Who Was Jane Austen
and Why Should We
Read Her Books?
Who was Jane Austen? If you have only seen the movies based on her novels you might be forgiven for thinking that she was the original “rom com” writer, producing frothy, fun bits of romantic fiction for the chick lit readers of her day. Of course her novels are fun, and yes, they’re romantic comedies, but if you read them you’ll discover that they’re so much more than young ladies swooning over Mr. Darcy. In fact, each of her novels is not only a romantic comedy, but also a perfect microcosm of the world where she pins society down and dissects it with her razor-sharp wit. Austen compared her own writing style to painting miniatures, saying that she worked on a “little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory.” And like a miniature painting, her works of literary art are exquisite.
Jane Austen was born in England in 1775, just before the American Revolution, and died in 1817, when she was only 41 years old. In that short lifespan she produced six of the greatest novels in English literature, including Pride and Prejudice. Her innovative style set her apart from other authors of her day. Fiction writers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when Austen wrote, commonly set their novels in wild, improbable settings such as haunted gothic castles and imaginary foreign landscapes, and filled their books with impossibly evil villains and impossibly perfect heroes and heroines. Jane Austen laughed at them all. “Pictures of perfection,” she wrote, “make me sick and wicked.” Her novels are fresh, amusing portraits of people who could be real, set in the real England of her day. “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on,” she advised a niece who was an aspiring writer.
Austen’s heroines and heroes are appealing, but not perfect. Elizabeth Bennet has her prejudices and Mr. Darcy has his pride; Catherine Morland has too much imagination and Marianne Dashwood too much sensibility; Emma is an interfering busybody, but is charming nevertheless. Her minor characters, whether amusing or vile, are true to life. Lydia Bennet, The Reverend Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh—we’ve all met people like them, and Jane Austen skewers their faults delightfully.
Today Jane Austen’s novels are even more popular than they were in her own lifetime. Her characters and her wit continue to captivate us even two hundred years after her works were first published. Through the lives and loves of her characters, Jane Austen makes us think about our ideas not only of love and marriage, but also of society and class, the status of women and notions of femininity, and, of course, our pride and our prejudices, and she makes us laugh while doing it.
Jane Austen’s Novels Date of Publication
Sense and Sensibility 1811
Pride and Prejudice 1813
Mansfield Park 1814
Northanger Abbey 1817
Coming soon: A Brief Life of Jane Austen