Jane Austen is getting a lot of press these days. The Focus Features adaptation of Pride & Prejudice was released a couple of years ago, and now there is a new Austen biopic titled Becoming Jane. In the past month I've read articles in Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire and even Newsweek about the film and Austen's life and work. Not to say that she's not deserving, but I have to wonder, why all this attention for an author who lived 200 years ago, whose own work wasn't even attributed to her name during her lifetime?
I first caught the Austen bug about five years ago. I was fifteen and sick of Shakespeare (I'd had to read Macbeth in 8th grade, then Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar freshman year, then Hamlet as a sophomore; I've since discovered his comedies.) when a friend suggested I try P&P. I checked out the only copy in my school's library and read the whole thing from cover to cover in one sitting. My Austen appetite was awakened. Next I read Emma, then Northanger Abbey (still my favorite), then Persuasion, Mansfield Park and finally Sense and Sensibility.
Like all of Austen's devoted fans, I was disappointed that there weren't more. I mean, seriously, the woman lived for more than forty years and all she could crank out were six measly novels? So, I did what many readers have done after reaching the end of the Austen canon: I turned to the Brontes. It just wasn't the same, though. Jane Eyre had potential, but she had no sense of humor. So not Lizzy Bennet.
This was in 2002-3, between the Austen-mania of the mid-90's and the current re-discovery of (how come Austen doesn't have a cool nickname like "the Bard"?)'s work. The world was in an Austen famine. I was glad to discover the then-eight-year-old films of S&S, Emma, and Persuasion, and, of course, the BBC/A&E miniseries of P&P. But it just wasn't enough. (Northanger Abbey, my favorite Austen novel, maybe even my favorite novel, has yet to be translated into a satisfying theatrical release, though I've read that the BBC's recent made-for -TV version, which will air on Masterpiece Theatre in January of 2008, is good, and Wishbone did an entertaining adaptation in a 25-minute episode).
What is it about Austen that keeps us so fascinated? All her novels have the same plot, and a very simple, ordinary plot at that. Her world seems so small, a world in which girls must either marry or starve and all the men are either rakes, idiots, or that rare, perfect hero. No car chases, no explosions, but plenty of the difficulty of remembering complicated dance steps while simultaneously thinking of witty conversation. These novels are all talking and dancing and walking. And riding in carriages sometimes, and occasionally eating. But somehow, they draw you in, and they have for nearly 200 years.
Of all the elements of Austen's novels for which I could build up a sizable argument for being the cause of her appeal (the aforementioned witty conversation; the dancing, if you're into that; the social commentary; the sparkling manners), the one that stands out most noticeably is her characters. Who hasn't rooted for the sarcastic-but-lovable Lizzy Bennet, the matchmaking Emma Woodhouse, or drama queen Marianne Dashwood? The supporting characters, both the villains and the eccentric foils, realistically flesh out the stories while adding just a hint of escapism.
And maybe that is the secret. Realistic escapism, if that's not an oxymoron. Austen had the ability to show the world as it was, only better and more interesting. To create characters and situations that are completely relatable, even today. We've all butted heads with a Caroline Bingley or secretly wanted to strangle a Mary Crawford. And no girl can deny that, at some point in her life, she has fantasized about marrying (or at least going to the movies with) Captain Wentworth or Henry Tilney. Because though the situations and characters in Austen's novels are strikingly similar to something you find in real life, the endings are always of the fairy-tale (Disney, not the Grimm brothers) variety.
It is the perfect combination of realism and fantasy, of wit and wisdom, of slight intrigue and traditional manners that give Austen's works their staggering genius. They have lasted for nearly 200 years and are likely to last twice as long again, and to continue to make glad the heart of womanhood.