Few of Jane Austen’s fans can pinpoint the first time they read Pride and Prejudice, but they always remember what a fine novel it was. With repeated readings, the Bennet sisters come to be old friends, and it’s comical when Austen skewers pompous Reverend Collins and proud Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Jane Austen’s enthusiasts make up a large company, since these days her Facebook page has the number of her fans at over one million. Many of these are under thirty years of age. Her continuing popularity, among young people especially, allows one to argue that Jane Austen is the best writer in English. Her greatness shows in how her novels still speak to modern audiences, although her world of horse-drawn carriages, country dances, and vast estates is long gone.
A few of the reasons Austen’s novels are so engaging are the absence of sex scenes, “alpha males,” and shopping. One can argue that the standards of her time prohibited sex scenes, but even if she could, one can bet she would have refrained from stalling her action with them. She also never insults her readers’ intelligence by making her heroines fall for abusive men who rough them up but whom they love anyway. Instead, her heroines are flawed but decent young women who do their best to manage at a time when education and professions are closed to them; in other words, they’re real people with genuine responses. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility live with dignity in genteel poverty, while Fanny Price in Mansfield Park overcomes her status as the poor relation in the Bertram family. Refreshingly, none of the heroines go shopping either. Again, one can argue that in Jane Austen’s time the consumer economy didn’t exist and therefore of course the heroines don’t go shopping. But in any case, Jane Austen has too much respect for her characters to depict the women as airheads whose chief purpose in life is to own cute pairs of shoes.
Austen’s popularity endures because she treats her characters and her audience with respect. Even the first sentence in Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” is a brilliant ironic touch, with its unspoken implication that this type of man, one with a fortune, is in great demand by women seeking husbands – or mothers seeking husbands for their daughters. To some, the absence of modern trappings in Austen’s novels might make her works seem old-fashioned and distant. However, I believe Austen’s regard for her readers makes her a figure to admire, and she’s a writer after whom I always try to model myself.
- S. Noël McKay, author of Stony Point