Why Jane Austen?

"Sorry, Jane Austen, but Mr. Darcy is actually the worst" was an eye-catching headline in today's Washington Post. Elizabeth Held was reviewing Rachel Feder's book titled "The Darcy Myth." Although Feder enjoyed the book and found it "wildly entertaining," she disagrees with the premise that Darcy is "a monster in disguise" and certainly not "redeemable." She posits instead that "it is not Mr. Darcy who is the monster but the patriarchal system ruling the Bennet women’s lives."

We read all of Jane Austen last year in "Oracles" (the name our founder—no longer with us—gave to our book club). And as is the custom, he passed on to us, we write an essay at the end of the year. Today's review inspired me to share:

Why read Jane Austen now, more than two hundred years after her books were published? They do little to capture the history of the times with barely a mention of the French Revolution or the Napoleonic Wars. References are made to slavery and colonialism in Mansfield Park, but little attention is paid. Absent are the heart wrenching descriptions of the poor and downtrodden Charles Dickens brought to light or the questions of morality raised by Nathaniel Hawthorne. No outrage related to social inequity here.

The number of fans and admirers she could count during her lifetime was relatively small and her assets at the time her death counted less than eight hundred pounds. Yet her audience grew steadily and mushroomed in the 1940s.To date, more than thirty million books by Jane Austen have been sold. Not only did her books become immensely popular, but there have been seventeen film and television adaptations of "Pride and Prejudice," and three films and three mini-series of "Emma."

And why? I’ve wondered about this throughout this season of Oracles. Might it be the joy of discovery—the unveiling of certain somewhat mysterious truths—that draws us into Austen’s world? The desire, perhaps universal, to share a revelation—to recognize that things don’t always go as planned and people are not always what they appear to be? That yearning to be surprised just as we were when first playing with a jack-in-the-box.

Austen is a brilliant truthsayer, one of the best, when it comes to depicting human nature. She reveals the vain, cold-hearted, and selfish—the generous, wise, and curious. And she refuses to shy away from changing feelings and perceptions can change. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne learns Willoughby is not the gentleman she thought he was. She is awakened to his true character only to (finally) turn her love and affection towards Colonel Brandon. And think how long it took Anne and Captain Wentworth of Persuasion to accept each other. Or Elizabeth to accept Mr. Darcy’s marriage proposal in "Pride and Prejudice"…. Catherine too learns a thing or two once she realizes Northanger Abbey may not be haunted and General Tilney not as evil as she had imagined.

Some of these truths may become self-evident before the plot is resolved or even fully developed. As we wait for the revelation, our anticipation grows, suspense builds—we’re hooked. All the while we learn truths about ourselves; we gain insights into our own hearts and minds.

Reading Jane Austen requires us to put ourselves into an environment far different from our own, to suspend our 21st century worldview, to re-imagine ourselves in a patriarchy where the livelihood of women of a certain class becomes highly dependent on marriage. And if we do, we’re introduced to a world where most characters (perhaps with the exception of Lady Susan) are multi-dimensional—and many of their traits exaggerated given Austen is by nature a satirist. The variety of human relationships is astounding—mother/child, father/child, husband/wife, two siblings, and two suitors, or multiple siblings and multiple suitors. In our discussions, we talked much about young women who suffer from unrequited love and the mothers who demand too much or have narrow views, but not enough perhaps of the loyalty and love siblings express one for the other—Marianne and Elinor in "Sense and Sensibility," Jane and Elizabeth in "Pride and Prejudice."

"Persuasion" is the title of one of Jane Austen’s novels, and also a theme that runs through her oeuvre as Austen so enjoys the art of persuasion (perhaps to a fault)—gently convincing us to see people from her point of view—the characters not being as they first appear. She only succeeds because she chooses her words carefully and her juxtaposition is spot-on. In Sense and Sensibility, note Mrs. Jennings’ “usual noisy cheerfulness.”

Three reflections on character (and sensibility) stuck with me—all three related to human nature that transcends centuries.

After Edmund asks Fanny to return to Mansfield Park to comfort his mother, Austen writes, “There is nothing like employment, active, indispensable employment, for relieving sorrow. Employment… may dispel melancholy.” I have often found that to be true—no doubt, it may be a universal remedy for melancholy. In any case, it bears repeating.

And in "Sense and Sensibility," we see the sisters Marianne and Elinor take on different roles to compensate one for the other. “Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell.” There’s Jane Austen reminding us that it falls on each of us to make the most of our own—and to reach out to others who can “fill the gaps” for us.

And now for a quote from Emma: “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart. There is nothing to be compared to it. Warmth and tenderness of heart, with an affectionate, open manner, will beat all the clearness of head in the world, for attraction. I am sure it will,” when thinking of her best friend Harriet. The same tenderness of heart that throughout this year—and previous years—we’ve shown to one another.

Jane Austen opens our eyes to what makes people tick and why we depend one on the other.

Image: Detail of C. E. Brock illustration for the 1895 edition of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, 1895.