No writer in the English language, other than William Shakespeare, is better known or more enduring, and none is more beloved, than Jane Austen. Herein we speculate as to why this is so.
Published only as "A Lady" during her lifetime, she worked mostly in obscurity and near poverty for much of her all-too-short adult life -- cut short at age 41 by what is thought to have been Addison's disease, or possibly Hodgkin's lymphoma -- until her breakout publication of Sense and Sensibility in 1811. By 1817 she lay buried in Winchester Cathedral, her career crowned with only six novels, two of them published posthumously by her brother and sister, Henry and Cassandra.
And yet her legacy lives on and on. Her works were so well received during her lifetime that even the Prince of Wales (eventually to become King George IV), was a dedicated fan; the consequence of which was that his librarian, James Stanier Clarke, suggested that she was at liberty to dedicate the upcoming publication of Emma to him. Unable to escape the honor, Emma was "by His Royal Highness's Permission, most Respectfully Dedicated by his Royal Highness's Dutiful and Obedient Humble Servant, the Author." After her premature death, her works slowly faded from popular view. However, in 1832 Richaed Bentley purchased the Austen copyrights and began reprinting her works in well-bound but affordable form, creating a vehicle to keep her works in public view.
Nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh's 1869 biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen, revived serious interest, both popular and academic. As a result, Austen became the subject of biographical research, and her novels became and remain the stuff of serious academic literary and social interpretation. They continue to be read and adapted to film, and literary continuations have become almost a cottage industry. Jane Austen is, as has truly been said, the gift that keeps on giving.
Why is Austen Popular?
Much has been written in conjecture as to why Austen continues to be so popular two centuries on. The possibility explored here is that -- beyond the obvious romantic plots and the comedic aspects and social satire -- Austen's fiction is predicated on heroines, and leading men, who are imbued with moral integrity and constancy of character at a deep and intrinsic level. And perhaps, as an unspoken corollary, that a stable and harmonious society must necessarily rest on the bedrock of such people for its continuation. There is a tendency among virtually all commentators to interpret Austen through the lens of each individual's own viewpoint, and we admit to the same. However, we believe there is ample internal evidence in her works to lend credence to the thesis.
Although she worked, as she said, on a "little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory. . .with so fine a brush," there is something present in Austen's writing that penetrates to the fundamental character of the human heart and soul. Austen had a gift for drawing readers into the ordinary lives of the people of her time and of the class into which she was born -- and from that, illustrating principles and values that are almost universal across place and time. Significantly, many of the writers who were popular in her time and in the decades that followed are no longer widely read. Austen has outlasted them all.
In popular imagination -- read casual understanding -- Jane Austen wrote romances, or perhaps romantic comedies. And her novels are certainly that -- ranking among the most popular love stories in the English language. For more educated readers, the received wisdom is that her works should be judged as comedies of manners. The latter is a form of narration which satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class, often employing stereotypes to make the point. Those familiar with Austen's work can readily find stereotypical characters that conform to the comedy of manners archetype. Her satire was delivered with a biting, yet deft comedic touch, that never fails to both amuse and illuminate, even today, two centuries later, because her characters are so universal and the portrayal so appealingly well done. Mr. Collins, anyone?
It is true that Austen wrote for her own time and milieu, of women in her own social and cultural situation. Women then had few opportunities for employment other than as wives. The hopes of a great many women outside the aristocracy rested on a good marriage for an escape from the bonds of poverty or of a life as a dependent on relatives. As such, women were dependent on men, and in a very real sense were at the mercy of men. Divorce, at the initiative of women, was virtually impossible, so a bad marriage could be as devastating as no marriage at all -- and perhaps worse if yoked to an abusive or unfaithful spouse. Finding a Cinderella match was a yearned-for way out of a potentially very real lifetime of penury and unhappiness for many women, a recurring theme in Austen's work. Yet, while the situation of women has long since changed, Cinderella stories have never gone out of style, and possibly never will.
What would Jane Do?
But as important and as real as these themes are, there is yet more to Jane Austen's works, a less explored depth that should be plumbed in explaining her lasting legacy. Central to all of Austen's novels, there is, without exception, an unalloyed foundation of moral rectitude and exemplary behavior, of which each heroine partakes -- as do her leading men. All six novels display this characteristic to a significant degree, which surely is not accidental. Austen's ability to ineluctably delineate, in the everyday lives of ordinary people, this underlying bedrock of civil, honorable and morally proper behavior as the bestower of happiness in life for its adherents is a hidden treasure, we believe, that has given Austen's work staying power across generations of readers and changes in cultural norms. Further, it is implicit in the character of her exemplar individuals that this conduct is the defining basis of a harmonious and enduring society.
The leading ladies of Jane Austen's novels are illuminated and informed by an intrinsic guiding moral character upon which the influence of temptation not only does not gain a foothold but which is, rather, viewed with severe disapprobation, if not outright censure. The central character of each of novel is, whatever else she may be, and however much enlightenment she may attain on her literary journey of self-discovery, a Jane Austen "Good Woman." And for that, she will be forever beloved and treasured by any society where intrinsic moral norms prevail.
However, notwithstanding the above, Austen's central characters never fall to the level of holier-than-thou, prudish women who act as wet blankets on any behavior beyond the straight-and-narrow on the part of those around her. No one could accuse her archetypical heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, of being anything less than a lively and self-confident independent woman who makes up her own mind and acts accordingly. (In a telling scene near the end of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth informs Darcy that her independent spirit was exactly why he fell in love with her.) Further, all of her leading ladies come to be depended on by those around them due to their intelligence, competence and good sense.
To trace the wellspring of this literary force, one must remember that Jane Austen was the daughter of a vicar. She grew up in a home steeped in a climate of moral rectitude. However, it was not one of pious restraint but of intellectual freedom. Her father had an extensive library, and she was allowed and encouraged from an early age to read and explore and to write anything that she chose. Her family often gathered together to enact plays as entertainment, and the politics of the day were well within the range of discussion for even a young Jane, who wrote a burlesque History of England as a juvenile, "ridiculing historians' pretensions to objectivity." (A biting example of her wit that, perhaps, has still not ceased to be of relevance?) The result was a rare flowering of literary accomplishment and insight into human nature.
In each of Austen's novels there appears a vicar or vicar-to-be, as either a central or a supporting character. Often the parson is the leading man, as is Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park. Sometimes the vicar is parodied, in the comedy of manners sense, as is Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice; sometimes he is even less enviable, as with Mr. Elton of Emma, and in Persuasion the individual, Charles Hayter, is a peripheral character. Further, Captain Wentworth's brother, who is never directly present in the novel, has his own parsonage. Even in Austen's unfinished manuscript, The Watsons, Emma's father is a clergyman, as is Emma's likely favorite, Mr. Howard. The only possible exception appears to have been Sanditon, wherein, at the point of abandonment, only a Rev. Hanking has been mentioned. Yet, for all of this, no Austen scene ever describes a church service, and there is no religious "preachiness" in her works. The underlying foundation of her fiction is not so much religion as it is moral behavior -- even though we know, based on formal written prayers preserved by her sister, Cassandra, that Austen was sincerely religious.
The Leading Ladies
The most obvious candidate as an Austen heroine guided by an inner moral compass is perhaps her least liked leading lady -- the diffident-to-a-fault Fanny Price. Throughout Mansfield Park, Miss Price -- one daughter among many children, who has been brought to the Park to lighten the load of Lady Bertram's wretchedly married and overburdened sister -- is treated as lower in status and affection than her supposed societal superiors at the Park. And yet, she is repeatedly confronted with behavior of a dubious nature by almost everyone she encounters. Even the love of her life, second son Edmund, is caught up in the temptations that swirl around her and that eventually lure others at the Park to their ruin. Through it all, the poor relation Miss Price maintains her straight arrow principles, even to the point of incurring banishment to her chaotic former home in Portsmouth -- and the ignominious inattention of her ne'er-do-well male-child obsessed father -- for refusing to accept the proposal of marriage of a man whom she knows to be of inconstant and objectionable character.
In Sense and Sensibility, Austen contrasts the restrained propriety (sense) of older sister Elinor with the live-for-the-moment joy of life (sensibility) that leads younger sister Marianne into danger, and thence almost to death's door, through an ill-chosen romance with a man of less than exemplary character. The moral lesson is doubly vouchsafed by the example of Elinor's chosen love, Edward, who, having entangled himself at an early age with a woman whom he later has ceased to love, nevertheless takes the honorable course of action when threatened with disinheritance by his mother -- offering to continue his engagement with the fortuneless lady in question.
Catherine Moreland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, begins the tale as a somewhat naive teenager who is enamored of Gothic novels. Through a series of encounters with various characters in the story, some of whom are of good integrity and some of whom are decidedly not -- but none of whom Catherine can discern one from the other in the beginning -- the leading lady eventually comes to discover an inner moral strength and discernment in herself that she lacked in the beginning.
Like Catherine Moreland, the title character of Emma begins the novel as an imperfect character. She is "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition," and she "seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence." She visits the poor and the ill, and she cares for her valetudinarian father with sincere affection. And yet, as the story unfolds, flaws in her character appear. She meddles in peoples lives, trying to marry pairs off for her own amusement. She does not like poor Miss Bates, who talks too much. She is jealous of the lovely, orphaned Miss Fairfax, who -- unlike Emma, who will never apply herself to difficult skills such as music or drawing -- is an exceptionally talented musician. Aware of her position among the finest families of Highbury, she looks down with disdain on the newly wealthy Coles, who have acquired their position and status merely through trade.
But, as the story unfolds, her character flaws lead her into one disastrous faux pas after another. Her attempts at matchmaking go terribly awry, leaving a young lady she has befriended without a suitor and herself with one she doesn't want -- the odious Mr. Elton. She becomes embroiled -- unbeknownst to herself, and due to her own vanity -- in a love triangle that brings grief to one of the parties. Eventually, Emma crosses a line of civility that goes inexcusably beyond mere unaware misstep, ridiculing Miss Bates in company, thereby incurring, for the first time ever, the unrestrained censure of her long time close friend, Mr. Knightley -- resulting in Emma's acute mortification. This series of humbling events culminates with, she fears, the loss of the man she, too late, has come to realize that she loves -- but it also leads to a turning point in her own journey to maturity. It is in crucible of this crisis that Emma finally finds herself, and with that discovery, the maturity to make decisions based on propriety.
In Persuasion, Anne Elliot is left with the wreckage of an unrequited romance that she was persuaded to abandon at an earlier age by her mother substitute, Lady Russell. Throughout the novel, Anne is surrounded by family members who constantly verbally denigrate her worth -- when they aren't simply ignoring her. Most of them are weak, uncaring, self-centered and, in the case of her father, downright narcissistic. Then, there is the scheming and avaricious Elliot family heir presumptive, William Walter, who seeks to woo her for his own gain. And yet, it is Anne on whom everyone depends and, in times of crisis, to whom everyone turns. Amid the vapidity of the Elliot family, and even in the face of Lady Russell's poor judgment, Anne Elliot is a rock of patient forbearance in situations that, for long stretches of the novel, seem very bleak indeed where her prospects for future happiness are concerned. But, in the end, the scoundrel, William Walter -- because her own finely honed moral sense has correctly seen through his attempts to conceal his duplicitous nature -- is justly sent packing; and her steadfastness is rewarded with a renewal of her lost courtship.
The Rewards of a Moral Life
There is another aspect of Austen's fiction that merits consideration -- her emphasis on the constrained role of women in society. It is possible that Austen's works may have helped advance the cause of women by bringing the unfairness of those limitations into the view of her readers -- without at the same time seeming to advocate overthrow of the social and political norms of her age. Those conventions were, at that time, under grave assault from a variety of directions. Murderous radicalism had been loosed in the French Revolution, a consequence greatly feared in England -- a dread the effect of which on public discourse cannot be underestimated. Mary Wollstonecraft had published Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, at the height of the French Revolution, a stinging indictment of "how the education system of Wollstonecraft's day conspired to keep women in a state of slavish dependency." Wollstonecraft's work was rightly also perceived as radical, but it did not summon forth the guillotine; thus it gained a tenuous foothold, thereby creating a wedge against England's one-sided institutions, albeit one that took a century to bear fruit.
Austen gained a receptive audience precisely because she placed ordinary, morally principled women in situations that would not fail to illustrate the out-of-balance nature of the then prevailing social and legal system, and in doing so, secured sympathy for their situation -- at the same time without opening the author up to accusations of radicalism, which would have almost certainly destroyed the viability of her art and of her role as a writer of fiction. As a dependent on her brothers, as were her sister and her mother, perhaps it was the case that she dared not do otherwise. In the words of Miriam Ascarelli, in an essay published by the Jane Austen Society of North America, "Why, then, does Austen fail to give Wollstonecraft any credit for contributing to her thinking? I think it was simply too dangerous." There is also this; the dissolute Wollstonecraft's notions of personal conduct would have been dramatically at odds with those expressed by Austen. Austen's views were conservative, albeit reformative of society, not radically disruptive; there was no hint of destruction of the existing order.
It seems that there are many layers to Austen's moral philosophy. Certainly, Austen herself was personally devout. Yet, in the absence of explicit religious references, one is left to wonder if Austen believed moral behavior to be an innate and inbred characteristic of the individual rather than something that religion created. Did the author plainly state this thesis in the words of her most famous leading man, Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice? "There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome." There is no mention of religion here, only of intrinsic character. And yet, Darcy, because of his love of Elizabeth, amended his own tendency to pride (perhaps rediscovering a latent moral nature that his upbringing and superior situation in life had submerged), and won the hand of the fair Elizabeth -- who, in turn, learned to overcome her own initial prejudice.
Is Jane Austen telling us that, by striving to be true to our own inborn moral beacon, we may come to experience the rewards of a fulfilled life? Fanny Price said as much to Mr. Crawford: "We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be." The theme is too pervasive, too oft repeated, to be accidental. If this is in fact true, it is a theme that rings true down through the centuries and across countless political, social and cultural upheavals. Her novels are not just tales of characters and plots; beyond that, they are insights into the innermost depths of human nature and the very moral fabric of life -- and of coherent and harmonious societies. It is this, at last, that well and truly explains why her works compel the attention and admiration of each new generation of readers. In the end, her "two inches of Ivory" has proven to be enduring literary gold.