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?
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?
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