Why the F*ck Do People Love Jane Austen So Much? A Primer

Confession: I am a contrarian. My nature causes me to avoid any and all things deemed good by popular opinion. While I do trust the tastes of a few people, I generally approach all things loved by a large group of people with skepticism.

It was because of this inclination that I avoided all books by Jane Austen until well after college, despite the fact that she was talked about frequently in my college literature courses as a benchmark of solid novel writing. She was so lauded by my professors, spoken of on a first-name basis, that at times it seemed she was actually a common former classmate instead of a long-dead 18th century novelist. The sheer exuberance of so many naturally led me to assume that genuine admiration for her work must be a sham. People just don’t want to admit that they don’t really like her, it’s just the popular thing to do—love Jane Austen. Right?

Every time I re-read her stories, I am impressed anew at her skill... and then I remember she accomplished all this before she turned 40!

But then, curiosity finally got the best of me, and two things spurred me to finally read one of her books: 1) the appearance of it on the bookshelf of one of those few people whose taste I trusted, and 2) I got sick of being left out when her work was alluded to by, oh, EVERYONE!

So I borrowed my friend’s copy of Sense and Sensibility, determined to finally find out why the fuck people love Jane Austen so much! I won’t say I was instantly converted, but two days later, when I finished the book, I had to admit to myself that it was actually pretty good. So I read Emma and then I read Pride and Prejudice. I was starting to really see what there was to love about this young woman who wrote a few novels so long ago.

Since then, I have read all her books at least once, and seen the movie adaptations at least a million times each, including Clueless, which I fell in love with anew when I realized it's a 1990's version of Emma. Whenever I want to read a book that won't let me down, I grab one of her titles. And every time I re-read her stories, I am impressed anew at her skill in writing, plot development, and character—and then I remember again that she accomplished all this before she turned 40!

....And then I feel inadequate and wonder how I can pass on a total imitation of one of her excellent stories as my own......Anyway....

Here are a few reasons why I (like so many others) have come to love and admire Jane Austen, the person and the writer.

Jane Austen was not extraordinary

Like the characters in her novels, Jane Austen was an ordinary woman living in an ordinary time. She was born to a middle class family in December of 1775. The seventh of eight children, Jane grew up in a somewhat, itmightbesaid, liberal family. Her father was a clergyman who also worked a small farm for extra income. Her parents encouraged her to read, and she was formally educated at a boarding school from the age of 7 until about 10.

After completing her formal education, Jane was allowed to peruse her father’s fairly extensive library to continue educating herself at home. She was encouraged by him to grow her talent. He allowed her paper, ink, and time to write and create. It was fairly common that she read her stories aloud at family gatherings and even put on plays with her siblings. Later in life, her older brother Henry became her literary agent, and it’s because of his attentions to her work that we know who she is today. It may be said that family support is the thing that allowed her to rise from an ordinary girl who loved the written word to an extraordinary writer.

She wrote what she knew

Jane Austen wrote from her experience and from her time. Though fictional for sure, her characters were believable, and some might even be based on real people. The sister heroines in Sense and Sensibility are thought to be based on Jane and her only sister Cassandra, who was her closest friend throughout her life. Despite the love stories that create the central plot of each of Jane’s stories, Jane never married. At one time in her young life, she was attached to young man named Tom Lefroy, but it was against his family’s wishes that he marry because he had no money of his own, and when they suspected he might fall in love with Jane (who had no money to bring to a marriage either) he was kept away from her indefinitely.

When, later on, Jane was proposed to by a man with money and the means to support her, she turned him down citing a lack of real love for him. Jane’s heroines are known for also exercising this independent spirit, and her stories are filled with proposals turned down for lack of affection. Her heroines are smart, independent-minded, loyal, and witty. It’s not hard to deduce that she found these qualities in a woman admirable, and though there are female characters in her books who marry just because, her heroines never do without real affection. For most people now, marrying for love is the norm. However, at the time that Jane was living, it was expected that most women should marry the most eligible man who would have her, so it was likely somewhat shocking to have female characters who turned down money, power, and stability just because they didn’t love the guy.

She was a working writer

Despite changing circumstances of money, living, and ultimately her health, Jane Austen wrote diligently and prodigiously. She revised her stories over and again, as she was something of a perfectionist. She tested her plots with her family, even put on acted versions of her stories. She cared deeply about putting out quality writing, and it shows in her precise prose. She wrote all her life, and even in the last year of her life, when she was sick and bedridden, she continued to write and she finished the last two chapters of Persuasion not long before she died. She also worked on a book that was called The Brothers, though she was never able to finish it.

Like working writers today, Jane also had to deal with publishers. She sold her first book, Susan,  for 10 pounds to a London publisher who then kept the copyright but didn’t publish the story. When, years later, she attempted to recover the copyright, the publisher agreed to release it, but only if she pay him back the 10 pounds which she could not afford. Another manuscript was sent out by her father to another publisher he knew, and it was returned unopened. It is not known, however, if Jane knew her father sent out the manuscript.

When she did finally find a publisher who put out Sense and Sensibility in 1811, the book was received well by the public and first editions were sold out by the end of 1813.  After that, she enjoyed the modest success (and even more modest income) from the publications of Emma and Mansfield Park. Though her books sold well, and the public generally liked her work, she was not a great success, and her books, like most writers then and now, were both admired and criticized.

Most of her work was published during her lifetime, though not under her name. It wasn’t until after her death in 1817 that her name was connected to the books she published when her brother Henry, who had finally bought back the copyright for the book Susan, now known as Northanger Abbey, penned a tribute to her in the introductions of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey which were published as a set in December of 1817.

Her work almost fell into obscurity

After Jane’s death and the publication of her final two novels, there was a short burst of sales of her books which soon lessened to barely a trickle. In 1820, Murray, who was her publisher at the time of her death, destroyed the unsold copies of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. For 12 years, no Jane Austen books were in print, and then Richard Bently purchased all the copyrights to her books. In 1833, he published a collected works edition, and her books were never out of print again. Her work, however, still flew under the radar until her nephew, James Austen, published a memoir in 1870 entitled A Memoir of the Life of Jane Austen which enjoyed circulation to a wide audience. After that moment, her work grew steadily in popularity and regard.

Her stories are timeless

Though firmly set in the time in which she lived, Jane Austen’s works remain popular because the themes are real and ever-relevant. Though customs have changed, the personalities, worries, and dreams of Jane’s characters are as normal today as they were then. Romance, unrequited love, silliness, pride, stupid decision making, vanity, wit, independence, loyalty, and realization of our mistakes are all still very real parts of our lives. Some would argue that Jane’s romantic plots are staid and boring, but those that appreciate the promise of a happy ending can find enjoyment in knowing that it will all work out in the end.

Personally, it’s her characters and her wit that keep me reading and re-reading. Her heroines are generally admirable in many ways—witty, independent, loyal, analytical—but her subordinate characters are just as enjoyable. Take the father in Pride and Prejudice. He teases his wife incessantly (and she never gets the joke), but dotes on his headstrong daughter. And Mr Collins, the silly, overly pompous cousin who claims to wish to marry one of the pretty daughters, but jumps ship and marries the neighbor the moment she shows interest. In all her books, characters appear who are both archetypal and completely believable. It’s just good fiction writing.

Her writing is seamless

For many, it can be hard to get past the overly (to us) formal style and archaic vocabulary. I admit, it takes a few pages to get the rhythm, but when you do, you find a lovely prose style that belies a freshness of perspective that must have been quite modern then and which holds water even today. Take this opening line from Pride and Prejudice.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Here are a few more juicy quotes from the sassy Miss Austen:

There are people, who the more you do for them, the less they will do for themselves.

  • From Emma

One man’s ways may be as good as another’s, but we all like our own best.

  • From Persuasion

 Life seems but a quick procession of busy nothings.

  • From Mansfield Park

Each time I re-read Jane Austen’s work, I find plenty that relates to my experience every day. I find characters that resemble people I know. And I find much to admire in a young woman who viewed the world clearly and took notice of all its details, even if that same world waited until her death to notice her back.

What about you?

Are you a Jane fan? If so, tell us why you love her. Are you a hater? Tell us why. And if you’ve never read her work, how come? Are you actively avoiding it? Or just haven’t gotten around to it yet?

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 20, 2013 - 10:00am

I agree with Samuel Clemens' assessment.

G. X. Bradbury's picture
G. X. Bradbury from Corvallis, OR is reading The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States, by Paul Arvich May 20, 2013 - 10:32am

*Sigh*

Which is?

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list May 20, 2013 - 8:16pm

I own all of her books, but haven't had a chance to read them yet. They are high on my reading list, but I have to wait until the school year is finished. There isn't any time for pleasure reading right now (though I'm slowly slogging through The Causal Vacancy).

In all of the English courses I took in college we never read any of them. I only had three professors (it was a very small college) and my favorite professor was a Chaucerian and a feminist, so we rarely got anything that wasn't medieval or polar opposite modern feminist. The other professor was into post modernism, so we read a lot of Faulkner and such. Then the third one taught writing and grammar. Thinking about it now, my education was a really odd combination :)

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 22, 2013 - 9:32am

Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain said,

Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

...any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.

and

...it seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.

ashtonleann04's picture
ashtonleann04 May 31, 2013 - 1:56pm

As I read the first line of your column, I found myself nodding. I, too veer away from popular choices in music, art, literature, etc. That being said, I am irrevocably enthralled by Jane Austen. to much scorn from my literary peers, Jane Austen has been my favorite author since I was in the third grade. My mother bought me a set of Great Illustrated Classics to read while she worked on the farm. My favorite out of all those books--Pride and Prejudice. I have read the book often and appreciate it more each time. That being said, although Pride and Prejudice will always be my favorite, I like anything and everything written by Jane Austen. Go ahead, make fun; I am quite familiar with the Austen stabs by now. 

 

Have you read Lady Susan yet? It is wonderfully different from her other works.

To end, I will leave you with my favorite Austen quote: 

"They walked on, without knowing what direction. There was too much to be thought, and felt, and said, for attention to any other objects."

tashmallory's picture
tashmallory from Texas is reading Name above All Names by Allister Begg and his friend Sinclair Ferguson June 13, 2013 - 7:49am

Any idea why Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) hated Jane Austen's books? I love good ole Tom and Huck, but Elizabeth Bennet is one of the more admirable wits in my opinion.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated December 2, 2013 - 10:43pm

My knee jerk reaction is that he was probably minimally observant.

Carol Noel Smith's picture
Carol Noel Smith August 16, 2013 - 11:34am

Jane, Jane, Jane and I'm not talking "Jane Eyre" here.  My father was the Jane Austen trailblazer and the one critic that I believed in with 100% trust.  "Oh, God.  Jane Austen is considered to be WHAT???"  The best writer of the novel ever?  I trudged through Pride and Prejudice and, at the  bitter end, I felt like I should have been knighted just for sticking to it."  Due to my late father's vigilence and stick-to-it-ive-ness, I was spared!  However, I do believe that if Jane, dear Jane, were alive today she would defnitely be one of a few head writers for "General Hospital," or "All My Children."  In Austen's novels, nobody seems to have a job - just like in the soaps.  Everybody is beautiful in an Austen novel and if not beautiful, comes with an incredible talent for the harpsichord - just like in the soaps (switch out a Steinway for the harpsichord.)  Everybody is plotting to "land" a man for some unknown reason - well, I'm sure it's usually because the man either has a ton of money or he is well-respected by Jane and her flock - just like in the soaps. Nothing much worth saying is said in a Jane Austen novel - just like in the soaps.  When the Bronte's were kicked to the curb for Jane Austen, I realilzed that there is a class of people today who would fit quite easily or maybe perfectly in a Jane Austen novel given the magical chance.  So, shallow and senseless and prejudicial and snobby are still honored by all the Jane Austen clubs across the entire United States.  Perhaps my father is up in heaven asking this:  "Why Jane?  Why?"


 

gerald wayne's picture
gerald wayne September 5, 2013 - 8:38am

First I would agree that getting past Austen's formal style and archaic vocabulary is or can be a struggle. It was for me. Like many I would assume,  I started reading Jane Austen because I was curious about all the hoopla concerning her writing. I thought if I every found myself criticizing her writing and someone asked me if I had ever read any of her books I could answer honestly that yes I had. Well I have and it was a struggle from the first paragraph to the last. I never became comfortable with the form nor the archaic vocabulary. I finished Sense and Sensibility and felt a sense of accomplishing a difficult task. With respect for those who enjoy Jane Austen it just isn't for me. I can only comment on Sense and Sensibility but isn't it a bit like a romance novel? I find myself wondering if this was submited to a publisher today would it be published? Maybe not a fair question, I don't know.

Gustav's picture
Gustav June 27, 2014 - 11:29am

Dude, you should read Defoe's "Roxana", also try Bronte's "Jane Eyre." What fantastic literature. Defoe's language and story telling, and then Bronte's magic way with the language, completely different from Defoe's and Austen's, even richer and more flowing; the mastery with which she draws the gothic, romantic scenery. Jane Austen is wonderful and we love her truly, but then she's one child amongst many. English literature is full of unsurpassed treasures. Needless to say, it has to do with the money and with the Empire. It grows from both.

Jane Austen was not middle class. She was lower upper class. She was within the top 5% of the British society at the time. She was of British gentry. Nothing illustrates this better than Marianne's comment in Sense and Sensibility: "And yet two thousand a year is a very moderate income. A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands..." How much was two thousand pounds? It was equivalent to the cost of two thousand pounds of silver, or 907kg. This, at $773/kg, would cost today about $700,000. But in practice it was more, because labor was dirt cheap at the time. We can safely multiply this by 2, to yield $1,400,000. This is the yearly income (after tax) that Marianne considers very moderate. The Bennets, a family much like hers in Pride and Prejudice, live on 2000 pounds a year too. Mr Darcy, this is already aristocracy, lives on 5 times as much, comparable to $7 or $8 million a year, or more, in present day money--this would put in within the top 400 families in the country at the time.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow June 30, 2014 - 7:47am

 HI Gustav,

I have read Roxana and Jane Eyre. Both wonderful books. Jane Eyre is one of my all time favs. And yes, I get that Jane was not poor by any means, but I think from her point of view, she may have felt like "not as good" as her peers--those who DID pull in millions annually. Thus the perpetual trying to marry up. Nothing different than today. And since I probably would have been an illiterate pig farmer's wife had I lived in Jane's time, I GET that she was lucky to have been given time and education to just sit around and write. I WISH I had that now. 

I also REALLY like Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. 

Thanks for your input. I love the math at the end. It really puts it into perspective.

 

hlester's picture
hlester March 21, 2015 - 6:27pm

She  was a 19th century novelist, not a 18th century novelist.

millymei36's picture
millymei36 May 14, 2015 - 5:47am

Love Jane Austen :) An awe-inspiring author if ever there was one! But then, perhaps I am a little prejudiced.... hahaha 

Eric Waites's picture
Eric Waites February 6, 2016 - 3:39pm

I think Jane Austen’s popularity today is quite mysterious. There is no explanation for the kind of extraordinary fame which Austen enjoys, which I believe to be just one more example of the arbitrariness of history, blindly choosing – with no rhyme or reason – who will be remembered, and who will be forgotten.

Why is Austen so freakishly famous, and not (for example) author Thomas Hardy? “Austenites” abound, but I don’t see any “Hardy-ites” about these days. Why don’t Emily Bronte or Eliza Haywood have the kind of fame that Austen has? (Eliza Haywood certainly deserves fame – she was a fantastically successful 1700’s erotic novelist and playwright, an important innovator of the novel, who is now almost totally forgotten. She wrote amazing amorous stories such as Fantomina, in which a young woman disguises herself as three different women, to seduce the same man over and over again – Haywood’s stories are BY FAR much more interesting and thrilling than anything Austen ever wrote.)

What accounts for Jane Austen’s remarkable fame? And, come to that, why is SHERLOCK HOLMES so bizarrely famous today, either? I thought those old Holmes stories were dead and buried, the kind of stodgy, dry old things that nobody reads anymore, like Robinson Crusoe – and now suddenly both Austen and Holmes are shockingly famous – Austenites everywhere, fans of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock all over the place. I don’t see any Robinson “Crusoe-ites” having national get-togethers that are big business today. There is an “Austenland” (movie), but no “Crusoeland.”

The only real explanation would seem to be that history is weird. Publishers frequently say that there are absolutely no rules in the publishing business, about why one writer becomes famous and another does not. It would seem that Austen’s fame today is just another example of that – a weird quirk of publishing history, that just happened because it happened, and for no other reason.

I personally find Austen’s writing style to be astonishingly difficult to read. I believe her to be a fine storyteller, but with horrible, horrible writing – with impenetrable prose that makes my head throb with pain when I try to read it. I cannot truly imagine anybody having a genuinely pleasant or easy time reading such ugly, technically-demanding sentences; it’s like reading a computer-program printout, and about as interesting, from a dramatic point of view.

Thus, with so many other better-written, fascinating authors out there, why Austen? Again, I would suspect there is no reason at all. When the American Thomas Paine died, he was seen by most of America as a rabble-rouser – arrogant, mean-spirited, and a dangerous atheist. Yet within a few decades of his death, his reputation inexplicably turned around, and today he is seen as one of America’s Founding Fathers. No reason. It just did because it did. Austen's fame would seem kind of like that; she gets famous, while so many other more interesting writers do not, and I’m afraid that’s just something we’re all going to have to live with.

Holiday's picture
Holiday November 14, 2016 - 7:24pm

Honestly, I was hoping this blog would have nothing good to say about Jane Austen. She has robbed me and  my  daughters of a relationship with  my mother and their grandmother.  My mother has repeatedly missed birthdays of both of her granddaughters because of the national Jane Austen conferences that go on every October. She also has missed her older granddaughter's birthday repeatedly because of the numerous Jane Austen teas that are sponsored by the libraries during the month of  December.   I do realize that this is more impart to do with the personality of my mom rather than Jane Austen's literary masterpieces, however I can't help but feel that Jane Austen herself may not have wanted people to make her into a demigod and place her above all other living people  and in some cases above the  almighty creator himself. 

 To me Jane Austen  is nothing  more than a person who's passed on. I'd love to meet her in the afterlife and sit down to have a fascinating conversation about  the world's obsession with her. 

 

Maria Shavzin's picture
Maria Shavzin December 9, 2016 - 12:08pm

Jane Autin wrote crap. The fact that so many women relate to her heroines is enough to make me weep for mankind. Her best known ( and sadly, loved) heroine Lizze Bennett is a selfish slag, who would put her married happiness ahead of her entire family possibly becoming homeless and starving. Lizzie's list of favorite things to do includes laughing at other people, and we see her making fun of a guy whose big fault was not being aloof or tall, an old lady, and her own mother. Nice girl. Then we have the important moral teaching us that Mr Whitcombe is an awful man, because he dared to want to marry a wealthy woman, never mind thta marriage is obviously the only way anyone could get ahead, because being smart and brave didn't get him all that far. However, it was very admirable for Jane and Lizzie to marry men that had money. No wonder Jane Ausin herself remained single, because who would want her?