Queen's University

There’s something about Jane

Few writers enjoy a more enduring popularity than does English novelist Jane Austen. Why is that? Prof. Robert Morrison has a theory.

Prof. Robert MorrisonProf. Robert Morrison (English) is author of The English
Opium-eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, and editor
of a new annotated edition of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion.
(Greg Black photo)

Why Jane Austen?

Why is there a seemingly endless series of conferences, articles, books, movies, editions, and “costumed weekends” devoted to her?

There are only six novels:

  • Sense and Sensibility (1811)
  • Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  • Mansfield Park (1814)
  • Emma (1815)
  • Northanger Abbey (1818)
  • Persuasion (1818)

Why does our culture turn to them more frequently than to the work of any other English author, with the possible exception of Shakespeare? What does Austen’s work contain that we need, or like, or miss so much?

There is, of course, no one answer. Indeed, a large part of her enduring appeal is that she does so many different things well. She is a great comic novelist with an almost unrivalled sense of irony, and all six of her novels are “comedies of manners” in which courtship is the foremost interest and marriage the highest ambition. Yet at the same time, Austen’s writings are full of dark shadows and deep anxieties. Several factors constantly threaten to deform the lives of her female characters: the shortage of money, the shortage of men, the shortage of genuine opportunity.

...to “fall in love” for us still means in many ways to fall in love like Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice...

Austen’s novels deal with subjugation, hypocrisy, injustice, and the sometimes debilitating fear of poverty and spinsterhood that hangs over the lives of many of her women. She was, as Virginia Woolf observes, “mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface.”

Further, Austen is celebrated for the “realism” with which she captures the day-to-day lives of the English gentry in the second decade of the 19th-century, as they eat, drink, dance, visit, walk, read, hunt, shop, and debate amidst an often dizzying array of gender restrictions, parental expectations, and social conventions, all of which Austen reveals with an often disarming clarity. Her novels, however, are also fairy tales in which her lead characters live in beautiful homes, sit on beautiful furniture, and wear beautiful clothes, and in which the immense social and psychological strains on many of her women are wished away in a happy ending that sees love conquer all, as Austen’s (invariably pretty and intelligent) heroine marries Austen’s (invariably handsome and wealthy) hero.

Austen also appeals to us because her world is at once far removed from our own and distinctly reminiscent of it. Most decisively, her characters speak in a way that repeatedly separates them from us, and that dramatically illuminates their polite and profoundly hierarchical society. In one of the most moving moments of Persuasion, the hero Captain Wentworth makes a request of the woman he loves. Propriety dictates that he should call her “Miss Elliot” or “Miss Anne Elliot,” even though he has known her for years and the two were previously engaged. But Wentworth slips. He calls her “Anne,” a burst of emotion that reveals his ongoing attraction to her, as well as the formalized and highly mannered way in which men and women interacted. Today – needless to say – we live very differently. Yet Austen remains vital. Thanks especially to movie versions of her books, for example, to “fall in love” for us still means in many ways to fall in love like Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, or like Anne and Wentworth from Persuasion, which I think is Austen’s greatest novel, and certainly her most modern and compelling love story.

Above all, Austen writes romances about female power. In her novels, men own the property and control the money. But they are often no match for the wit, insight, honesty, or courage of the women they love. Austen portrays – or imagines? – a fundamental equality between the sexes, and a passionate commitment between lovers that not only sees far beyond wealth, rank, gender, class, and social protocol, but that we may well worry does not exist in “real life.” Austen resonates so powerfully today because her range as a writer extends effortlessly from humour to fear, because she skillfully blends realism with wish-fulfillment, because her novels so penetratingly reveal the past and the present, and perhaps most of all because she shows us various versions of happiness and respect that we deeply admire, even as we recognize how far our own society still is from achieving these goals.

JANE AUSTEN AT A GLANCE...

Born: December 16, 1775, at Steventon, a village in Hampshire, England

Died: July 28, 1817, at Winchester, Hampshire, England. Although she is now regarded as being one of England’s foremost novelists, Austen was never publicly acknowledged as a writer during her brief lifetime.

For more information: Visit the homepage of the Jane Austen Society of North America

Queen's Alumni Review, 2012 Issue #2Queen's Alumni Review
2012 Issue #2
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