While Pride and Prejudice is doubtless Jane Austen's most widely read and popular novel, many critics aver that her fullest achievement, the masterpiece of her six completed novels, is Emma. One cogent reason put forward is that at the time of its writing (January 21, 1814, to March 29, 1815) Miss Austen had reached a calm high point in her development as an artist, a point of steady, relaxed control over both her subject matter and her technique.
The temporal substance of her novels — the manners and interests of the upper middle class in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England — was that of her own surroundings from the beginning. Born on December 16, 1775, the seventh of eight children — six boys and two girls — she had more than common varied contact with the limited world of provincial gentry because her father was a country clergyman, the rector of Steventon in the county of Hampshire in south-central England. Though she accompanied her elder sister Cassandra to two boarding schools only to return home at the age of nine to remain there, she had the advantage of growing up and studying in an educated family. In the evenings amid the needlework and other domestic activity, Mr. Austen read aloud. Some time was probably devoted to the utility of "improving conversation." In addition, the Austens were a novel-reading family. But for the novelist she was to become, her "education" was the total provincial community in which she came to maturity and of which she was to remain ever fond, as both a place to live and a scene to delineate. In a letter of her adulthood she said that "such a spot is the delight of my life; three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on."
She knew and loved this life because, except for one real interval, she lived it; and it may be significant that during that extended interval she was unable to achieve any known completed work. This eight-year period began in 1801 when Mr. Austen gave up the living of Steventon and retired to Bath. After his death in 1805 the mother and daughters moved to Southampton, where they remained until in 1809 they moved to the little town of Chawton. Before 1801, while Jane was still in her early twenties, she had written three unpublished novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. Upon removal to Chawton Cottage she began immediately to write again and, before her death on July 18, 1817, she completed, in order, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. Beginning with the printing of Sense and Sensibility in 1811, each of the six novels was published, the new ones in short order after their completion, some of the works going into second and third, as well as French, editions by the time of her death.
Jane Austen loved the life around her. But she also saw it clearly enough to perceive its imperfections along with its perfections: an insight into the divided nature of things that was to set its imprint of cool liveliness upon every page that she wrote. She was aware, of course, of worldly happenings: the distant thunder of the American and French revolutions, the rise of Napoleon, the industrial revolution, the British maritime mutinies, the overdone peculiarities of Gothic and sentimental novels, the new emotional quality of Romanticism. But most of these historic fluxes did not come even as close as the blank margin of her pages. Instead, she concentrated upon eternal mixed qualities of humanity — of human relationships — exemplified in the provincial society about her. This life she knew intimately, and it was for her enough.