True confession: I love Jane Austen.
Whenever I say I’m a big lover of Jane Austen’s novels, I often get one of a few different reactions. If they also love Austen, I’m met with enthusiasm and often a desire for a discussion if they are literary personalities. If they’re a literary snob with a hipster mentality, they will typically roll their eyes (oh look, another one who loves popular British classics because they think it makes them sound smart) and honestly, I have no patience for them because they love to make assumptions about why I like something and won’t consider it having merit simply because it’s something popular.
But a reaction I also get, and the one I am addressing today, is one that I kind of understand. It’s come up with several people in my circle of friends, who really just don’t understand why I look books that are, in their words, “just a bunch of stories about rich people living their privileged lives.”
And honestly, I can understand why it may not be immediately appealing. The characters Austen wrote about were often members of “the top 1%” of English society during the Regency. And if all you see when you read Pride and Prejudice, or Emma, or Persuasion, etc, is privileged people living privileged lives, then yes, it may be hard to understand why these novels may appeal to someone else.
But I’d like to offer an answer, although I don’t expect it will change your personal opinion. That’s not even my goal. You don’t have to like Jane Austen’s novels. But they are still relevant today, because of the traditional ideas that they still manage to challenge.
Austen wrote her novels at a time when novels were considered just frivolous things that women devoted their time to. A woman being a novelist was considered a fanciful idea, but Jane Austen challenged that idea with every stroke the pen she was determined to live by.
Her stories are written in a way that people still think can’t be successful today. We hear it all the time, when people refer to films or books geared toward women as “chick-flicks” or “chick-lit.” Many people don’t think anything about women can appeal to men, which in our society is usually a measure of how successful a book, film, or television show will be. If men like it, it’s worth trying to sell essentially. Many Austen fans I’ve encountered are men, who find the stories intriguing and amusing, and the characters multi-dimensional. So, surprise, surprise, stories about women can appeal to men.
Austen’s books were by a woman, about women, and for women. There is never a scene without the women and just the men in any of her novels. The male characters, while still very well developed, are in the backgrounds of her stories and the women are always at the front. The men are only there to support the women’s stories.
In fact, Austen reversed the roles that men and women often play in stories. And not even by having the characters break from the admittedly very toxic gender roles of the time, but in simply how she told their stories. She told stories about women with men as supporting characters rather than the reverse. And people love them. They loved her novels 200 years ago when Austen was alive, and they still love them today. And yet, people still try to argue that stories about women don’t appeal to the mass audience.
That is why Austen is still important. Because every person (usually a man feeling threatened by the idea that a woman can be the center of a moving story) who tries to argue that Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a Mary-Sue character despite the fact that she comes to her powers the exact same way Luke Skywalker does in the original trilogy, or that Rogue One is only appealing to feminist propaganda because otherwise there’s no way they would have “yet another” female lead, or any other argument that says stories about females won’t sell, is simply wrong.
Sure, maybe it doesn’t appeal to them personally, for reasons they won’t actually admit to out loud. But 200 years later, many readers of all genders love these stories written by a woman, for women, and about women. And that is why I think her books are still incredibly relevant, and are more than just stories about “rich people living their privileged lives.” It’s okay if you don’t like them, we will never all enjoy the same stories. But things we don’t personally enjoy can still have value.