The Joys of Jane Austen: Lessons from a Georgian Lady

Today is Jane Austen’s birthday and in honour of the author I love most in the world, I thought I’d write a little bit about the joy of Jane Austen and what her writing has taught me. Apart from trying to quote her in everything I write (because I think she has a piece of wisdom for virtually every situation), I love reading her books and do so again and again because they have such an enduring appeal, completely agreeing with her that

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

NPG 3630; Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen
Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, c.1810 (c) National Portrait Gallery (NPG 3630)

She disrupted the typical life cycle and asked questions about what women were told they could expect. She questioned the conventional life cycle for women and played with the conventions in her time. For instance, Anne Elliot in Persuasion is deemed to have passed the marriageable age and condemned to live a life as an old maid at the age of twenty-seven. However, she comes back into the contact with the man she loved many years before, Captain Frederick Wentworth, and proves to her relatives that she is not beyond love and can marry who she pleases. In fact, in 2013, the average age for a woman to get married was 30.6 years so Anne, by today’s standards, is still very young. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine is shocked to find that all five of the Bennet sisters are “out”, and that they did not have a governess. She advises that younger sisters should only be presented when their elder siblings are married, with Elizabeth remarking that it would not be fair for the younger sisters to have to wait until the older ones had picked a suitor. Austen constructs complex heroines who, though the ultimate end to each story ends with marriage, discover more about themselves as the stories take place and cannot settle on a husband until they have found out more about the world and their own personal happiness, with Marianne Dashwood declaring in Sense and Sensibility that

“The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!”

Her novels question the position of women in society and are wittier than many realise. In more than one novel, she points out the unfairness of an estate going to the nearest male relative. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet desperately vies for one of her daughters to marry Mr Collins, the cousin of her husband who stands to inherit Longbourn, so that they may be kept there should anything happen to her husband. The position they are in threatens the happiness of the daughter offered up as sacrifice to a man described as

“altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.”

Sense and Sensibility sees the Dashwood sisters and their mother left virtually destitute after the death of their father, with their half-brother John Dashwood and greedy wife Fanny turning them out of Norland Park to go to Devon and rebuild a life there in a cottage near the home of Mrs Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton. All of the belongings they felt defined them at Norland, such as the library full of books and the piano, are left behind and the sisters have to maintain their identities and personalities in this alien world. Her exploration of Fanny Price as the poor relation in Mansfield Park also highlights some of the hypocrisies of the upper classes through the actions of the Crawford siblings and show that Austen had an astute understanding of the society around her, one which she was not afraid to play with and question in her novels. She also placed a great deal of importance on friendship, with the development of, in particular, female friendships key to the plots of her novels and offering pillars of support to the heroines in times of upheaval.

She created flawed, yet loveable, heroines. Rather than being pristine paragons of virtue, Austen’s heroines show many different character types and their flaws are explored throughout the novels. Emma Woodhouse is perhaps the greatest example of this. In Emma, Austen wrote that she wanted to create a heroine nobody but herself would much like: Emma is a busybody, a matchmaker, manipulating everybody around her according to her own schemes, a self-appointed authority on the world, abrupt and sometimes unfeeling. However, Emma is not unlikeable – the humour in the novel sees to that as Emma mixes up the affections of different people: she advises her protégée Harriet Smith to turn down the proposal of Robert Martin, seeking to engage her to the local curate Mr Elton, who instead believes all the situations Emma has engineered for Harriet and Mr Elton to be together a game in which it is in fact Emma confessing her love to him. It is similar for her other heroines: Elizabeth Bennet is too judgemental and cynical about the world, Marianne Dashwood too passionate and impulsive, Catherine Morland lets her imagination run away with her, Anne Elliot is too easily led and full of regret and Fanny Price too meek. In the novels Austen doesn’t let her conclusions often come as an overcoming of these flaws, but instead in spite of them, with an awareness of their flaws cultivating a progression of their character and a desire to change.

Her stories are timeless. It almost seems when you read any novel or watch any film with some kind of romantic plotline that Jane Austen set out the classic tropes for romance. I think the amount of adaptations that have been made of Austen’s novels, alongside reinterpretations of them in various formats, show the timelessness of her tales. A classic example of this is the Austen Project, which has called on contemporary authors to reimagine each of the novels in a modern world – and the stories fit perfectly. Curtis Sittenfeld’s reworking of Pride and Prejudice, Eligible, shows the Bennet sisters in modern day Cincinnati and how class, marriage, education and family are all still really important themes. Perhaps one of the most well-known reimaginings of Pride and Prejudice is Bridget Jones’ Diary, a romantic comedy phenomenon on both page and screen which saw Bridget Jones fall for her Mr Wickham, the rakish Daniel Cleaver, and disregard the brooding Mark Darcy (played by Colin Firth because of author Helen Fielding’s love for Austen and the 1995 adaptation) until she realises that he is actually the romantic hero. Fielding’s follow up to this, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, is also loosely based on Persuasion, in following Bridget’s quest to get Mark back. With vibrant, loveable characters, witty plotlines and interesting twists, Austen’s six full novels are timeless classics.

Basically, I think she’s just brilliant. I’m not trying to argue that Jane Austen dishes out life advice from beyond the grave, but she was one of my first literary loves and she will always be the greatest. She was a woman who was undoubtedly a social critic and who wrote incredibly funny and heart-warming stories. Though often disregarded as writing nice little romantic tales, there is a lot more nuance to her work and I think (particularly when her face graces the new £10 note) she will continue to be celebrated with ardour and enthusiasm as a true classic in English literature.


    1. historylizzie

      Every time I think Jane Austen my thought process is “Pride and Prejudice… Pemberley… Mr Darcy… Colin Firth… Pond… Wet shirt…” I think I also need help!

    1. historylizzie

      Thank you so much! Persuasion is one of my favourite Austen novels and I really love Anne. I think it’s often forgotten about! I’m really glad you enjoyed it – it was a chance for me to ramble about how much I love Jane Austen (which I bet I’ll post about more and more!)!

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