Why do we still love Jane Austen?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that even two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen still holds a tight grip on literature. She is easily one of the most recognisable British female authors and her influence is felt across the work of many authors from Virginia Woolf to George Eliot and many more. Her beautifully cloth-bound novels line the shelves of any bookshop you walk into. Even Urban Outfitters have taken to selling her books; further proof of her unremitting popularity.
Her novels have also sparked an influx of adaptations into film and television. You’ve no doubt seen Keira Knightley’s sprightly portrayal of Lizzie Bennet in Joe Wright’s picturesque adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Or the most recent unforgivable adaptation of Persuasion, starring Dakota Johnson, that butchers the careful language of the novel to render it ‘modern’.
In her biography of Jane Austen, called Jane Austen: A Life, Claire Tomalin tries to piece together the events of her life to better understand her influences. After Austen’s death in 1817, her family destroyed most of her letters and notebooks which means large parts of her life are still unknown. Even her appearance is largely a mystery with only one poorly drawn sketch by her sister Cassandra remaining.
Born in 1775 to a large family in Hampshire, Austen grew up surrounded by siblings but also, most importantly, literature. Her father was a parson and a schoolteacher which meant he kept a well-stocked library of books which he encouraged her to read. She grew up with a healthy appetite for the works of Samuel Richardson and Charlotte Smith.
Her flair for writing began with plays, poems and short stories to entertain her siblings, some of which survived. One of her more impressive pieces is a short epistolary novel called Lady Susan which shows Austen’s wit and sense of humour even at a young age.
By the time she was twenty, Austen had completed first drafts of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, a fact that is quite remarkable considering their impact today. However, none of her novels were published until she was in her mid-thirties because publishers were reluctant to take on a novel written by a woman – something they surely came to regret. Once published, her novels were a huge success. They even garnered the attention of royalty with Princess Charlotte claiming that she saw herself in Marianne from Sense and Sensibility.
Her stories of the perilous matchmaking of the gentry still appeal to many today, but others are put off by what they deem stuffy stories devoid of action-packed drama. Thus, the growing question seems to be, why do people still love Jane Austen?
The simplest answer is that her novels are the ideal form of escapism. They transport you to a world of lavish balls and brooding men emerging from lakes where the stakes are never raised higher than the possibility of an unfortunate marriage. Her heroines always get the best possible outcome by the end of the novel by marrying and, if they’re lucky, they get to marry rich. Austen herself never married and spent a large part of her life relying on her male relatives to support her. So, by marrying off her heroines she gives them the stability that she never had.
Another reason for the popularity of Austen’s novels is because they are an intricate social criticism of the world of the rich. Her characters are mainly middle class, similar to Austen’s own background, and the portrayals of the upper class are not always favourable. Her most unlikable heroine, Emma, is also coincidentally her richest heroine.
Money features heavily across all her novels and often proves to be the point of tension in a budding relationship. In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby casts the doting Marianne aside to find a richer woman. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot breaks off the engagement with Wentworth because he is of lower social standing than her. Part of Austen’s bitterness may also come from her own brief flirtation with Thomas Lefroy, who allegedly left her because she was too poor.
Finally, Austen’s novels are essentially the original romantic comedy. Her witty writing and caricature characters are exemplified in scenes like Lizzie’s horrified refusal of marriage from the bumbling Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice.
Paula Byrne comments in her novel, The Real Jane Austen, how Austen would be horrified by how adaptations focus primarily on the romantic aspects of her novel when she aimed to subvert the romantic genre. The more recent adaptation of Emma is more successful in capturing the comic tone of the novel.
Although Austen died relatively young, at the age of 41, she still completed six popular novels and created a lasting legacy for herself. She even has a place on the ten-pound note with a quote from Pride and Prejudice saying “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”