Lately I have been asked a couple of times why I love Jane Austen so much and it seems like such a silly question because it's so obvious why - she's just a genius and that's all there is to it!
But I've decided that I should know why I feel the way I do about her writing. I always insist that people know why they believe thing like religions; I hate it when people blurt out that something's wrong or right and they can't explain why. So, I should practice what I preach in other aspects of my life, including my love for Jane Austen's writings. Therefore:
Why I Love Jane Austen
I love that she wrote about strong women who put personal integrity before safety or society's opinions in finding husbands, in a time where not finding a husband was a serious, scary thing. I love that her own life reflects what she wrote - she once accepted the proposal of a man she didn't love, and the next day broke it off when she realised she couldn't marry him. This was a big deal when it meant she would be dependent on her brothers for the rest of her life. Although all her novels finish with marriage, Jane Austen died an old maid. The fact that she could write like she did and be remembered so long as a great author without finding a husband and fulfilling her society's expectations of her inspires me. Therefore, she is not just someone I look up to as an artist but also as a person.
Here is a quote I found a while ago that echoes this. I particularly like it because it mentions C. S. Lewis's opinion of Jane Austen, and he is another person I admire especially: One lesson of deep and enduring significance to my own attitudes came, somewhat unexpectedly, from Lewis. I was reading him one of my essays, in which there was a rather patronising remark about old maids, typical of a hearty, young, Australian male. Lewis stopped me. "You have no right to talk like that about what you call old maids. Why shouldn't such women have a profound knowledge of life, women like Jane Austen and the Brontes?" I continued to read my essay, considerably (and permanently) chastened. -Geoffrey Dutton.
I think her observations of people read like a nine inch nail. She was an astute, intelligent, humourous woman who saw things in everyday people that she managed to make really comical in fictional people while retaining the reality about them. She exposes snobbery at every turn, and it is snobs that she is most merciless to. On the other hand, she will create a funny but nice character like Miss Bates and then turn it all around on you and make you understand how much is too much when Emma insults her. But most of all, I love - I love - that when you read her books, especially when she pokes fun at someone, you can sense her, this voice, a sort of not-quite-known narrator, just behind the scenes, writing it with amusement and a sense of satisfaction. It is when I read her books that she seems most real to me as a human being that actually existed because you can catch glimpses of Jane Austen within the prose she wrote.
Jane Austen is sometimes called a very sarcastic writer but I don't particularly like that. She is absolutely merciless to some characters who deserve it (Sir Walter Elliot, Mrs Norris, Mr Collins, Mrs Elton, etc), but I think another word that could be used to characterise her writing is 'sympathetic'. She creates characters, both in leading and secondary roles, that you learn to understand and to root for. My prime example of this is Anne Elliot, the heroine of my favourite novel, Persuasion. In her earlier work you find this also, with Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice who is not understood by Elizabeth, everyone's favourite heroine, but the author voice in the background has a distinct sympathy for Charlotte's actions and the reality of life and why Charlotte acted as she did - and perhaps, just maybe, a tinge of a challenge to her society: why should a woman have to act in such a way and marry such a man as Mr Collins just to ensure she does not die in poverty and loneliness?
Jane Austen is a clever, clever writer. My favourite example of this is in Emma. Mrs Elton, a vulgar and pretentious woman who moves into the area, has a habit of calling her husband her 'caro sposo' - a term for 'dear husband' which was definitely out-of-date by that time and merely a way to show off her knowledge of Italian. However, every time Mrs Elton uses this, it will be in a different and incorrect way - eg, one time 'cara sposo' or the next 'caro sposa', which is a big error as in Italian the grammatical genders need to agree. So this is a really subtle way of showing how vulgar and unknowledgeable Mrs Elton is, without Jane Austen ever pointing this mistake out to anyone. It's just clever! I love it!
Most of all, Jane Austen taught me that reading is primarily for pleasure and you don't have to be ashamed of that. I am now thoroughly against the idea that when you write you should do it only to make a statement or to improve someone's mind or to be wise and postmodern. To write a book that gives great pleasure to someone is probably one of the greatest gifts you could ever give (at risk of sounding corny), and people who try to demean that are just pleasure-starved and weird. :)