In late eighteenth-century England, the novel was considered a lowbrow form of entertainment with not much more literary value than the bodice-ripping harlequin romances now sold in our supermarket checkout lines. "Where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind,"11 thundered the poet Samuel Coleridge, a bit drama queenishly. Part of the reason that novels were looked down on by serious critics (who were almost always male) was that they were usually written and read exclusively by women. Also, most of them sucked. The Regency novel was riddled with clichés—swooning women were rescued by brooding men; the pauper always turned out to be the son of the duke; one could not swing a dead cat without hitting a dark, foreboding manor or forest.
The Austen family, however, had always been "great Novel-readers," Austen wrote, "& not ashamed of being so."12 Thus it wasn't much of a surprise that she wanted to write one herself. She had no intention, however, of writing the type of pseudo-historical romance usually associated with the genre. She wanted to write something that reflected real life, and that exhibited her humor. "I could no more write a [historical] romance than an epic poem," she wrote to the librarian J.S. Clarke in 1816. "I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter."13
Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. The book was about the Dashwood sisters, the practical Elinor and the sensitive Marianne. Like the Austen women, the Dashwood sisters and their mother are left dependent and financially insecure after their father's death. The nuanced portrait Austen painted of her female protagonists defied the conventional stereotypes served up by her contemporaries. Both sisters eventually marry— Austen novels tend to happy endings—but both end up with unlikely matches, with love and affection triumphing over superficial concerns. Like all of the novels that appeared during Austen's lifetime, it was published anonymously.
Two years later, she published Pride and Prejudice. More than any of Austen's other novels, this one illustrated the pressures exerted upon women by society's shifting and all-consuming concepts of marriage. This struggle is embodied in the protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, who—like the author—has to make the difficult decision to turn down a marriage proposal from a man she doesn't care for, before ending up with Mr. Darcy.
Readers were stunned to find themselves enmeshed in a story that they recognized from real life. "I have finished the Novel called Pride and Prejudice, which I think a very superior work," a woman named Annabella Milbanke wrote. "It depends not on any of the common resources of novel writers, no drownings, no conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lap-dogs and parrots, nor chambermaids and milliners, nor rencontres [duels] and disguises. I really think it is the most probable I have ever read."14
Mansfield Park followed in 1814. Its protagonist, Fanny Price, is so controversial that Austen fan sites post warnings to those bold enough to enter Fanny-related message boards. Taken from her impoverished parents and raised among wealthy relatives, Fanny is strikingly different from Austen's other heroines. She is shy, weakly and virtuous (sometimes to an annoying degree). Yet despite Fanny's frailty, the novel was a complex look at class and power, and echoed the realism that readers had so loved about Pride and Prejudice.
The heroine of 1815's Emma, however, brought Austen back to form. Emma Woodhouse was independent, intelligent, and sassy, but she was also as flawed as the next person, with a lack of self-awareness on par with a reality TV star. Austen exploits this for comedy, of course, but she also made sure that Emma matured in the course of the book, and settled into a relationship based on respect instead of social advantage.
Women's lives were definitely the most important in Austen's books—she rarely bothered to note what the male characters were doing when the women weren't around. Rarely were her heroines sweet, saintly figures. They got knocked down a peg or two when they indulged in pettiness (witness the verbal smackdown Emma Woodhouse gets for her bratty behavior toward the well-meaning Miss Bates in Emma). Austen didn't condemn characters who chose to marry for material reasons—she was far too practical for that—but she did make fun of shallow women who thought of nothing else. Women triumphed in Austen's books when they realized that character mattered more than materialism, and when they admitted—as with the proud Elizabeth Bennet or the practical Elinor Dashwood—that it was okay to fall in love.