Jane Austen: Contemporary as you please

Sunday Times exaggerates when it says: “Jane Austen is not just a novelist but a cultural ideal. Her books teach us what it means to be civilised.” The elaborate courtesies and leisurely lives of her characters today have all the charm of a period drama.

But Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) is surprisingly modern in other ways. In her language, for instance. Take, for example, the famous opening words of Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

It’s modern English.

Pride and Prejudice is contemporary too in the manner it opens. The characters start speaking as soon as the story begins, as they might in a play. That’s not how most novels began in those days: the author would usually describe the people and places first. That’s how Jane Austen herself  began her novels, Emma, Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, by describing the circumstances of her heroines. But in Pride and Prejudice, she lets the characters speak for themselves, weaving in the background as they talk.

Jane Austen is contemporary in her preoccupations too. Parents still try to provide for their children, money and status are as important today as they were in her time, and there will always be lovers.

Her characters are closer to us than Shakespeare’s. Her heroines don’t crossdress like Shakespeare’s romantic heroines. Her heroes don’t physically confront their enemies like Macbeth or Hamlet. Money is used to hush up scandals. Her characters want to keep up appearances and be respectable.

VS Naipaul said Jane Austen would have never become world-famous had there been no British empire. The same may be said of other British writers, too. And her appeal has outlasted the empire: her novels continue to be made into movies and television dramas – proof of her enduring popularity.

I love Pride and Prejudice but haven’t seen it on film or television. So here is Sense and Sensibility, which I did see, with Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant in the leading roles. Look at her bursting into tears when she learns he is not married after all and wants her for his wife. That’s another nice thing about Jane Austen – she doesn’t disappoint her lovers.

The scene here is based on the penultimate chapter of the novel, which can be read here. And here is the opening of Pride and Prejudice, which, since it’s a favourite of mine, also follows here:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
“How so? how can it affect them?”
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”
“Is that his design in settling here?”
“Design! nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”

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