[Note that I am not a professional specialist in either
history or literature, and that those who are might insist on adding further
qualifications and refinements to the following basic
account; also, the special senses in which some of these terms are used by antique furniture dealers will generally not be discussed below.]
Jane Austen is very resistant to being classified as part of a literary
"school", or being placed in any customarily-defined literary period -- partly
because none of the obvious available terms, "18th-century, "Romantic", or
"Victorian", would appropriately describe her. Almost all of the major figures who
were literarily active in the period 1800-1837, and who are currently deemed
worthy of remembering (i.e. are "canonized"), fall into one of a few categories --
either they launched their literary careers before 1800 (Burney, Edgeworth);
or they were part of the Romantic movement (or were more or less strongly influenced by
romanticism, or wrote in self-conscious reaction to romanticism); or they did
most of their writing and publishing after 1837 (e.g. Dickens). Jane Austen
is the conspicuous exception who does not fit into any of these
One subscriber to AUSTEN-L has reported not
having an opportunity to study Austen in college for exactly this reason: the
professor who taught the course on 18th-century literature didn't consider
Jane Austen relevant to that course, and neither did the professor who
taught the next in the sequence of literature "survey" courses (presumably on
Romantic and/or Victorian literature) -- so that as a result, Jane Austen
wasn't covered at all!
The following list defines many of the chronological or
quasi-chronological terms relevant to Jane Austen's era:
This obviously covers the years 1700-1799 (or the years 1701-1800, according to some pedantic definitions). On the one hand, Jane Austen was born in
1775; she does have similarities to some authors that are classified as "18th
century"; starting in the mid-to-late 1780's she wrote short humorous pieces for her family, and early versions
of three of her later novels; and one of
her novels (Northanger Abbey)
is set in 1798-1799. But she didn't sell a novel until 1803, her first actual
publication was in 1811, and all of the novels whose first drafts had been
written before 1800 were revised by her after 1809 before they were published
-- so that her most important period of literary activity was 1810-1817, for
which "18th century" doesn't seem to be a very accurate description (unless
perhaps a loose "extended 18th century" is defined).
The term "Romantic" can be used in a general chronological sense
(covering the late 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century,
the main heyday of romanticism); but it can only be used to describe individual artists if
they were influenced significantly by romanticism -- which Jane Austen was
not. ("Do not be angry with me for beginning another letter to you. I have
read [Byron's] The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing
else to do." -- Jane Austen, letter of March
5, 1814 to her sister Cassandra.)
Victoria acceded to the throne in 1837, was crowned 1838, and died in
1901. (Jane Austen died more than a year before Victoria was even born.)
Strictly speaking, the Regency is the period 1811-1820 when King George III
was declared incapacitated (due to insanity), and the Prince of Wales (later
George IV) acted as Regent. However, the term is often loosely used to cover
the Directoire and Empire
periods as well (one reason to do this is that these periods seem to group together as a unit socially -- for example the period of about 1795-1820 is
when women's clothing styles were somewhat
classically-influenced and relatively less cumbersome in basic outline -- and see also
the discussion of the chronology of the wars below).
Some historians of architecture and antique furniture dealers also seem to use "Regency" as a loose term for everything between 18th-century and Victorian.
While "Regency" is the word which best describes Jane Austen's writing
career in purely chronological terms, this word has not traditionally been
used to label a literary era (there is no conventionally-recognized "Regency"
school of writers).
The period of Napoleon's declared Empire, from 1804 to 1814/1815 (or
starting from 1800, if one includes his "Consulate").
Insofar as this has an exact meaning, it would refer to the period from
1788/1789 to 1801 -- between the establishment of the U.S. Constitution and
Thomas Jefferson's coming into the office of President as a "Republican"
(having triumphed over the "Federalist" John Adams) -- though dealers in
antique furniture apparently use this term in a somewhat different sense.
Monarchs named George reigned in Great Britain from 1712 to
1830, but "Georgian" seems mostly to be used to refer to a style of
eighteenth century architecture, or as a vague synonym for "Eighteenth
Century" with special reference to Britain.
France was involved in wars with other European powers (always
including Great Britain) from 1792-1802, from 1803-1814, and during the "hundred days" in
1815. The wars of the French Revolution may be considered to last until perhaps about
1795, after which Napoleon began to take an increasingly prominent part in
France's military affairs.
The period from the Congress of Vienna (begun 1814) to the last
Congress (of Verona, 1822); the idea was that periodic diplomatic
conferences would be held, at which European affairs would be settled --
particularly by the five big European powers (Great Britain, France,
Austria, Russia, and Prussia).
(Note that the terms "Regency", "Georgian", and "Victorian" come from British
political history, "Directoire" and "Empire" from France, and
"Federal" from the U.S. -- which can affect how these terms are used.)