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Six books, only. Six apparently simple novels ,an unfinished seventh, and a few fragments. And their author? The spinster second daughter of a late eighteenth century provincial clergyman, dead at 41. Yet there isn’t a city today,anywhere across the globe, that won’t, in some way and to some degree, be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of the best known of all those six books – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
So – what is her magic, her particular power? What is that draws movie makers, and other writers, and legions of devoted fans all over the world, to want to read her, imitate her, pay tribute to her, film her creations, and even try to live the life she portrayed, dressing in bonnets and muslins and mittens? She inspires, among those who love those six books, not just awe and adoration, but frequently a bizarre possessiveness, which only serves to emphasise her particular ability to speak to the individual alongside the universal. There aren’t Dickensites or Tolstoyites or Bronteites, after all. But there are Janeites, proudly identifying themselves as precisely that.
There are also whole libraries of words, written since her death, trying to identify the secret of her not just abiding, but ever growing appeal; but for a newspaper piece, I’m going to narrow the matter down to three elements.
And the first of those three is her subject matter, from which she never strayed. Her preoccupations were timeless, and of perpetual fascination, and pre-occupation, to the entire civilised world; quite simply, they were romantic love, money, and class. Her heroines are all young and pretty – even Anne Elliot, the oldest, is only 27, and Marianne Dashwood is a mere 17 – and her heroes are either young blades in their ebullient twenties, or established youngish men, like Mr Knightley or Colonel Brandon, of 35. So, we have lovely youth, for starters, and where there is youth there is boundless sexual energy, which has to be – this is 1813 after all – either excitingly repressed or, equally thrillingly, part-released in dancing and riding and walking and stately flirtation. There are rules for romantic conduct in the Regency, and they create a magnificent tension.
But nothing like the tension around money. The seeming game of romance in 1813 was, in fact, deadly serious. It was actually about marriage, since gently born women of the period were wholly and wretchedly dependent upon men for their livelihoods. Marriage was not an option, it was a necessity; hence the hideous sabotage of women by women in the Austen canon. Louisa Musgrove is attempting to seduce Captain Wentworth for her very life – she would not have considered herself free to think of Anne Elliot’s pain.
But even that grim necessity aside, Jane Austen was as acutely aware of the sex appeal of wealth, as E.L. James has recently been. Would there have been the same erotic appeal of that trilogy last year, had it been set in a sordid bedsit above a takeaway? Would Mr Darcy, snobbish, stiff and humourless – good grief, the poor boy is only in his twenties! – have had half his allure if he hadn’t owned half Derbyshire, a mansion and a private income of ten thousand a year? All these heroes of Jane Austen’s have money : Mr Knightley and Colonel Brandon run their thriving estates at Donwell and Delaford with quiet competence; Captain Wentworth has amassed his prize money; Edmund Bertram is given the living and parsonage house at Mansfield Park. And the rakes, the unprincipled adventurers, are punished with poverty – Wickham, Willougby, Henry Crawford. Jane Austen says herself that the penalty for disgraceful behaviour “is less equal than could be wished”, but early 19th century poverty was a harsh fate indeed, not least because it entirely neutralised, in the broadest sense, anyone’s pulling power.
As, in a different way, did class. Snobberies may be nuanced differently now, but there isn’t a reader who doesn’t relish the joyous vulgarities of Mrs Elton, or the stuck up stupidity of Lady Catherine de Burgh or the gossipy follies of Mrs Jennings, never mind those with a beady eye upon the minutiae of social structure, like Sir Walter Elliot or Aunt Norris. In Emma, indeed, a large part of the plot turns upon class, and Emma’s conviction that she can manipulate the rules. There isn’t a writer on earth who can extract as much mileage as Jane Austen can, out of the inflexible, subtle, and infinite complexities, misunderstandings and offences that the class system imposes so inexorably upon society.
Which leads, very comfortably, to her second extraordinary strength. Which is her voice. The sheer voice of those novels. It isn’t just the sentiment in that celebrated opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice that is so arresting, it is the tone in which it is uttered – cool, amused, restrained and very slightly ironic. She is right in these novels – Elinor Dashwood’s and Anne Elliot’s real suffering is vividly portrayed – but she is outside them too. These are her people, but they are also her puppets. Of course, she says, teenage Marianne Dashwood would never have forgiven herself if she’d managed to sleep the night after Willoughby inexplicably dashes to London. Of course Mr Elton and Mr Collins make absolute fools of themselves, proposing to the wrong girls for the wrong reasons. This is how they are: they can’t help themselves. But they need to be teased about their behaviour, don’t they? Of course they do! There is such a fundamental maturity in this attitude, and this way of expressing herself. There is, in her style, a profound recognition of the need to live as truly to yourself as you can, but always within the constraints of society. You can tell, from the way she writes, that she loves cleverness, and modesty, and self control. But she also loves wit. And because she is half in and half out of her novels, she not only leaves us free to possess them, but also to see what she sees, as freshly as if she were looking over our shoulders, pointing things out.
And now, the third element. Which is that whatever age you are, Jane Austen has something for you. I would go further, in fact, and assert that a reader never comes away from reading her empty handed. It is partly the apparent simplicity, which in fact lightly masks an immense complexity of situation and relationships, but it is more that the shading of the books is infinitely richer than is at first apparent.
You can read, as I did, Pride and Prejudice at 13, and be perfectly satisfied with it as a delightful story of “husband hunting butterflies” (a description once applied to Jane herself). But then, as time goes on for the reader, the interesting shadows appear, and lengthen, and darken. Kitty lightly mentions a flogging in the barracks at Meryton. The appalling possible fate of the Bennett girls, should they not find husbands to support them, creeps to centre stage. The consequence, to her family, of Lydia’s heedless elopement, never mind the fact that she is only 15, emerges, to universal horror. And where does Darcy’s wealth come from, but from the pits of Derbyshire? What were the daily lives, of early nineteenth century miners?
Like the hints of naval warfare, of the slave trade, of the terror of destitution, whose grinning skull haunts all the books, these quiet clearings of the throat amidst the lighter love tangles, are what lend these novels their ever deeper power. The stories may be about the young, but these are novels for grownups. Jane Austen registered the delights of life, but she also knew all about the pain, especially the private pain.
The pain, say, of making mistakes in public, the pain of rejection, the pain of not being pretty or handsome or tall enough, or delightful and gregarious enough, or rich enough or confident enough, or young enough; the pain of not fitting in, of being an outsider, the pain of being dependent and constantly obliged to be thankful and grateful; the pain of having a dead mother or an idiotic mother or a father who doesn’t seem to love you ; the pain of boredom and uselessness and pointlessness; the deep, deep pain of disappointment, and of longing….
It’s all there, as well as the fun. And if these six novels have lasted, as they most triumphantly have, then all I can say is – they deserved to.
This blog post was first published as an article in The Telegraph.