Jane Austen ranks high among the most loved of all English writers. In contrast to many other celebrated authors her reputation rests upon a relatively small output, of around half a dozen major novels and a few other fragments, but her lasting influence upon the subsequent development of the English novel is undisputable nonetheless. Austen’s own life was one of upper middle-class rural gentility and this is the orderly, prosperous and close-knit world that is depicted in her writing, which deals almost exclusively with the personal relationships and social entanglements of characters sharing a similarly refined country background. It was a small canvas upon which she chose to work but it allowed her to focus upon her characters in minute detail and to bring them fully and delightfully to life. Although her talent as a novelist was not widely remarked upon during her own lifetime, with one or two notable exceptions, Austen has since been justly praised both for her delicate rendering of character and for her close observation of the social milieu she took as the subject of her greatest works. Over the years, many critics have waxed lyrical about the ‘Austen touch’, an elusive descriptive term that attempts to draw together the different strands of Jane Austen’s style. Prominent features of her writing include great elegance, balance and sensitivity, as well as subtlety of tone and effect and a gentle, ironic wit, which prevents her stories descending into sentiment, as they might easily have done in the hands of a less accomplished stylist.
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