As ‘Sense and Sensibility’ turns 200, Jane Austen remains a most beloved writer
For those with a pair of fine eyes, those who long for a ball, who don’t want to starve in the hedgerows, who run mad and do not faint, who make sport for the neighbors and laugh at them in turn…
For the readers and dreamers, the drinkers of tea, those who believe uncompromisingly in love. For those who raise an eyebrow but not a voice, who triumph with manners, who spin a border of lace. For the Army of Austen. The Janeites.
Two hundred years ago this month, Jane Austen published, at her own expense, “Sense and Sensibility,” the first of her novels to be printed and sold. It originally was circulated under the pseudonym “A Lady,” but 200 years on it’s enough to say it was written by Jane.
That she is the Jane speaks not just to what she wrote, but who she wrote and, perhaps most importantly, how it’s read, embraced and adored.
“If Jane Austen is carried outside the proper confines of literature, if she has been loved in a fashion that some temperaments must find objectionable and that a strict criticism must call illicit, the reason is perhaps to be found not only in the human weakness of her admirers, in their impulse to self-flattery, or in whatever other fault produces their deplorable tone,” wrote author Lionel Trilling in his essay “Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen.” “Perhaps a reason is also to be found in the work itself, in some unusual promise that it seems to make, in some hope that it holds out.”
Aside from a period of anonymity after her death, Austen and her six most famous novels (there are other works, including “Love and Freindship,” (sic) but the core of Austen canon is generally considered the novels) have become essential to English literature. The fervency of devotion to her works, her characters, her world view has created a genteel army of Janeites.
“One may refuse to like almost any author and incur no other blame from his admirers than that of being wanting in taste in that one respect,” Trilling wrote. “But not to like Jane Austen is to put oneself under suspicion of a general personal inadequacy and even — let us face it — of a want of breeding.”
Why this author and these novels, rather than Madame de la Fayette, say, or Ann Radcliffe?
First, said Barbara Geiger, a professor of English at Colorado Mesa University, there are “a lot of cultural similarities that make Jane Austen probably more appealing to us today than some of the other writers that were closely connected with her.”
Austen wrote during a time of social upheaval, Geiger said, in a country at war, with an insane king, and at the start of a new era that featured blooming optimism contrasted with fears of the apocalypse. It was a time of loss of faith in the church and government, few heroes and growing industrialization. These are things to which the modern reader can relate, though only lightly alluded to in Austen’s novels.
However, Austen also was very much a product of the Romantic Era, Geiger said, and though her novels seem small in scope — country villages, insular social circles, rigid class system — they are universal in emotion.
“Jane Austen concerned herself with what to us are observable truths, because we agree with them. They were not so observable at the time,” wrote British novelist Fay Weldon in “Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.” “We believe with her that Elizabeth (Bennet of ‘Pride and Prejudice’) should marry for love, and that Charlotte (Lucas also of ‘Pride and Prejudice’) was extremely lucky to find happiness with Mr. Collins, whom she married so as not, in a phrase dating from that time, to be left on ‘the shelve.’ She believed it was better not to marry at all, than to marry without love. Such notions were quite new at the time.”
In Austen’s novels, there’s often the promise of a marriage of love between equals. Her heroines are flawed, often deeply, but they are people in whom readers see themselves, or want to see themselves: witty, wise, clear-headed, occasionally sardonic and worthy of love. Everyone wants to be Elizabeth.
And the men!
“I defy any female reader to read Darcy and not fall a little in love with him,” Geiger said.
Mr. Darcy of “Pride and Prejudice” is the paragon of all things wonderful, it’s true, but in her heroes, Austen also was honest about the foibles and failings of human nature. Edward Ferrars of “Sense and Sensibility” was a liar and somewhat weak-willed, wrote Joan Ray, a professor of English at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and former president of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Henry Tilney of “Northanger Abbey” can be curt and mean, Edmund Bertram seems fickle and George Knightly can be bossy. But ultimately they are steady and strong and, as Tilling alluded, readers seem to see what they want in Austen’s words, not necessarily what’s on the page.
Austen, however, strived to capture life as she saw it. In an 1826 journal entry, Sir Walter Scott wrote, “That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with… the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.”
C.S. Lewis, in his essay “A Note on Jane Austen,” expanded the notion: “She has, or at least all her favourite characters have, a hearty relish for what would now be regarded as very modest pleasures. A ball, a dinner party, books, conversation, a drive to see a great house ten miles away, a holiday as far as Derbyshire — these, with affection (that is essential) and good manners, are happiness.”
The world in Austen’s novels is not without messiness, but it also rewards grace and manners and kindness. Absurdities and ridiculousness are met with irony, but not the ugly kind; rather, a lightly raised eyebrow.
“Jane Austen’s irony is only secondarily a matter of tone,” Trilling wrote in an essay about “Mansfield Park.” “Primarily it is a method of comprehension. It perceives the world through an awareness of its contradictions, paradoxes, and anomalies. It is by no means detached. It is partisan with generosity of spirit — it is on the side of ‘life,’ of ‘affirmation.’ But it is preoccupied not only with the charm of the expansive virtues but also with the cost at which they are to be gained and exercised…
“When we respond to Jane Austen with pleasure, we are likely to do so in part because we recognize in her work an analogue with the malice of the experienced universe, with the irony of circumstance, which is always disclosing more than we bargained for.”
“She is not a gentle writer,” Weldon wrote. “Do not be misled: she is not ignorant, merely discreet: not innocent, merely graceful. She lived in a society which assumed — as ours does — that its values were right. It had God on its side, and God had ordained the ranks of His people; moreover, He had made men men and women women, and how could a thing like that be changed? It is idle to complain that Jane Austen lacked a crusading zeal. With hindsight, it is easy to look at the world she lived in, and say she should have. What she did seems to be more valuable. She struggled to perceive and describe the flow of beliefs that typified her time, and more, to suggest for the first time that the personal, the emotional, is in fact the moral — nowadays, of course, for good or bad, we argue that it is political. She left a legacy for the future to build upon.”
And that legacy includes generations who, inexplicably, know what hedgerows are, who long for a ball, who dream of being someone’s dearest and loveliest.