18 July 2017
An enormous Jane fan, I simply couldn't let the 200th anniversary of her death pass unnoticed. It's a melancholy date, especially since she was taken from us so young, when she may have just been coming into her true powers as a novelist, but we can be grateful to have at least gotten the six brilliant canonical novels, plus several other works in various stages of completion and polishing, from her before she was taken from the world too soon.
This is not the exact edition I have, but it's the closest I can come. Mine is the Literary Classics/Gramercy edition that has all the published novels plus Lady Susan, which, while I consider it to be not quite on the level of Austen's true masterpieces, is extremely worth reading, both as a piece of interesting Austenalia, and in its own right as a novel.
So, what can I say about Austen that hasn't already been said? What can I say about these novels? I don't feel up to the task of analyzing them individually or in depth, or convincing those who are not yet ardent Jane fans that they should be, although if you are not yet, you SHOULD be. Because Austen's novels are life, or the closest that splotches of ink on paper can come to it.
And why ARE they so great? Why were they so great then, and continue to be so great now, 200 years later, when society and even language itself has changed enough that modern readers may want to read with an annotated edition in order to figure out what the heck is even going on? What can an untravelled, unmarried, childless woman with little formal education, who lived her whole life with her parents and wrote genteel love stories about upper-class English people, teach us about life in the frenetic 21st century?
Well, perhaps that people then were not so different from people now. Money, love, and children were still their primary concerns, and in a world before social media, people were still susceptible to the opinions of their friends and neighbors, and organized their lives accordingly. Young people were still impetuous and foolhardy, many people liked to gossip, everyone could be vain and foolish, and there's nothing like a good love story to catch people's imaginations. People still had to figure out their own way in life, because only they could live their own lives, no matter how much others might want to run their lives for them. Indeed, while the debate rages on over whether Austen was a social liberal or a conservative (answer: both), the innovation, other than the invention of the romance novel as we now know it, that she brought into Western literature was the concept of free choice within the constraints of one's current society. Her characters were not rebels trying to defy all social conventions--or if they were, they soon fell afoul of those same social conventions--but neither were they meek and compliant doormats, ready to sacrifice themselves and their own happiness in order to avoid displeasing their seniors and superiors. Austen's heroines do not flout convention entirely, but they make up their own minds about what they want in life and then, within reason, they take it, despite the protests of those whom they have hitherto looked up to and obeyed.
I could go on and on, but I think that's a fitting end to this far too brief ode to Austen. Perhaps the secret of her brilliance lay in that very thing that allowed her heroines to get what they wanted: standing up for yourself and creating something that was unusual enough to stand out, but not too outlandish as to be ostracized. And her genius lay in the fact that her work continues to walk that fine line to this day, 200 years later.