Why are Jane Austen’s novels so enduringly popular, valid and critically valued almost two centuries after their publication?
"What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her? What is it all about?"
-- Joseph Conrad to H.G. Wells in 1901, as recounted in the current novel "The Jane Austen Book Club," by Karen Joy Fowler.
Jane Austen probably wishes that she lived in our world. That there is a popular movie that is based on a bestseller book, which tells the story of a few women who are Jane Austen enthusiasts, is a testament to the fact that she would have been quite the celebrity. A search on the Internet Movie Database on her comes up with a double-digit number of related matches. So like Conrad ponders, what is it all about?
To begin with, readers can relate either themselves or people around them to Jane Austen protagonists, whose depth and sophistication are well developed in her thoroughly exhaustive narrative. Austen portrays characters as varied as the intellectual, slightly pampered Emma Woodhouse; the naïve, slightly insecure, imaginative Catherine Morland; and the virtuous, shy yet assertive Fanny Price, all trying to answer the most important question in their lives – who shall I marry? However given the times in which these novels are placed, the women do not have enough choice in the matter, and this paves the way for what is in my opinion the most beautiful part of these novels – where they try to refine either who they are from within or the circumstances that they live in to accommodate this limited choice. By this point, the character development in the novel alone is enough to make it a very enjoyable read. Nevertheless, Austen doesn’t let her heroines make too much of a compromise – their relationships travel from those of excitement and novelty to one that is a union of two similar minds that seem a natural fit.
The social commentary in an Austen novel is also very dense. It is quite apparent from her novels that Jane...