This will (may?) be an occasional series of posts on my favourite writers. I will do them in no particular order of importance, with one exception, this first one. Jane Austen is the writer who turned my newly adolescent self from being a reader to a Reader. She is the one novelist whom I regularly re-read – whether it is to escape from humanity or delve more deeply into it.
So, what is it about Jane Austen that so appeals? Charlotte Bronte famously criticised Austen saying that “She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound”. Bronte though misses the point. A child of the Romantic era, she views the world through feeling and passion, whereas Jane Austen who transitions the Classic and Romantic eras saw the world far more rationally. She turns a more Pope-ish eye to her subjects and laughs at the foibles of humanity. I believe it is her light-with-bite touch that makes her, along with Shakespeare, the most widely read, studied and adapted of western authors today. As she wrote in Mansfield Park:
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.
Austen can perhaps be seen as the mother of the romcom but her romcom has bite. Like all romcoms her stories end happily for her main characters but unlike most modern romcoms (movies in particular) she is unsentimental, seeing even her main characters through clear analytical eyes. Her novels are not simply a matter of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, and boy-gets-girl again. They present a thorough analysis of the challenges women face in trying to make a self-determined way in a male-dominated world. The circumstances of women’s lives may have changed today but the truths of their lives haven’t necessarily. And so, while on the surface I enjoy her romcom, underneath it’s her feminism that keeps me coming back.
But there is more to Austen than her feminism. She is a keen observer of humanity and satirises – both through well-chosen words and phrases, and comic set pieces – pomposity, snobbery, stupidity, arrogance, hypochondria, greed and indeed any personality trait you can think of. And this is another reason why I love to re-read her because the more of the world I experience, the more I see in her work.
Then of course there is her writing. For some her long sentences and early 19th century language get in the way of understanding, but for me her language shines. She is terse and to the point. Her dialogue sparkles and she wastes little time on description. She makes me laugh, but she also makes my heart race.
I could spend time here describing each of her six novels but perhaps I’ll save those for separate reviews. So I will end here with just one of Jane’s observations:
The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.
This is Elizabeth Bennet caught at a bad time but you have to admit that, having seen Charlotte marry the silly Mr Collins and Mr Bingley talked by Mr Darcy and his sister into leaving the lovely Jane, she has a point.