The Enduring Popularity of Jane Austen

I confess that there was a time not long ago when I thought that Jane Austen’s books—and the panoply of movies and TV shows associated with them—were a bunch of silly nonsense for girls who liked nothing better than to entertain themselves with ladies’ fashion, listen to other people gossip, and watch absurdly proper characters enact cheesy romances.

“There was a time,” I say. That time is no longer. But perhaps I will be forgiven for thinking such thoughts. After all, each of Austen’s six novels is set in upper class society in a far-off time period, and most of the plots do revolve around young women whose chief ambition (at least in the novels) seems to be getting married.

Perhaps you wonder, along with me, “Why would I care about the lives of these indolent Regency people who have nothing better to do than sit around the drawing room playing cards, gossiping, dancing, playing the pianoforte, walking in the garden, and discussing their first world (or perhaps by middle class standards, “other worldly”) problems? And all of this in the context of a society in which proper manners seem to hold a tyranny over the characters, so much that no one can say what they actually mean!”

Austen Mania
However, that I may have misjudged Austen and her fans should have dawned on me sooner, considering the fact that interest in her is not a passing fad. Since her six novels were first published (between 1811 and 1818), they have rarely been out of print. According to one source, there are over 130 editions of Pride and Prejudice available on Amazon,1 and Jerram Barrs estimates that there are as many as one million copies of this book alone that are sold or downloaded every year.2

And it’s not just readers who are excited about Austen. It seems that there are new movie and TV adaptations of her books every few years. For example, Sense and Sensibility has been adapted four times, including the outstanding 1995 film; Pride and Prejudice has been adapted at least twelve times; Emma, seven times (including the new movie adaptation, releasing February 21st); and the list goes on. There has even been a recent television series adapting her unfinished novel, Sanditon.

One biographer calls this massive interest in Austen, “Janeia.”3 Janeia, it seems, is a sort of fever that has infected the entire world for all things Austen. According to Barrs, “Austen is read more widely now than at any point since her works were originally published.”4 After two hundred years, Austen’s popularity seems to be growing rather than diminishing. It was partly this mania for her works that caused me to reconsider my own shallow view of Austen. Perhaps there was something more to these seemingly silly books.

Good Food vs. Junk Food
Plenty of silly books that lack depth become popular for a time. For a while the Twilight series, a teenage vampire romance saga, was all the rage. However, just eight years after the last Twilight movie was released, few people are talking about it. Twilight may have been enjoyable for some people to read, but it hasn’t endured.5 Much like junk food, we consumed it and now it is gone.

To compare a book to junk food does not necessarily mean that it has no value.6 A little junk food doesn’t really hurt us. In the same way, books that lack depth or have nothing outside of entertainment value aren’t always bad. People will often refer to such things as their “guilty pleasure.” But too much junk food leads to big problems. Eventually, our bodies feel sick and undernourished, or even shut down. “Junk literature” is much the same. If we consume too much, it begins to muddle our thoughts.

Healthy food, on the other hand, nourishes our bodies. We consume it, and even if it does not taste good at first, it provides our bodies with the nutrients needed to function properly. While junk food tastes good on the intake yet leaves us feeling empty or even sick later, good food may take time to enjoy, but it nourishes us so that we can live better lives. Given enough time, our palate readjusts until we can no longer stomach the junk.

It is the same way with good books. Great literature feeds our souls and fuels our imaginations, enabling us to live fuller lives. Good books have a quality of endurance that allows us to keep coming back to them. We consume the book, but it is not exhausted. We keep coming back again and again for nourishment. Anyone who reads a good book knows this to be true.7

My assertion here is that Jane Austen’s work is good food, and that is at least part of the reason it has endured.

People Like Us
One of the reasons Jane Austen’s books are so good is that her characters are profoundly human. In contrast to much of the gothic literature of her day, Austen created realistic people who are “recognizable as our next-door neighbors,” as biographer Peter Leithart says.8

Most of us know people like Mrs. Jennings (Sense and Sensibility), who would probably do well to stop sticking their noses in other people’s business. We know people like Elinor, who could do with a bit more sensibility; and Marianne, who could do with a bit more sense. We’ve seen people like Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice), who are so blind to their own vanity as to be ridiculous. We know schemers like Emma, and worriers like Mr. Woodhouse. We’ve encountered Miss Bates, the incessant talker, and Mrs. Elton, the hypocrite.9 And the list goes on. But above all, we know these people because we are some of these people.

Jane Austen was a master of capturing authentic human personality. This is partly why to see her books as nothing but silly Regency romances is to entirely miss the point. If Jane Austen had written in another time period, she would likely have been just as good. She is transcendent because her characters are transcendent. They are the sort of people you meet everyday.10

Portrayals of Austen as a reserved, stately, Victorian model of femininity are completely artificial. Her biographers reveal that she was a witty, fun-loving child at heart.11 She knew how to poke fun at the silly contradictions that human beings sometimes are. Austen’s books are hilarious, while at the same time, they cause us to realize our own silliness, prejudices, foibles, and vices.

Emma and Miss Bates
To my mind, there is no better instance of Austen’s genius as an author than the exchange between Emma and Miss Bates in chapter thirty-four of her novel, Emma. Emma Woodhouse is probably the most complex of all Austen’s characters. In some circles, we find Emma very pretentious and conniving. She’s a matchmaker and devilishly clever at maneuvering people to get them to do what she wants. In other circles, she seems like the most sensible, charitable, and humble person in the room. Again, we see a real, multifaceted person.

Miss Bates is a silly, gossiping woman. She is a non-stop chatterbox, and though we can’t help laughing at her, she can be exasperating for the characters in the story—as well as for the reader. I remember listening to a scene from Emma in which the characters are examining a room where they want to hold a dance. After several minutes of deliberation, one of them suggests that they go fetch Miss Bates for her opinion. Afraid that I was going to have to listen to another string of nonsense from Miss Bates, I audibly shouted “NOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

By the time I got to chapter thirty-four, I had had quite enough of Miss Bates. What I most longed for was for one of the characters to just tell her to shut up! Miss Bates does in fact get shut down by Emma, who publicly ridicules her for her dull and ceaseless talk. However, I didn’t get the pleasure that I thought I would from this put-down of Miss. Bates.

Having made us sit through long stretches of Miss Bates’ talk, Jane Austen has cleverly prepared us for this moment. We want Miss Bates to be silenced, but when she is, we know it’s wrong. The moment reveals not only Emma’s pride and selfishness, but also our own. It wasn’t just bad manners, it was a cheap shot. Emma got a moment of laughter at the expense of Miss Bates. How often have we done similar things to others? Reading this account, and watching Emma’s subsequent growth after Mr. Knightley rebukes her, causes us to be more self-aware.

These are only a few brief reflections on what makes Jane Austen a great author. There is much more that could be said, but perhaps this explains some of her enduring popularity. By poking fun at our human weaknesses and oddities, Austen has turned the mirror around on us. Our pride, our prejudice, our selfishness is all revealed for what it truly is. We go back to Austen’s books again and again, because we see ourselves there; we see our neighbors there; and we learn how to be better humans because of them.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.