At the time Jane Austen was writing, the revolutionary spirit was sweeping up Europe on its way to the New World, culminating in the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789. For most of Jane Austen's adult life Britain was at war with France. In the arts, the Romantic movement was nearing its height. Romanticism stressed the importance of emotion and the individual imagination. The poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, the painter J.M.W. Turner, the composer Beethoven, and Austen were all born within five years of each other.

However, Austen's work betrays little of this tumult, instead choosing to concentrate on the relatively minor upsets within domestic circles. This is not to suggest that she was ignorant of politics though. Indeed, recent interpretations of Pride and Prejudice have focused its elevation of Whig principles, particularly in Austen's portrayal of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Tracing the historical influences on the names in Austen's fiction contradicts earlier critics' beliefs that she was ignorant of the political upheavals of her day.

Austen was not inspired by the passion of the Romantics. In her last novel, Persuasion, the heroine discourages a heartbroken young man from reading the highly emotional poetry characteristic of the day. She admired the great eighteenth-century prose writers, such as Dr Johnson. Their detached, well-ordered and witty observations on life formed the basis of her style. Nevertheless, she was influenced by a group of mainly female writers of romantic novels, writers such as Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Charlotte Smith. Despite having become largely unknown to the modern reader, their work was incredibly popular at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Austen modelled her plots along their lines, but then turned them to her own devices, using this implied frivolity to mask far-reaching political theory.

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