Austen novels are typically seen as being full of parties, parlours and proposals. Yet her novels have an enduring appeal and for good reason. Far from being simple romances, Austen depicts nuanced analysis and explorations of English society, relationships and even life as a young woman.
There’s more to Austen than meets the eye so here are some of the things you can find in her novels:
Whether it is the largely unspoken of sugar plantations which support Mansfield Park, or a sympathy towards social mobility seen through the Navy and trade, Austen’s novels are astutely political and are engaging with the social issues of her day. Austen is often seen as a conservative, though many have pointed out that she is far from it – critiquing inherited wealth, slavery and the superfluity of ‘polite’ society.
Lizzie Bennett may not be burning bras but like Austen’s other heroines she is a strong female lead, who knows her own mind. All of Austen’s books are about women and women’s lives, something that was radical for the Regency era. Women are not perfect heroines either, Emma Woodhouse and Catherine Moreland have important lessons to learn throughout the course of their novels, meaning that they aren’t just two-dimensional characters. And as a bonus, Austen is pretty good at passing the Bechdel Test, more than some books and films today achieve.
We have already noted that some of our favourite heroines have some learning curves to go on, but Austen is full of wonderful snippets of wisdom that are especially important for growing up. From being open-minded and holding strong convictions, to knowing when to question your thoughts and feelings, Austen is here to teach us that life, and people, are complicated and no-one is perfect.
Life, particularly the stiff, polite life of the Regency period, is no fun if you can’t have a laugh. At the expense of some of her characters she mocks extravagance and polite society. Even her heroines are not safe with poor Catherine Moreland’s wild imagination the means of parody for the gothic novel. Far from the politeness of the parlour, Austen’s narration is witty, from Pride and Prejudice‘s acerbic first line, to the one-liners of Mansfield Park.
So what are you waiting for? Pick up a novel, or watch one of the many wonderful adaptations to commemorate 200 years since Austen’s death. Let me know what you’ll be reading or watching in the comments or on twitter @ellenorange94