Melissa Pimentel grew up in a small town in Massachusetts in a house without cable and therefore much of her childhood was spent watching 1970s British comedy on public television. These days, she spends much of her time reading in the various pubs of Stoke Newington and engaging in a longstanding emotional feud with their disgruntled cat, Welles. She works in publishing and is the author of Love by the Book and The One That Got Away.
It’s been two hundred years since Jane Austen died, and during that time, countless books have been written about her, and countless authors have written their own homages to her novels (myself included). So just what is it about Austen’s work that’s so endearing – and enduring?
She’s an innovator.
Jane Austen was one of the first novelists to write about real life. Her settings and subject matter were drawn from reality rather than fable or fantasy, her characters’ flesh and blood rather than two-dimensional representations of morality. As a result, her work still feels utterly contemporary.
Her writing is razor-sharp.
Who can forget the first line of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” She manages to summarize the premise of the novel and send it up at the same time – all in a single sentence.
Her novels crackle with wit. I’d give my right arm to be able to write dialogue half as clever and funny as her.
She’s an observer.
Society and social mores may have changed since Austen’s time, but her characters – in all of their vain, silly, insecure, stubborn, prideful ways – are still recognizable and relatable. She had a keen eye for observation and was able to pinpoint the nuances and foibles that make people tick.
She’s a romantic.
Behind the mordant wit lies a soft heart that believed in true love overcoming whatever obstacles were placed in its path. Only a reader with a heart of stone doesn’t swoon when Edward and Elinor finally get together in Sense and Sensibility, or when Anne Elliot reads Captain Wentworth’s letter in Persuasion. No one does the happy ending quite like Jane.
…but she also understands the value of compromise.
There were no fair maidens or white knights charging up on steeds in Austen’s work. Elizabeth’s heart isn’t won over by Darcy’s sprawling estate (though it probably doesn’t hurt) but by his willingness to help her family when they need it the most. Mr. Knightley is fond of Emma, but it’s only when she admits she was wrong about Harriet that his love for her fully blooms. In Austen’s world, love only works when two people are willing to bend toward each other.
She values humanity.
No one could accuse Austen of suffering fools gladly, but even her most absurd characters are drawn with a sympathetic hand. Mrs. Bennett is silly and often infuriating, but you never doubt that her heart is in the right place. Anne Elliot’s father might be vanity personified, but Anne – and the reader – doesn’t love him any less for it. Austen has the ability to find humanity in (almost) everyone.
She gives her female characters a rich interior life.
The heroines of Austen’s novels are fully realized. Even Emma, a heroine Austen described as one “whom no one but myself will much like,” and who is invariably stubborn, spoiled, and self-obsessed, never veers into caricature. And while Austen’s novels end in romance, her heroines aren’t reduced to merely pining after Mr. Right – they have families to love, friends to cherish and protect, and independent lives to lead. Which leads me to my next point…
She gives her female characters agency.
Austen was writing at a time when a woman’s role in society was limited, yet her heroines are the authors of their own stories. We all remember Elizabeth Bennett striding across the mud to reach her sick sister, but what is more significant is her refusal of two marriage proposals, from Mr. Collins and Darcy. Given her family’s precarious financial situation, these refusals feel akin to acts of rebellion. Remember, too, Elizabeth’s reaction to her friend Charlotte’s acceptance of Collins’s proposal – pity mixed with something like disgust. For Austen’s heroines, agency over their own lives is something to be cherished and protected. And finally and most importantly …
She’s a great storyteller.
And deep down, isn’t that what we all want – to be told a good story well?