For as long as I can remember, I've been familiar with Jane Austen. For my mother, she was a source of wisdom and humor. Mom would often comment that Jane had it right: while women want to be, and aspire to be, as patient as Anne Elliot, we are most often just as petty as Emma Woodhouse. (That, and the bit about the silly, ignorant girls from Pride and Prejudice.) I'm sure there were others, but that's what sticks in my mind the most.
My mom suggested I read Pride and Prejudice when I was about 14. I was looking for something to read -- probably in between English class assignments -- and my mom said that I'd love Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.
Maybe it was because I wasn't old enough, hadn't read enough, couldn't get past all the wordy descriptions to connect with the characters. Or maybe it's just that I wasn't interested in character-based period romances. (Or period books in general; I refused to read anything by Dickens, except for English assignments. Even then I didn't enjoy it.) But, whatever the reason, I didn't crack open an Austen novel for years.
So, what is the appeal of Jane? People who don't necessarily think of themselves as readers have read (or at least heard of) her books. People who do think of themselves as avid readers, for the most part, adore her books. I think the easy answer is to say that they are books written by a woman about women for women, and we enjoy it because women are basically the same over the centuries. But, it's also more than that. Like the best classics, what you get out if it really depends on the person.
For some, it's the strong female protagonists. Emma, Elizabeth, Anne, Elinor and Marianne, Fanny -- they're strong and intelligent, but sometimes silly, never truly perfect women who are trying their best to deal with their situations in life. In short, they're human, and easily identifiable, even if their main goal in life is to get married. It is honorable that they would rather marry for love than money, that they do not succumb to pressure to marry the first rich man that proposes.
"You are then resolved to have him?"
"I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me."
"It is well. You refuse, then, to oblige me. You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world."
"Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude," replied Elizabeth, "have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment's concern and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn." -- Elizabeth speaking with Lady Catherine de Bourg when the rumors of an impending marriage to Mr. Darcy reached Lady Catherine's ears
"'Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection.'" -- Jane to Elizabeth on her engagement to Darcy
"It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;-- it is disposition alone. seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others." Marianne speaking to Elinor after
For others, it's the humor. Austen's books have been called irreverent and witty, but not "funny". She's not a comic writer; she doesn't write comic scenes that are there purely for laughs. There are comic characters -- the Mrs. Bennets and Mr. Collinses and Mrs. Eltons and Miss Bateses -- whose primary function is to make us laugh (or cringe). But her biting wit strikes everyone, from the main characters on down.
"She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me." Mr. Darcy to Mr. Bingley about Elizabeth Bennet
"Lizzy is not a bit better than the others: and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference."
"They have none of them much to recommend them," replied he: "they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more
of quickness than her sisters."
"Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.""You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least." -- Mr. and Mrs. Bennet
"Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society." -- from Persuasion
But she doesn't just poke fun at the characters; nothing is safe from Jane Austen's wit. She also pokes fun at the society, and it's restrictions and mores, in which the characters exist.
"'Yes, here I am, Sophia, quite ready to make a foolish match. Anybody between fifteen and thirty may have me for asking. A little beauty, and a few smiles, and a few compliments to the navy, and I am a lost man.'" Captain Wentworth to his sister Mrs. Croft
"It was a delightful visit perfect, in being much too short." -- from Emma
"Nothing amuses me more than the easy manner with which everybody settles the abundance of those who have a great deal less than themselves." -- from Mansfield Park
"A woman of seven and twenty," said Marianne, after pausing a moment, "can never hope to feel or inspire affection again."
". . . provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all." -- from Northanger Abbey
Another reason her books are so beloved is that they are so family-centric. There is little or no mention of the wider world, though she piles on descriptions of things relevant to the world that the book revolves around. For some that is seen as a fault in the books, for others it is the main appeal. Austen shows the world of women in minute detail, points out their pettiness and still manages to illustrate how deeply moving and important the "small things" of life can be: marriage, children, sisterhood, parenthood, friendship.
"I might as well inquire," replied she, "why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?" -- Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy when he first proposes
". . . indeed, Mary, I cannot wonder at your husband. Nursing does not belong to a man; it is not his province. A sick child is always the mother's property: her own feelings generally make it so.'" -- Anne Elliot, on Charles's wanting to go to dinner at the great house in spite of the fact that little Charles was still recovering from his bad fall.
"'You are in a melancholy humour and fancy that anyone unlike yourself must be happy. But remember that the pain of parting from friends will be felt by everybody at times, whatever be their education or state. Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience; or give it a more fascinating name: call it hope.'" -- Mrs. Dashwood is speaking to Edward Ferrars, who is loathe to leave them after visiting Barton Cottage for a week (and generally distraught about having no occupation or
At some point during college, I realized that Austen was not just an author whose books my mom liked, but a real honest-to-goodness respected author that gets studied and taught in college-level English classes. Embarrassed by my ignorance, I bought her four best-known works, and finally re-read Pride and Prejudice.
This time, I got it.
What changed? My age, for one; I appreciated Austen more when I had actually experienced a little bit of love and life and loss. But, I have to admit, it was also the movies. There was something about removing the narration, the excess Regency Englishness and having just the bare bones of the story on the screen that appealed to me. Because, for me, Jane Austen is all about the love stories: Darcy and Elizabeth, Emma and Mr. Knightly, Anne and Captain Wentworth (and I will forever contend that his letter to Anne is absolutely the most romantic thing ever written), Elinor and Edward.
In Shannon Hale's Austenland, the main character, Jane, puts it this way:
"It wasn't until the BBC put a face on the story that those gentlemen in tight breeches had stepped out of her reader's imagination and into her nonfiction hopes. Stripped of Austen's funny, insightful, biting narrator, the movie became a pure romance. And Pride and Prejudice was the most stunning, bite-your-hand romance ever, the kind that stared straight into Jane's soul and made her shudder."
I have to admit: what I really like is a happily-ever-after story, where everything works out for the best, even if there are bumps in the way. And Austen always delivers a good ending (even if she never goes as far as writing "and they lived happily ever after"). I cheer when Captain Wentworth and Anne get together. Though I cry with Marianne when she loses Willoughby, I'm happy that she's at least content with Colonel Brandon. I'm excited when Elinor and Edward get past their misunderstandings and his mother's prejudices. I rejoice with Emma as she and Mr. Knightly finally figure out that they were meant for each other. And I just adore how Elizabeth ends up with Mr. Darcy (and that Jane ends up with Mr. Bingley just adds to that).
In the end, Austen delivers whatever it is we're looking for. Romance? Check. Strong heroines? Check. Humor and wit? Check. Wisdom and insight? Check. Regency England? Check. The beauty of her work is that the stories seem to change with us as we grow older. What we get out of the books (or didn't!) when we are teenagers is different when we go back to them as we get older and have experienced more. That is what keeps us coming back to them time and time again. And, maybe, that's the real appeal of Jane.