When Jane Austen penned her novels of love and courtship in the early 1800s, she wrote about a world that is utterly foreign to most of us. Unmarried couples were not allowed to call each other by their first names; women were considered hopeless old maids at thirty. What could her novels possibly have to do with the lives of self-actualized women today?
Quite a lot, apparently. In the last twelve years, Austen has undergone a massive renaissance. Five of her six novels have been adapted into feature films, while the BBC’s 1995 “Pride and Prejudice”—which shot Colin Firth to fame as Mr. Darcy—has gained legions of fans. Austen is also irresistible to contemporary novelists; some write sequels to her books, while others (like Helen Fielding, author of the Bridget Jones novels) borrow lavishly from her plots and characterization. And the film “Becoming Jane,” an imagined story of Austen’s love life, was released this August.
Something About Jane
Clearly, there’s something about Jane. The question is, what? An unabashed fan myself—the kind who can quote sections of Pride and Prejudice and has never gotten over her crush on Sense and Sensibility’s Colonel Brandon—I plied Jane-ites of my acquaintance (all women in their twenties and thirties) to share their thoughts.
Not surprisingly, many of them spoke about the theme that drives all of Austen’s books: the search for Mr. Right. Diane sees the novels as well-written versions of the classic Cinderella story. “We all hope that there is some Prince Charming out there who will whisk us out of whatever form of hell we’re in and live a better life with us,” she says. Hemali, a self-described “hopeless romantic,” agrees. Coming from an Indian culture where “everyone talks about marriage from the time you are in college,” she can relate to Austen’s heroines and their efforts to find true love.
For many women, the formality of the novels’ male/female interactions is also a part of their charm. Relationships today can move at a dizzying speed, making it a treat to escape into a world where love unfolded slowly. “People made time for things like conversation and dancing,” says Jordan. “I love that relationships moved more slowly with time for courtship and letter writing, instead of meeting in a club where the music is too loud to talk.”
Though Austen is famous for what she did write about—characters who have to navigate social expectations, family dynamics, and their own prejudices in order to find happiness—she’s equally famous for what she didn’t write about. First on that list is sex. Her books invariably end with marriage, but the intimate details thereof are left to the reader’s imagination (although an ever-growing number of novelists are picking up where she left off, writing sequels whose bedroom scenes would surely make Austen blanch).
For the women I spoke to, this lack of overt sex contributes to Austen’s timeless appeal. “Austen lets us feel classic, smart, witty, and feminine at the same time. She’s the little black dress of literature,” explains Jessie. “While she doesn’t really address sex, she does address flirtation, seduction, affairs, wooing, etc. All of these are relevant to us today, while most of what’s written about sex becomes irrelevant upon publication.”
Lynne agrees, explaining that the physical restraint between Austen’s characters is more compelling than today’s more explicit love scenes. “I want to believe that there can be a balance between romance and sex in this world, that a look can pass between a man and a woman that is so intense and meaningful that it makes the rest of the world fade away,” she says.
Depth and Likeability
While relationships form the backbone of any Austen novel, her characters are also strong individuals in their own right. Austen—who spent hours in drawing rooms and ballrooms, observing the humanity around her—is famous for the complex characters she sketched with her witty, pointed prose. Janine appreciates the depth and likeability of the books’ heroines. “I’ve always felt that Austen’s female protagonists have had a good sense of self (or at least think they do),” she reflects. “They’re confident, occasionally misguided, and generally pleasant individuals. They seem to have empathy for those around them and this burning desire to improve things.”
Years ago, I had a conversation with a college friend who was explaining his love of science fiction/fantasy books. “To me, they represent the ultimate triumph of good over evil,” he said. “Funny,” I told him in all earnestness,” that’s why I love Jane Austen.” In her stories, the authentic women end up with the dreamy men, while the superficial women don’t. Her books are the ultimate fantasy for women trying to navigate the dating world and still remain true to themselves. It’s a comfort to think that, when it comes to finding love, character really can carry the day.
Though Austen’s appeal seems to be mainly among women, many Jane-ites see that as a shame—and a missed opportunity for men. Her novels offer not just wit and suspense, but also great insight into the female psyche. And, as Jessie explains, any man who hopes to find his own spunky heroine should never underestimate the magnetic appeal of the Austen name. “Most single men ‘in want of a wife’ would do well to carry a copy of Persuasion to the coffee shop,” she says. “Combined with a cashmere sweater? He’d be deadly.”