Jane Austen is one of the most beloved authors in the English language. Why? In this post, you’ll read about why Jane Austen maintains her popularity centuries after her death. Key arguments presented include Austen’s fusion of influences, her stylish consistency, memorable heroines, sense of humour and satire, the universalism of romance and the relevant themes and narratives.
With a close and individual focus on her six novels, I hope this post adds a new angle to discussing Jane Austen.
Jane Austen straddles the line between ‘romantic author’ and ‘not-so romantic author.’ Of course, I’m not referring to the best-selling genre, but the artistic period from the late 18th century to 1849. Romanticism has clear stylish tendencies and is underpinned by a philosophy of medievalism, subjectivity and beauty. Whilst Austen’s novels are beautifully written, there is little in the way of romanticism. Jane Austen has cynicism about romantic ideals.
“Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.”Emma
Her heroines may hold strong convictions or dreams, but they are later challenged in the story. Our heroine in Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, is often naive. However, she’s likeable due to her good heart and non-materialistic outlook on the world.
A problem many have with Jane Austen’s novels is how similar they read. This makes sense. The themes of manners, class, love and English culture are matched with personable heroines. Yet this can help explain Jane Austen’s popularity. Once you read one of her novels, it is very easy to pick up the next.
Of course, this can backfire on Austen. I wrote a post in 2019 about how I used to dismiss Austen due to a poor experience in high school English. It was easy to make simplifications about Jane Austen’s work, and only years later did I challenge my perspective.
Now, at a much older age, I appreciate the similarities and differences each Jane Austen novel has. Although I’m praising her consistent style, it’s important to note how different each Austen novel is from each other.
Jane Austen perfected the definition of ‘heroine.’ Her characters stand out for many reasons. The first one is that Austen bothers to give her heroines a personality, and isn’t afraid of making her characters appear naïve, stubborn, argumentative or sometimes, hostile. What’s great about Austen, and why her heroines are memorable, is her multi-dimensional view of women.
“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”Persuasion
In her stories, heroines matter. They shape the outcomes, challenge characters, and cause conflict. Because of this, readers are more invested in the events of Austen’s novels.
Years later, authors ranging from George R.R Martin, A.S Byatt to Margaret Atwood contribute their own individual flair to heroines.
HUMOUR & SATIRE
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen is not only funny, but clever. Her books contain parody (Northanger Abbey) and satirical elements. While reading a Jane Austen novel, it is often surprising how enjoyable of an experience it can be. She transforms ‘traditional’ settings (like a household) to places of humour and joy. Many people who are unfamiliar with Austen’s work may dismiss her novels based on the premises alone. ‘It’s not relatable’ or ‘who wants to read a story with no carnage?’
But Jane Austen is more of a satirist than a dramatic writer (not to say she doesn’t have tense moments!) It’s the wrong approach to read Sense & Sensibility while expecting Wuthering Heights.
Like the next point, romance, comedy is difficult for writers to pull off. But, like the great Jonathan Swift before Austen, she accomplishes humorous writing that has a ‘bite’ to it.
THE UNIVERSALISM OF ROMANCE
Romance, the bestselling genre, is often underestimated by writers and readers in how difficult it is to create. An author must establish two likeable leads, create believable chemistry, and ensure a happy ending.
“My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”Pride And Prejudice
This is difficult, but Jane Austen pulls it off. Because of this, she enjoys generation after generation of ‘romance’ readers, including those who have aversions to the genre. This expands her pool of readers, and Austen results in being a well-known author who deals with romance.
RELEVANT THEMES & NARRATIVES
Part of Austen’s reputation is her masterful use of themes, which are carefully woven into her narrative. From social class, to marriage, to family, Jane Austen explores many themes relevant to humanity. Not only are these themes timeless, but Austen’s commentary remains potent and relevant, regardless of what time period the reader is in.
One such theme is the relationship between parent and child, displayed terrifically in Pride & Prejudice. The angst of a parent’s disapproval worries children today, and will do so in the future.
In conclusion, Jane Austen is not just a terrific novelist because of her prose and characterisation, but because of her relevance and social gravitas.
What’s your favourite Jane Austen novel? Comment below.