“I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.” So said E. M. Forster, and possibly quite a few other people. 200 years since the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma, admiration for the novel’s author endures. It could be for the romance – the novels are love stories at their hearts, and Austen can boast some of the most heart-stoppingly romantic lines in the history of literature. Who could read Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne Elliott and not be shaken? Whose eyes could absorb the words of shy, uncertain Edward Ferrars and not be stirred?
Such expressions – not solely the domain of one half-of-Derbyshire-owning Mr Darcy – have become immortal. Exactly what declarations of love ought to be, such words make the men worthy of the dazzling women Jane Austen writes. Perhaps it is not the romance, or the marriage, then, that draws us in. It is the heroines that hold our hearts, and everyone has their favourite. Eleanor Roberts, General Manager of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, has her toes planted firmly in the Anne Elliot camp. “Persuasion is definitely my personal favourite of the books,” says Eleanor, “but there is a heroine in each novel that everybody can connect with on some level. Austen taps into human emotions so perceptively that we can all relate – in some way – to the situations her characters find themselves in.”
Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse are polar opposites, and yet, different as they are, each has her devotees. Elizabeth Bennett is, of course, the most admired of Austen’s heroines. She is certainly the favourite of Lincoln-based journalist and Jane Austen addict, Dawn Hinsley. “There is just something about Elizabeth. Of all the characters in all the books, maybe just for me, she is the most likeable because there’s no element of silly girl about her – she’s very level-headed. I always imagine it took guts to write characters the way that Jane Austen did. She presented such intelligent, free-thinking women, who really went against the grain of the time.”
Austen’s characters are drawn with such detail – not just the leading ladies, but also those who surround them: the insufferable mother, the irresistible rakes, noxious aunts and suitors who feel the urge to compliment the boiled potatoes – she writes the secondary characters as bold as life, with her tongue firmly in her cheek. Jane Austen is – as her fans know – astonishingly funny. Even in the saddest pages, humour sparkles in the gaps between the words. When Mrs Bennett screeches that her husband ‘has no compassion on her poor nerves’, Mr Bennett is quick with the quips. “You mistake me, my dear. I have the highest respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”
Crucially, though, Jane has morals – we wouldn’t love her quite so much if she was sharp, sharp, nothing but sharp. To read Jane Austen is something akin to having a clever, witty, but still very proper friend – the literary version of a favourite aunt. Though she does it with a deft touch, so that the guidance is veiled by the comedy and the joy of the story, Austen teaches us much that could alter us for the better.
Mr Knightley’s guidance to Emma would encourage us to be kinder to others, and to not think too highly of ourselves. With Catherine Moreland before us as an example, we might be led to be more affectionate, sincere and imaginative (but not too imaginative – the lesson is that implying that your father-in-law seems suspiciously homicidal really doesn’t do you any favours). From Anne Elliot we learn the value of patience and resourcefulness, from Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price that we should behave in a way that would make the people who love us proud. Austen is exactly the person we turn to when our moral compass needs a little tweaking.
For when we need an emergency Jane fix, every Austen fan to a man will have a stash of films and TV adaptations squirreled away. We lap up Jane Austen in all her forms, in disguise in Bridget Jones’s Diary, quoted in dating guides, following the imagined continuation of her stories in novels such as Death Comes to Pemberley. We dress up for festivals and approximately 60,000 people flock to the Jane Austen Centre in Bath each year to immerse themselves in the author’s world.
“We welcome fans from all around the globe,” says Eleanor. “All of our visitors are given an introductory presentation, which focuses on Jane’s family background and literary influences. They can then read information about Regency Bath and Jane’s time here, or try on Regency costumes, write with a quill and ink, and ‘meet’ our Jane Austen wax figure.”
We need to feel like this is not the end, I suppose. Two centuries on, we have not had enough of Jane – perhaps it is the sign of a truly great writer, when readers feel the need to have more of her, in any form. “If you buy a dress and head to a festival, it’s no different to wanting to go to a pop concert,” says Dawn. “If you feel a connection to someone or something, it is human nature to want to step closer.”
I sometimes think that Austen is not considered a serious writer, in the way that Dickens or Shakespeare are. It might be because she didn’t dwell on the social concerns, but on those things that make us tick as human beings – love and friendship and families. These are things that don’t belong to a forgotten era, but are still part of our lives today, and that is possibly why she is so enduring, so exceptionally loved. We don’t read her for the history, or even, really, for Mr Darcy. We read her for her incomparable wit, for those times when we need the example of good, vibrant, intelligent women before us. We read Jane Austen to recapture ourselves, and, for that, we love her so. She returns us to ourselves.