For The Love of Jane Austen
I never fail to be amazed when I mention my love of Jane Austen novels in conversation only to be met with a tell-tale blank stare indicating that the person with whom I am speaking has no idea who she is. I then proceed to rattle off at least three of the five completed Austen novels by name. I am fully aware, that even well-read individuals have rarely heard of her epistolary work Lady Susan or her incomplete novel Sanditon, named so by Austen’s family and “completed” by numerous authors, so I do not mention those. Probably about half of the time this ends with me ranting about how Jane Austen is one of the most celebrated English authors in history, because she is. In fact, she has been referred to as the first great woman novelist (Bagnuolo), because she is.
Born in 1775, Jane Austen was the daughter of a clergyman and had seven siblings, only one of whom was a sister. She was brought up in an environment in which her father encouraged education of his daughters as well as his sons. Austen was allowed the use of her father’s library and he encouraged her writing by maintaining a supply of books, paper, and pens. Later, he even attempted to get one of her works published, but without success. Jane was said to have been very close with her father, and especially close with her sister Cassandra. Readers see glimpses of this relationship in her novels when they experience the bond between characters such as Elizabeth and Jane Bennett or Elinor and Maryanne Dashwood. Jane Austen never married. She loved one man, Mr. Tom Lefroy but the two were not permitted to marry because, though Austen was a gentlewoman, her family was not well to do (Alex). Surely, this experience provided fuel for her novels, in which, the heroines always married for love not for money and lovers were united against the odds without regard to fortune or connections or a lack thereof.
Austen was successful because she wrote about what she was familiar with. She wrote about her own era and the society in which she lived. She had a thorough knowledge of the composition and characteristics of the social classes because she lived it. She wrote of places she knew and had experienced. These are what she drew on for inspiration; her surroundings gave birth to her settings and characters (Bagnuolo). Incidentally, one will never see dialogue quoted in one of her novels unless there is a female in the conversation. Austen’s style is to summarize conversations taking place between men and save her detailed dialogue for the ladies. I have always attributed this to keeping with the pattern of working with what was familiar to her. Even though Austen’s work did not gain widespread popularity until long after her death, her contemporaries acknowledged this key ingredient which made her novels so splendid. In a review printed in 1816, the year she released her third novel, Sir Walter Scott wrote, “The author's knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader” (Melani).
This give Austen’s writing an authentic quality that cannot be duplicated. Sanditon makes this point perfectly clear. While every effort was made to complete the work seamlessly, in true Jane Austen style, even meticulous study of her writing could not make up for the lack of firsthand knowledge in the version I read, which was completed by Another Lady. The authenticity was not there and it is obvious to the reader where it disappears.
“The widespread appeal and popularity of Austen’s novels shows that her work, although written in a different era, addresses issues that are timeless” (Strout et al.). It is interesting to note that her novels are popular, and considered the epitome of romance in spite of being wholesome. Unlike the racy romance novels of our day, her novels never mention sexual encounters, kissing or even touching (Harman). On the contrary, Jane’s novels are written in a time when eloping was wrong and couples were chaperoned and they remain true to those high moral standards. Yet, each one is a page turner, keeping the reader wanting more. At the same time, any of her novels would make a lovely, classic bedtime story for a little girl.
Of course, when I rattle off the names of three of the five Jane Austen novels prior to my rant Pride and Prejudice is always included and always first. It was originally titled First Impressions, but after revising this epic romance Austen had it published in 1813 with the title it bears today. This was her most celebrated and popular novel while she was alive, and though her other works are very popular today Pride and Prejudice still has the largest fan base. Her works generally deal with the same issues and questions, though she explores them from different perspectives, under different circumstances, and with a variety of consequences (Melani). However, Pride and Prejudice has a significantly different theme woven together with the familiar Jane Austen fare and one might say there is a moral to this story. The underlying, serious tone is to be wary of being judgmental and presumptuous. It is absolute brilliance how Austen teaches readers the folly in pre-judging people based on stereotypes or hearsay, addresses pressing issues such as the importance of duty to society versus duty to oneself, and then marries them both to comical satire in Pride and Prejudice.
The characters are all real and memorable even though not much time is spent describing them. The reader always gets to know Austen’s characters through their speech and actions. Thus, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy are one of literature’s most beloved couples and Caroline Bingley is hardly more than a heartless villainess. Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennett are cherished as the sweet unsuspecting couple, Mr. Collins irritates the audience and the rest of the Bennett family makes them laugh.
Austen’s character selection helps tell the story, but it also speaks to the issues. Elizabeth Bennett’s parents are the product of society, it is implied that their marriage, in keeping with the norm was based on the ideals of the world around them, namely money and connections. It is apparent throughout the story that they are ill-suited for one another and they have regrets. The same holds true for Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, while Louisa is wealthy and was able to maintain her social stature in marriage, she is not happy. In this way, Austen makes clear her thoughts on what truly makes a happy marriage.
Mr. Collins represented what society dictated a young woman in the Bennett girls’ position should pursue, a secure income, comfortable home, a husband with a respectable career and eventually a family. His character was deliberately designed to be everything Elizabeth thought was undesirable, in order to expose the ridiculousness of following a culture that would encourage incompatible marriages based on compatible circumstances, in essence putting survival over living. In Regency era England, single men had open access to money. What they did not inherit, they could earn. The only way for a single young lady to get money was to marry it (Newton).
The reader gets another dose of Austen’s money-does-not equal-happiness stance in Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter, Anne. In this case, we see that money does not always equal manners either. Lady Catherine is just plain rude, feeling as though because she is a woman of rank she has a right to be so. Her daughter is sickly and fragile, and they live a very lonely life together other than occasional company.
Mr. Wickham’s character points out the dangers put upon young women of good breeding and fortune, in a society that values both above all else. These young women are set up to be preyed upon by men who seek to advance themselves without earning it. This scoundrel Wickham must have been quite interesting to readers in Austen’s day, when families tended to be more on guard against less-than-worthy girls trying to seduce their sons into marriage for their money. Why would families be less concerned about their daughters being preyed upon in this manner? Men of the day did not need to get married. They could do so if they chose, but it was not a necessity for a man to have a wife. Men made their own money, and moved about as they pleased. (Newton) Society looked upon married and single men indiscriminately. Young ladies, however, needed to marry in order to provide for themselves financially and secure a respectable place in society. Even women of wealth were expected to be married at least once. Spinsters, women who had never married, were looked down upon to some degree regardless of their financial status.
Even with all the flaws of the world she knew up for examination, Jane Austen still manages to entertain readers and endear herself and her characters to them, nearly two hundred years after her death. Her work is extremely popular today and has been translated into over 30 languages including Japanese, Hebrew, Icelandic, Bengali, Tamil, and Telugu. Her complete works are among the most read and beloved books in the English language. Austen’s novels have been either directly made into big screen movies or used in adaptations (i.e. Clueless (1995) adapted from Emma) many times. There are also numerous made for television movies based on her work, (Harman) even her own life story has become a major motion picture.
I, therefore, feel perfectly within my rights to be aghast when one of my peers does not know who Jane Austen is, or cannot at the very least recognize the title of one of her world renowned novels. One may as well say they have never heard of Shakespeare, for Jane Austen is the first great woman novelist. She is, without a doubt one of the most famous, celebrated English authors in history.