Jane Austen is one of the most famous authors of English literature, which is made all the more impressive because she only wrote six complete novels. Given they were written over 200 years ago, you may find yourself asking the question are they are still relevant today. If you take into consideration the moral questions that are posed in all of her works, then yes, in this light they are very worthwhile reading. Her probing investigation of inequality, social standing, and the question of the divide between the classes and the sexes were among Austen’s main themes.
Morality aside, Austen’s witty sarcastic humour alone, is worth the read.
Austen often falls into the trap of a romance novelist but she is much more than that. All of her works explore gender, inequality, money, and education, making her quite the early feminist. Austen more than hints at the need for equality between the sexes, and strives for it by way of her heroines defying gender standards of the time and pushing quite purposefully for more agency.
When Austen was writing, women had very few legal, social, educational, and financial rights, and only very few women could own their own property, imagine, at the time, women couldnt even enter a university. This made for a heavy cross for the middle-class woman to bear, given there was also a huge stigma attached to a middle-class woman working for an income, the constraints were many. The incredible characters she has created, and the moral structure in the entirety of her works as a whole are as relevant today, as they ever were.
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Perhaps one of the more famous beginning sentences of a book, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” sets the stage perfectly for what is to follow. The story centers around the Bennet family, and their fickle and flighty mother who is constantly pressing the ever-present issue of marriage upon her five daughters, in a time when women could make no fortune of their own, let alone inherit it. We follow Elizabeth, the second eldest daughter, as she navigates her feelings around the harsh judgments she places upon newcomer Mr. Darcy, for what she believes is his own disapproving assumptions about the character of herself and her family. In a journey of tangled love and romance, we follow Elizabeth as she comes to understand what it means to administer judgment on others without taking the full picture into account, as she goes on to ultimately observe the difference between the superficial kind of goodness that people can display to seem good, and the actual goodness of spirit that is given freely without reward or merit.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Made to perfection in the film by Ang Lee in the ‘90s, we follow the delightful story of the Dashwood family as they overcome challenges of the heart. Austen deliberates cleverly, between how much is too much, and how much is not enough when it comes to the expression of feeling. Marianne Dashwood is vocal, poetic, and wears her heart on her sleeve. When she falls in love with the handsome but ill-suited John Willoughby her reckless behaviour leaves her open to idle gossip that may do more harm than good, especially in the time of propriety of the 1800s. Meanwhile, her older sister Elinor, ever sensitive to convention and decorum, struggles to express her own romantic feelings, even to those closest to her. Through their journey of love and loss, the sisters learn that sensibility must prevail if they are to find happiness in a society where station, reputation, and money get to decide who can love who.
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
Emma Woodhouse, a clever and bright twenty-year-old, believes herself to be gifted in the art of matchmaking. After the success of setting up her governess and Mr. Weston, Emma sets her sights on her new friend Harriet Smith. Declaring with the hubris of youth, that she knows what’s best when it comes to love, she ignores or is blinded to what is actually best. And it is in this light that we follow Emma as she blunders her way through mismatching Harriet with Frank. Emma’s long-time friend Mr. Knightley, is thrown into the mix, as he watches from the sidelines, offering up critical guidance when she has perhaps gone too far. Emma finds herself at folly when she realizes that with all of her well-intended shenanigans, she may have left it too late for herself to find love.
Austen’s favored themes, of young love and second chances, are central to this story. Widely regarded as her most moving novel, Persuasion follows the story of Anne Elliot, who is the daughter of the elitist Sir Walter Elliot. Anne, who is quiet in nature at nineteen, fell in love with and became engaged to Captain Wentworth. Due to Wentworth having no fortune at the time, Anne allowed herself to be persuaded to give him up. Now, eight years later, Wentworth has returned to the neighborhood, rich and unmarried. Anne finds her feelings are as strong as they were when they were engaged. Can she persuade him to give her a second chance?
Northanger Abbey (1818, posthumous)
Northanger Abbey is a classic coming-of-age story. Catherine Morland is a curious and innocent seventeen-year-old from a small country town, who just happens to be a fan of gothic novels. Whilst holidaying in Bath with a family friend, Catherine meets Henry Tilney and falls madly in love. Taking up an invitation to visit his family estate, Northanger Abbey. She finds that once she’s there, and perhaps influenced by her books, her imagination, and the old atmosphere of the castle, her mind runs away from her, casting terrible suspicions on everyone and everything. Henry persuades her to see the danger in confusing life with art. But can she trust him?
Mansfield Park (1814)
Considered Janes Austen’s most mature work, the story follows young Fanny Price, who was taken from poverty, to be raised with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park. Well aware of her position, she feels like a continual outcast with everyone except for her dear cousin Edmund, who becomes her sole friend. In the absence of her uncle, who is away traveling, the Crawfords arrive on the scene, bringing with them all the reckless provocative glamour that London has to offer. Mansfield Park is a quiet and profound exploration of social standards and morals.