I have to confess that I never before completed reading a novel by Jane Austen, something unheard of in our Austen-obsessed society. I started Pride and Prejudice (1813) for my Senior English class in High School, but I didn’t finish it and then the school year ended and I was off to college where I somehow avoided all things Austen without really trying. When my book club decided that we would all read a different Jane Austen book for our March meeting, I was appropriately assigned the book I failed to complete 17 years earlier.
Of course, I’ve seen all the adapted from Austen movies so it’s really difficult to get into Pride and Prejudice without having visions of Colin Firth and Keira Knightley intruding. One thing immediately apparent is that Elizabeth Bennet is not the proto-feminist of her screen version but only moderately sensible compared to her ridiculously silly sisters. I also found it difficult to get into the mindset of 200-years ago when people were scandalized by what my mind sees as pretty ordinary teenage behavior. But I’m pretty liberal for any age.
I found the book an enjoyable read, a bit breezy but tied down by making me care about the characters. Austen also offers up some brilliant wit and subtle zingers. One of my book club cohorts said that she didn’t get the appeal of Jane Austen to so many readers (and filmgoers) today. I decided to make a list of why I think Jane Austen continues to be so popular:
- Takes one back to a time and place far more elegant than most of us will ever experience. There’s also the emphasis on civility that can be quite appealing when it appears that civility lacking in our own time.
- Everyone loves a (well-written) romance. When I’ve volunteered at the Prison Book Program, some prisoners request trashy romance novels, but we’re prohibited from sending them sexual content. So they’re sent books by Austen and the Brontes instead. No one’s complained to my knowledge.
- While not as feminist as the movie versions, Austen’s books offer an honest woman’s voice at a time you don’t hear much directly from women.
- They’re funny several levels: satire, dramatic irony, and wit (for starters).
- Moral lessons are taught without being preachy.
- They end well.
Feel free to add to this list for I know it is incomplete.