Jane Austen’s major novels are listed here in the order that Jane began writing them.
Northanger Abbey (published 1818)
Northanger Abbey tells the story of the young Catherine Morland, who is invited to accompany Mr and Mrs Allen on their trip to the fashionable Georgian resort of Bath Spa. Just seventeen years old, Catherine’s knowledge of the world is founded largely on her extensive reading of eighteenth century novels. Like many girls of the time, she is particularly fond of gothic horror stories with their tales of unprotected maidens pursued across remote parts of the continent by dangerous men who lock them up in secluded monasteries and castles, and then threaten them with murder – or worse.
Bath, with its constant whirl of social events, seems a little less dangerous. Nonetheless, the impressionable Catherine has her own worries to contend with as she tries to build new friendships, some more desirable than others. She begins by making the acquaintance of Eleanor Tilney and her brother Henry. Eleanor is a modest, intelligent and unassuming young woman, but it is her brother that is the real attraction, handsome, intelligent and considerate, and unsurprisingly Catherine begins to fall in love.
A mild threat to Catherine’s peace of mind is presented in the form of the rather exuberant John Thorpe and his flighty sister Isabella. Isabella befriends Catherine, who rather naively fails for a while to realise that Isabella’s interest is in Catherine’s brother – at least until she meets the rather dashing Captain Tilney, Henry and Eleanor’s older brother.
The difficulty Catherine has in managing the attentions of Isabella and John Thorpe leads her to some embarrassment when she is made to look as though she is snubbing the Tilneys. After some confusion, however, she is delighted when Eleanor invites her to visit them at their home, the romantically named Northanger Abbey.
To Catherine the house sounds like something out of a gothic novel. Encouraged by her excitement at the trip, her over-active imagination carries her away and she begins to believe she has uncovered a dark, family secret surrounding the figure of the formidable General Tilney, Eleanor and Henry’s father. General Tilney is operating under his own illusions, having been led to believe that Catherine is the daughter of rich parents and as such a desirable match for his son.
As Catherine announces her beliefs about of the General’s evil past, and the General in turn uncovers the disappointingly humble nature of Catherine’s parentage, she finds herself in further confusion and trouble, before things finally come to a happy end.
Sense and Sensibility (published 1811)
Sense and Sensibility tells the story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, two sisters whose lives are turned upside down by the death of their father. In spite of their father’s wishes, the girls are forced to leave the family home, which passed to their rather ungenerous and weak stepbrother, John Dashwood, and his selfish wife, Fanny (nee Ferrars), who is often simply referred to as Mrs John Dashwood in the novel. And so, the sisters, together with their mother, attempt to carve out a new life for themselves, retreating to a cottage in Devon.
For nineteen-year-old Elinor, the move means saying goodbye to Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s older brother, with whom Elinor has formed a strong friendship. Edward is decidedly more pleasant and intelligent than his sister, and unsurprisingly, Elinor feels herself falling in love. Edward, however, remains somewhat detached and wary. Elinor, although she is confused by his behaviour, meets the disappointment with self-control and resilience.
In Devon, the sisters begin to settle down and to make new acquaintance. Seventeen-year-old Marianne finds herself drawn to dashing, young John Willoughby and an obviously mutual attraction begins to form between the pair. Their growing affection is watched with disappointment by the intelligent, but reserved, Colonel Brandon, whose affections are also caught by Marianne’s charms. Marianne, however, makes little effort to hide the fact that she has fallen desperately in love with Willoughby. Willoughby’s behaviour, too, makes his feelings clear, and it seems reasonable to expect his proposal at any moment. However, no proposal comes, and instead, to the family’s great surprise and Marianne’s grave disappointment, Willoughby suddenly leaves for London.
Elinor and Marianne are, in time, given the opportunity to visit London themselves at the invitation of Mrs Jennings, an elderly, somewhat tactless, friend of the family who hopes to help find the girls husbands. Thrown into the path of Willoughby, Marianne is utterly devastated by his apparent indifference and by the eventual discovery of his plans to marry an heiress. Elinor has to find the strength to support her sister while meanwhile dealing with her own disappointment, when she discovers that Edward Ferrars has been engaged for four years to Lucy Steele, a scheming, selfish young woman. Little does she know that Edward bitterly regrets the engagement, but feels tied to honour it.
As the novel draws to a conclusion, for the patient, self-contained Elinor, happiness will come with the release of Edward from an engagement he has long regretted, and for the passionate Marianne, in re-evaluating her notions of love, and realising the value of a long-standing, unassuming admirer.
Pride and Prejudice (published 1813)
The best known of Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice tells the story of the five Bennet sisters as they set out in search of husbands. Much excitement is caused in the quiet country neighbourhood of Meryton where they live, by the arrival of the handsome and rich Mr Bingley, together with his friend, the handsome and even richer – but rather more aloof and less pleasant – Mr Darcy.
The eldest sister, Jane Bennett, both beautiful and sweet tempered, immediately captures the interest of the equally good natured Mr Bingley, while, the second eldest, Elizabeth, with her sparkling intelligence and beguiling sense of humour, is surprised to find herself the focus of Mr Darcy’s attention.
Further entertainment is caused by the arrival of the militia in town and while the younger sisters go silly over a smart red uniform, even Elizabeth’s fancy is caught by the dashing Mr Wickham. Her mother, however, has other plans for her, and much to Elizabeth’s irritation, positively encourages the advances of the rather less dashing and thoroughly annoying Mr Collins, a distant relative who will one day inherit the Bennet family home.
And so, the girls are to discover that young love faces many threats. There is the hindrance of their lack of any fortune, of an embarrassing mother and of the interference of overbearing friends – not to mention several unruly younger sisters. Lydia’s reckless behaviour in particular is in danger of ruining the happiness of all the sisters and the changing shape of their own desires. But Elizabeth is also nearly the victim of the changing shape of her own desires.
As the girls muddle their way to happiness, the novel never ceases to delight. It is rich with comic detail, revelling in the follies of human behaviour, from Mrs Bennet’s nervous attacks to Mr Collin’s obsequious pompousness. Elizabeth Bennet herself also captivates the reader, as she speaks the unspeakable and stands up to self-important Mr Darcy, and even his formidable aunt, the indomitable Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Mansfield Park (published 1814)
Fanny Price is a rather unusual heroine. She is timid and serious, and determined to do the right thing, while all around her throw caution to the wind in search of a little fun and excitement.
The daughter of a seaman, she begins her life in relative poverty surrounded by the harsh world of Portsmouth naval city. Her life is thrown upside down when she is adopted by her wealthy aunt and uncle, and taken to live with her cousins, in the idyllic surroundings of Mansfield Park. Never quite her cousins’ equal, she is treated with kindness by the gentle and considerate Edmund, but with disdain by the elder brother Tom, and his sisters Maria and Julia. While Fanny learns patience and restraint, the faults of Maria, Julia and Tom are indulged and inadvertently encouraged, especially by the indulgence of their aunt, Mrs Norris.
As the children grow into adults, inevitably, and in spite of herself, Fanny begins to fall in love with Edmund. Edmund’s own attention is drawn to the beautiful Mary Crawford whose captivating wit distracts him from her somewhat dubious values. Meanwhile Fanny finds herself fending off the unwanted attentions of Mary’s brother Henry, equally handsome and intelligent, but of very unsteady character.
While Sir Thomas is away on business in the West Indies, the young people decide to put on a play and selecting a somewhat scandalous script, rehearsals become a cover for general flirtation and dalliance. Despite the fact that she is already engaged to the wealthy Mr Rushworth, Maria fights Julia for the attention of Henry Crawford, while Mary Crawford seeks to win Edmund for herself and secure Fanny for her brother.
Much to Fanny’s consternation, everyone else seems blind to the trouble that is brewing, and when Henry finally proposes and Fanny refuses him, she finds herself the object of her uncle’s disapproval and is sent back to Portsmouth in the hope that it helps her see sense. Meanwhile, Maria makes a hasty marriage for money and the embittered Julia heads off to keep her company in married luxury and misery in London.
As the rest of the novel unfolds, and Fanny is finally vindicated, Jane Austen draws a fascinating portrait of the harsh life of an impoverished family in the centre of a busy naval city, and raises an interesting debate about the influence of upbringing on our long-term happiness.
Emma (published 1816)
Jane Austen was concerned that she had created a heroine in Emma that no one would like but herself. Emma is an attractive, intelligent young woman living in comfort in a quiet country community. Her mother having died when she was very young, her governess, Anne, has been the guiding light of her childhood and the companion of her early adulthood.
The novel begins as Anne leaves to get married, and Emma, although an attentive daughter to her invalid father, is now left somewhat to her own devices. With little to keep her occupied she befriends seventeen-year-old Harriet Smith and sets herself up as her mentor and chief matchmaker.
Emma is perhaps admirable in believing that Harriet’s dubious birth, poor education and total lack of any fortune should not stand in the way of her making a great marriage. However, she fails to see that not everyone else is so forward thinking and that she is in grave danger of ruining her friend’s chances of marrying at all. She begins by persuading the impressionable young Harriet to reject the attentions of Robert Martin, a good man with a secure future as a farmer, who is genuinely attached to Harriet.
Emma’s machinations are looked on with disapproval by her brother-in-law and long-standing friend Mr Knightley, who is the only person to challenge Emma’s own sense of self-satisfaction. Nonetheless, Emma persists in her schemes, somehow overlooking the fact that Mr Knightley himself is perhaps the most eligible batchelor in the village.
Instead Emma encourages Harriet to set her sights on Mr Elton the new vicar but she is horrified when she realizes that it is herself who Mr Elton is after. Things go from bad to worse as the arrival of another eligible young man leads to further mortification, when it turns out that he is secretly engaged to a young woman in the village.
As Harriet finally takes matters into her own hands, announcing that she is in fact in love with Mr Knightley and has some hope of capturing his affections, Emma has the consternation of realizing she is herself in love with Mr Knightley and that protégé is now her chief rival.
Persuasion (published 1818)
Persuasion begins as financial concerns force the Elliott family to leave Kellynch Hall, their family home of centuries. Sir Walter Elliott, a man of shallow concerns, consoles himself that the new tenant of Kellynch, Admiral Croft, is at least a successful man of the navy, and sets off to cheer himself up with a season amongst the rich and idle in fashionable Bath Spa, accompanied by his equally shallow and fashion-conscious daughter Elizabeth.
Anne Elliott on the other hand, would prefer to remain close to the family home and the places of her childhood, and begins by setting off to visit the third Elliott sister, Mary who lives in the neighbouring village. Mary has married into the Musgrove family, a large and joyous family though, like most families with their own tensions and irritations, portrayed with delicious understated irony.
Anne finds herself ear to everyone’s complaints, not the least of which are Mary who is full of happily married dissatisfaction. The ever-patient Anne remains good tempered, patient and tolerant, but there is a sadness to her situation – at twenty-seven years she is almost a confirmed spinster and an isolated figure. In contrast, the two older Musgrove girls, Louisa and Henrietta, are both full of the energy and the hopefulness of youth.
Everyone is very excited when their small social circle is enlivened, first by the arrival of the Admiral and Mrs Croft at Kellynch Hall, and then by the arrival of Captain Frederick Wentworth. For Anne, however, this causes some turmoil, for Captain Wentworth, we learn, is the sweetheart of her girlhood, the man her family would not let her marry for his uncertain circumstances as a young naval man. Now she has to witness his return as an officer and a hero, secure in both his social status and his financial income. Worse still, she is forced to witness the flirtations of the Musgrove girls and Wentworth’s own enjoyment of this.
Events are thrown further into the air by a visit to the seaside resort of Lyme Regis. Here Anne is thrown into the company of a distant relative, the dashing young Mr Elliott and finally someone takes notice of the attractive glow in her cheek and the warmth of her spirit. But here too, disaster occurs, as caught up in the excitement of her flirtation, Louisa Musgrove throws caution to the wind and attempting to jump into the arms of Captain Wentworth, falls and whose dalliance has somewhat thrown caution to the wind realizes he is a man in a compromised position who may find himself obliged to marry where he is not sure his heart is really set.