“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Arguably one of the most famous first lines in English literature, much of Pride and Prejudice (1813) incorporates elements of irony, a literary device that Jane Austen mastered in her novels that have influenced the world of English literature. Her own works of literature, like Emma (1815), have been commended around two centuries later, as they have only been recognized recently in the middle of the 20th century. Some have been adapted into modern motion pictures, like Clueless (1995).
Societal standards in the 19th century restricted many female writers. Most women were expected to marry well for financial stability, not pursue a professional career. Because of this, many female writers published their work anonymously. Despite this, Austen’s family nurtured her passion for writing. Her brother, Henry Austen, helped her publish Sense and Sensibility (1811), her first novel. It was written under the pseudonym, “A Lady.
After she died, most likely to Addison’s disease, her brother published her unfinished work. In the eulogy, he credited her as the author of all of her novels, giving her the recognition she had deserved.
The novels she wrote are known worldwide for observing the relationships of the upper-class English gentry, mainly women. Really, her style of writing was ahead of its time. Austen utilized free indirect discourse, a relatively new perspective only gaining popularity in the mid-19th century. Free indirect discourse intertwines third-person internal thoughts with the overall narrative of the story, applying first-person direct speech. The wit and clever comments on ordinary social normalities have set Austen apart from other authors from her time.
Jane Austen had the ability that not many writers have today: the ability to bring ordinary characters to life on the pages. She experimented with literary and social conventions in her storytelling. She can communicate her private feelings and values through her work. Communication and expression, or lack thereof, are major themes in Mansfield Park (1814) and Persuasion (1817). In Pride and Prejudice and Emma, Austen pens characters that are supposedly able to communicate with each other, but in these novels, she focuses on how social dynamics affect character development and emotions.
For example, the rhythm and flow of the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth is similar to that of Knightley and Emma. Both stories end with a happy marriage, suggesting that harmony is equivalent to social significance.
By examining the conflict in Pride and Prejudice, readers can see Austen’s talent. Elizabeth Bennett, the protagonist of the story, must challenge her own inner beliefs or “truths.” She overcomes her prejudices of Darcy and Wickham after reading a letter from Darcy, realizing the deviousness of the latter. Then, Austen demonstrates Elizabeth’s shame clearly to the reader, balancing emotion and rationale: “‘til this moment, I never knew myself (108).” Austen depicts the vulnerability of self-realization of her main character, which allows her to view the world from a different perspective for the rest of the novel. She recognizes faults within her father that were once unnoticeable, and her relationship with Jane is strained because of an outside factor. Austen creates complications, not situations, creating a complex plot with dynamic characters.
In the comically light Emma, Austen established a similar protagonist who was the most conscious character in the novel, but the most emotionally oblivious. Emma is struck with a cathartic realization: “A mind like her’s, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched – she admitted – she acknowledged the whole truth . . . It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” (407-8.) After relieving her guilt, she is able to find happiness with Mr. Knightley, an alike ending as Elizabeth’s.
In her later novels like Mansfield Park and Persuasion, Austen’s heroines endure separation from their lovers and social exclusion. Austen comments on the frivolousness of the society within these two novels. Fanny, the protagonist, experiences extreme pain attempting to fit in. Austen remarks on the deceptive nature of Mansfield, a place that compromises their morals for tranquility.
Austen also comments on the essence of relationships. A couple of her novels follow a pattern: woman meets dashing, handsome man. Then, his true character is revealed, and that man’s values do not match his appearance. Austen suggests that a good man’s character will be tried and revealed.
So, why should we read Jane Austen? How could an author alive over two hundred years ago possibly help our writing or our reading? Unfortunately, there are many who view her works of literature as simple “love stories,” refusing to look to her satirical humor and clever commentary. She writes about relevant issues today: relationships and their mishaps, society and its flaws, and most importantly, human nature. To read about relatable women, read Jane Austen. To sharpen your own wit and writing style, read Jane Austen. To learn about the world, read Jane Austen.
- BBC. “History – Jane Austen.” BBC. BBC, 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/austen_jane.shtml#:~:text=After%20the%20death%20of%20Jane’s,Sensibility’%2C%20appeared%20in%201811.
- McCann, Charles J. “Setting and Character in Pride and Prejudice,” 1964. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2932788.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_search_gsv2%252Fcontrol&refreqid=excelsior%3A930d84264aa90b54ba834a1e5e1f01c7.
- Morrison, Sarah R. “Of Woman Borne: Male Experience and Feminine Truth in Jane Austen’s Novels.” JSTOR, 1994. https://www.jstor.org/stable/29533008?ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_gsv2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=fastly-default%3A095cfbe2f9d2f9e36c7cafea14f33f88&seq=1.
- Poff, Corey. “Why I Read Jane Austen,” August 19, 2015. https://cbmw.org/2014/08/12/why-i-read-jane-austin/.
- Shaw, Valerie. “Jane Austen’s Subdued Heroines,” 1975. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2933071.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_search_gsv2%252Fcontrol&refreqid=excelsior%3Aed39d1460ef0507b20353bc4b82a3a04.
- University, Stanford. “Stanford Literary Scholars Reflect on Jane Austen’s Legacy,” August 2, 2017. https://news.stanford.edu/2017/07/27/stanford-literary-scholars-reflect-jane-austens-legacy/.