Jane Austen and the novel

The development of the genre

Jane Austen came from a family of novel readers, and she was well acquainted with the different forms the novel took as it developed. Her own novels have been variously described as romantic, comic, domestic and realistic. In fact, she uses elements from various novel genres, fusing them together to create her own distinctive form, which played a crucial role in the development of the novel. She is known for highlighting the shortfalls of each genre by satirising it.

The sentimental novel   

‘Sentimentalism' developed as a reaction to rationalism in philosophy and to Calvinism in religion:

  • The Enlightenment encouraged distrust of feelings, whilst Calvinism taught that the human heart was intrinsically evil
  • ‘Sentimentalism' emphasised the central importance of feelings and the essential goodness of the human heart.

The sentimental novel of the late eighteenth century focused on the emotional response of its characters and sought to engender an emotional response from the reader. A sentimental approach can be found in novels like Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson.

Sentimentalism is also highlighted in the debate between reason and sentiment in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, through which she demonstrates her belief that there needs to be a healthy balance between reason and feeling. Sense and Sensibility has been described as an anti-sentimental novel, and was published as the fashion for sentimentalism had begun to wane.

The Gothic novel

Like the sentimental novel, the gothic novel is related to the reaction against emphasis on reason. Gothic novels are distinguished in particular by extreme emotionalism, events set in an atmosphere of suspense and terror, amid romantic surroundings. The gothic novel represents a world that is not totally controlled by, and accessible to, human reason. It is aware of deeper psychological and sexual impulses beyond the realm of reason. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) is usually regarded as the first Gothic novel. Jane Austen enjoyed reading Gothic novels, particularly those of Anne Radcliffe.

Nevertheless, she satirises the sub-genre and highlights its absurdities in Northanger Abbey (1818), in which she includes many familiar Gothic elements while turning others around. She demonstrates the dangers of succumbing to the imagination without the tempering effect of reason.

The epistolary novel

In an epistolary novel, the story is told in the form of letters between characters. The point of view shifts depending on the letter-writer. Jane Austen particularly enjoyed reading the epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson. She was inspired by his explorations of his heroine's emotions and explored that more fully in her own work:

  • Initially, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were written in epistolary form, but she later changed them to their present form with an omniscient narrator
  • Pride and Prejudice contains the most actual letters among Austen's narratives
  • In Persuasion, letter-writing is used at a critical juncture, allowing Captain Wentworth to overhear an important conversation that gives him hope, which leads to him writing a declaration of his love to Anne in a letter.

The domestic novel

The domestic novel was very popular in eighteenth century England and was another sub-genre of the sentimental novel. In it, the action is confined to the home, the characters are women, and relationships are within the context of the family, with a particular emphasis on marriage and courtship.

Jane Austen was familiar with the domestic novel, and women, home and family are important aspects of her novels, but her scope extends further to include people, places and action beyond their confines.

The realistic novel

Realistic fiction grew out of direct opposition to sentimental fiction, as it attempted to present life as it really was, rather than an idealised impression of it. Jane Austen perfected the realistic presentation of ordinary people in her novels. She made a decision to represent ‘three or four families in a country village', because that was what she was familiar with and knew she could write convincingly about:

  • She sets her novels in her own time period
  • Her main characters are from the middle classes like herself and the people she came in contact with on a regular basis
  • She refers to the wider world and its events only from a second-hand perspective, reflecting her own experience.
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