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:
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