Jane Austen wrote six novels and thousands of letters in her lifetime, creating a formula of social realism, comedic satire, and romance that is still loved today. Her works were originally published anonymously, bringing this now celebrated author little personal renown – with nineteenth century audiences preferring the Romantic and Victorian tropes of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Since then, literary tastes and opinions have changed dramatically, and many people have written about, interpreted, and adapted Austen’s writings. But why do we like her stories so much? What can they tell us about her world, and ours?
We’ve brought together a selection of some of the questions (and possible answers) people have asked over the years in a reading list below. What else have you wondered about this iconic female writer?
Why is Austen so well-loved?
“Free Indirect Filmmaking: Jane Austen and the Renditions (On Emma among Its Others)” by Ian Balfour, in Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism, edited by Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle
From spin-off books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 2009) to countless TV shows and films, including straight adaptations and those that have been inspired by her life or stories (Clueless, 1995), Austen has a modern community of adoring fans. But, is it her writing that has made her so famous and loved, or is it more the association of her name with all of these adaptations that surround her?
What can Austen’s language tell us?
“Letter-Writing” in In Search of Jane Austen: The Language of the Letters by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade
It has been claimed that Austen wrote around 3,000 letters in her lifetime, seeing it as an important way to stay in touch and share news with her family and friends. These letters don’t only provide an insight in to her life, but they also show the process of writing letters – from the materials she used to the postal service itself. In this chapter, Tieken-Boon van Ostade examines the language of Austen to explore the importance of letters in her life.
What can we learn from Austen’s novels?
“Moral Development in Pride and Prejudice” by Alan H. Goldman, in Fictional Characters, Real Problems: The Search for Ethical Content in Literature, edited by Garry L. Hagberg.
In Pride and Prejudice Austen shows the moral development of her protagonists in direct contrast to the minor characters of the story. Through Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Goldman argues that Austen helps us (as readers) to reflect on our own moral growth and, in turn, start to fully understand how hard it is to reach full moral maturity.
What do Austen’s stories reveal about her world?
During the Victorian era the ‘practice’ of marriage marked the division between the gentry (those just below the nobility in a good social position) and the aristocracy (those in the highest class in society). Marriage is a common theme in Austen’s works, which frequently reflect the very real nuptial anxieties of early nineteenth century society.
How should we read Austen’s works today?
“Why We Reread Jane Austen” in Why Jane Austen? by Rachel Brownstein
Austen’s novels may seem trivial and unexciting when compared with the abundance of media available today – there are no car chases in Emma or vampires in Pride and Prejudice – and Austen seems obsessed with the small details. In this chapter Brownstein argues that you have to teach Austen’s novels very carefully, coaching students to look past reading only the plot, and helping them them to see Austen’s “fabric of words”.
Featured image credit: Photograph by Annie Spratt. Public Domain via Unsplash.