Susan to be published (Klackle). Jane Austen is buried in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral.

Note on Mansfield Park: Mansfield Park (1814) was the first novel that Jane Austen wrote after she had attained literary success. Up to this point her published novels were revisions of previous work (Mansfield Park).

Reviews of Mansfield Park:
Mansfield Park is often hailed as "among [Jane Austen's] most mature and sophisticated pieces" (Mansfield Park). However, it is also the subject of much debate and controversy. The main character, Fanny Price, lives with her wealthy aunt and uncle, Sir and Lady Bertram. The Bertram family's riches come from the slave trade. Because of this large connection to slavery, many critics condemn Austen for "encouraging" the idealization of the slave trade by connecting it only with the wealth and success of the Bertram's estate, Mansfield Park. Throughout the novel, Austen sentences characters of inferior morality to lives of despair and shame, but does not subject Sir and Lady Bertram to a dilapidated fate. Many contemporary critics see this as a fatal flaw in the novel, and are unable to look beyond it. They see it as "'implicat[ing] the rationale for western imperialism' by promoting in Mansfield Park a Christian 'patronage' that depended upon and domesticated the wealth produced by Sir Thomas [Bertram's] slave plantations in Antigua" (Mellor).
While some critics are adamant about Austen's rationalization for imperialism, others disagree; stating that the Bertram's slave holdings in Antigua are meant to emphasize Fanny, the main character's, living conditions and familial status, since the slave plantations are never a pivotal point of the story (they are never described in detail). "The existence of these unnamed slaves working on the Bertram plantation in Antigua alerts the reader to the other forms of slavery and submission represented in Austen's text. Fanny endures brutal treatment at the hands of those upon whom she depends, and the language that describes her submission is the language of slavery. Just as the slavery of Sir Thomas's plantation goes unacknowledged, so does the slavery of Sir Thomas's English household" (Mellor). With Jane Austen's writing style and subject in mind, this is hardly surprising. Many of Austen's novels poke fun and satirize English ideals and societal practices. Mansfield Park, as a novel about morality, is no exception. By directly comparing Fanny's life to the lives of Sir Thomas's slaves, Austen is giving society a very pointed, yet polite, reminder of what oppression does to those it touches. Because of this, Mansfield Park is praised as a "gently satirical depiction of polite society expos[ing] the ills of class prejudice" (Jane Austen Mansfield Park).
Mansfield Park is a very interesting and thoughtful novel. At a time of the rise of the second British Empire, Austen's work was very tactfully reminding her compatriots of the evils of the practice. She did this by creating a character, Fanny Price, who was beyond moral reproach. This moral and good character, by no fault of her own, was placed into a family who repressed her and treated her in a way analogous with that of the Bertram family's slaves in Antigua. Fanny Price was a nineteenth century Cinderella - made to run physically taxing errands for her Aunts, live secluded in the least desirous part of the house, and constantly reminded of her inferiority and dependence. This societal position, and the ideals and actions of the other characters, create the perfect backdrop for Jane Austen's lesson: that those who are moral and good will eventually be rewarded, while those who are morally deficient (say adulteresses or prodigal sons) will be sentenced to lives of despair and shame. Austen artfully weaves her lessons into the tapestry of her novel, and, in the process, creates a work of literature that can span the chasm of time, and still be pertinent to the lives of twenty-first century individuals.

Personal Reaction to Mansfield Park: Even though the chains of slavery were discarded many years ago, and the propriety and societal stigmas of nineteenth century England are long dissolved, I was still able to connect to the characters in the book, and appreciate their complicated psyche. Throughout the novel, I was forced to think about the decisions, both good and bad, that the characters made, and ponder their significance. Mansfield Park, simply put, is a novel about morality. Each character, besides Fanny, has a fatal flaw that makes them, ironically, morally below Fanny. I found this fascinating, because it made me think about what my fatal flaw would be, and how it has hurt the people around me. This pondering added a deeper level of meaning to the novel, and has greatly increased my enjoyment of the book, since I was able to emotionally connect to it. I think that this novel, as all Jane Austen's work is, is skillfully crafted and intriguing. She leaves the reader without any doubt as to the message of her work, but does it gently and thoughtfully. Furthermore, in true Austen style, there is the underlying love story - culminating with a very advantageous and happy marriage: the ultimate prize and reward for a woman of that time period.

Work Cited

"Jane Austen Mansfield Park." Library Journal July 2003: SS26. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

Johnson, Dennis. "Is This What Jane Austen Really Looked Like?" Melville House Books. N.p., 6 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.

Kelly, Gary. "Jane Austen." British Romantic Novelists, 1789-1832. Ed. Bradford Keyes Mudge. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 116. Literature Resource Center. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

Klackle, Natalie. "Jane Austen." Orientalist Writers. Ed. Coeli Fitzpatrick and Dwayne A. Tunstall. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 366. Literature Resource Center. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

"Mansfield Park." Novels for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 29. Detroit: Gale, 2009. 240-262. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.

Mellor, Anne K., and Alex L. Milsom. "Austen's Fanny Price, Grateful Negroes, and the Stockholm Syndrome." Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 34 (2012): 222+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.