Yet, almost 200 years after her death, she is one of the world’s most revered writers, a literary giant, her life the topic of dozens of biographies, her work the subject of thousands of academic studies. In recent decades, her novels have frequently been adapted for television and film. The internet has spawned countless blogs and websites on which all things Austen are analysed and adored. There are mugs, and tea towels, and t-shirts, and books of Jane Austen quotations, and instructions on just how manners maketh man - and woman - according to her expert word.
Novels have been written in imitation of her own, in tribute to her own and in completion of her own. There are sequels, parodies and eroticised versions of her writings, and, most entertainingly perhaps, contemporary mash-ups, including recent bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which bears the subtitle, ‘The Classic Regency Romance - now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!’ Jane, who was not at all averse to a good parody, and wrote several of her own, would probably have found all this adoring preoccupation with her work highly amusing. As she once wrote:
‘I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter’.
In this hyper-connected world, why do we still care so much for her stories, drawn in the far-off days of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries on to such a small canvas, ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush’, as Jane Austen herself once called it. ‘You are now collecting our People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on,’ she advised her aspiring novelist niece Anna, in 1814.Her own novels rarely extend beyond these parameters, and the biggest dramas we encounter are broken engagements, sprained ‘ancles’ and that now quaint social crime: elopement.
Despite the fact that she lived in turbulent times, there are no wars in Jane Austen. Poverty and rural crime, which was all too present even in her limited world, rate scarcely a mention. Her plots can be summarised as: girl meets boy and eventually, after varying obstacles are overcome, they marry.
And yet there’s still something about Jane, far beyond the famous romances which are the subject of her novels. Over 200 years after they were written they still capture the complexities of human beings, and the nuances of their relationships, with all their joys, tensions, contradictions and ironies - and they continue to beguile readers the world over.
This spinster novelist with little experience of the wider world, raised on a diet of swooning, unrealistic tales of love and scandal, was a genius at observing and describing ordinary human behaviour. Her narratives are immensely satisfying because of the sophistication of their construction and the precise brilliance of the style with which they are told. Her dialogue never sounds less than true.
Sir Walter Scott, the most popular novelist of his day, was one of the first to recognise Austen’s talent in this respect, declaring himself envious of her ‘exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment’. Genteel ladies and gentlemen, whose behaviour rarely deviates from acceptable social norms, her characters may be, but as she declares in Emma, what Jane Austen understood so well was that ‘seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human discourse’.
Scratch the surface of her characters’ polite social exchanges and universal, timeless human dilemmas emerge. Is this man all he seems to be? Is my friend true? Am I really in love? Hypochondriacs are annoying. Some girls are very silly. Some men are only out for what they can get. Some women only care about money. Austen’s insights into what goes on in the human head and heart beneath the social veneer are second to none. The smallest telling detail - a word, a turn of phrase, a witty aside, a foolish remark, a look, a look away - can reveal the innermost workings of her characters’ hearts and minds.
Virginia Woolf once remarked that of all great writers, Jane Austen was ‘the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness’. It is her minute attention to detail that makes Austen such a giant of a writer and such a favourite of so many readers. Her novels can be returned to again and again, throughout life, because on each reading they will reveal something new. Read her as a teenager and, despite Jane’s own protestations that she couldn’t write a ‘serious romance’ to save her life, her novels present themselves as love stories, where the heroine always gets the right man in the end, but finds out things she needs to know about him and about herself along the way. Read them when older, and perhaps more cynical about life and relationships, and her characters reveal not so much their romantic aspirations but the extent to which property, status, health and wealth preoccupy them.
In short, Jane Austen’s stories give her readers a profound sense of her characters’ inner lives. Whatever your thoughts on Austen, her influence, especially on other writers, cannot be underestimated.
By Caroline Sanderson