In this book a distinguished historian explores the novels of Jane Austen, showing how they illuminate English history in the quarter century before 1792 and 1817 and how, in turn, an appreciation of this period in history enriches our reading of the novels. Oliver MacDonagh paints a picture of Jane Austen’s life and personality and of the social and political worlds she inhabited during and immediately after the Napoleonic Wars. Analyzing her letters as well as her novels, he shows how Austen’s experiences and her reactions to events were woven into her fiction.
Each chapter combines an examination of Jane Austen’s ideas and conduct in a particular field with a consideration of her treatment of the same subject in one or more of her works. MacDonagh compares the place of the Anglican Church in her life to the role of the Church of England in Mansfield Park, juxtaposes her own family relations to those of the Elliots, Musgroves, and Crofts in Persuasion, and shows how her economic vicissitudes are reflected in the use of money as the moving force in Sense and Sensibility. In the same way, other chapters tackle the themes of girlhood and education, marriage and the contemporary female economy, and local society. In every case Austen’s real and imagined worlds richly illuminate on another, providing new insights for all readers of her work.