Jane Austen died almost exactly two hundred years ago, on July 18, 1817. The anniversary bringing a small flood of new literary biographies. She wrote about a world that was, psychologically and socially a million miles away from present-day Britain or America, in the kind of English that nobody speaks or writes any more. The massive popularity of Jane Austen's work in the twenty-first century is therefore something of a mystery. Movies and TV specials have something to do with it, of course. Austen’s characters have been all over our screens these past few years – at least sixteen feature-length films since 2000, and half a dozen TV miniseries.
I have heard it suggested that people – men as well as woman – are starved for romance, and they find Jane Austen's work romantic. This is an extraordinary notion. Jane Austen detested romance, satirized it relentlessly throughout her work. She uses no romantic settings, which were common in the novels of her time. Her portrayal of relationships between women and men is more farcical than romantic. Always in the immediate foreground is the question of money: how much she has and, even more important, how much he has. Economically speaking, a good marriage in the early 1800s was like winning the lottery. It was about as romantic as an investment seminar.
But although love interest is crudely economic, we do find a vastly different sexual morality in Jane Austen's novels. We can enjoy the idea of virtue, at a safe distance.
We can smile indulgently at the comical snobbery of the Georgians, so unlike us in their obsession with social position, property, and clothes. Her fiction is full of idle men and unoccupied women, with no special reason to exist at all. The great minds and mighty characters of the age do not appear on her stage. It is as distinctively and purely middle class as a modern suburban development or an afternoon soap opera. Marriage and money are really the only things that matter.
Nevertheless, I do hope that the anniversary encourages more people to read the books instead of watching the movies. Jane Austen was such a fine writer, so artful that she seems artless. She followed the number one rule for authors: write what you know. And how she knew it, that narrow middle-class world. I like to imagine her as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Witty, critical, clever – too clever by half – not likely to fall for a pretentious balloon of self-esteem like Mr. Darcy.
In 1815, Prince Leopold of Coburg suggested to Jane Austen that she should write a historical romance. She declined. In her reply she said, she couldn't write a romance because in a romance you are not supposed to laugh. That, I would like to believe, is the true key to Jane Austen’s lasting popularity: that she reminds us on every page how much we resemble her heroes and heroines, that our pretensions and illusions, like theirs, are just a joke. She persuades us to laugh at ourselves.
Copyright: David Bouchier