The Enduring Lessons to be Found in a Jane Austen Novel

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books:

Why has Jane Austen endured?

The question is asked so often, as the film industry magics up more adaptations, and the publishing industry burnishes our shelves with more spinoffs and retellings (have you read Death Comes to Pemberly, or seen the television adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberly? So. Good.) Austen fandom is alive and thriving, but how is it that, of all those who have put pen to paper in the past, it is Miss Austen whose works sail forward century after century like this?

When balls and carriages and courtships are long gone, why are we still turning over her pages?

Well alright, the allure of balls and delicate courtship might be easy enough to explain. When modern dating can be reduced to swipe right or left, there is something entrancing in the idea of flickering candlelight and gentlemen murmuring eloquent compliments; of the handsome Mr. Darcy becoming enraptured with Elizabeth Bennet’s sparkling eyes.

The escapism to be found in these novels and that faded world is incredibly tempting, but it is not escapism alone that holds our attention. The sparkle of the Regency world, so well described in Austen’s works is merely the window-dressing, the powdered sugar on top. The underlying substance of the novels are the characters themselves; so rich in detail, so complex in their psychology, so wholly real, that they can, and do, inhabit our modern world.

I mean, who amongst us hasn’t been trapped in conversation with a Mr. Collins? And who hasn’t been taken in by the charm and flattery of a Wickham? Not just in romance, but think of that boss who had seemed so great in the interview process, but turned out to be a horror six weeks into the job, or of that new friend who turned out to be not your friend at all.

When Elizabeth Bennet realizes she has been deceived by Wickham, she reflects back on the clues that were there for her (and us the reader) to have seen all along. She realizes how inappropriate it was for a stranger to single her out in a party and tell her his life story, and how obvious his constructed victim narrative was. She realizes that his actions never matched up with what he said he would do, or said about himself, and that he often ghosted her. She realizes how much he flattered and flirted with her, so that she never looked rationally at his behavior. In contrast, she realizes the awkward Darcy, for all that he always said the wrong thing, in the end always did the right thing.

There are no pantomime villains in Austen’s world, no cardboard cut-out character of a dashing hero. Considering the birth of psychology as a field of study was still some decades away, Austen’s grasp of reading people is a marvel, and she teaches her reader to do the same.

And how did she come by this knowledge? Her life was so limited, her experience of the world so small. Drawing rooms and visiting neighbors, the occasional trip to London or Bath. But perhaps it was her limitations that gave her such incredible insight, to delve so deeply into her subject matter, to really consider all the minute details and foibles of characters like those neighbors coming to tea, to then create such real people in her novels.

Or maybe it was necessity.

Link to the rest at Woman Writers, Women’s Books