First edition, 1813
Why does Jane Austen remain so enduringly popular? The question was asked across the blogosphere and twitterverse last week, as well as posed in countless newspapers and broadcast studios, to mark the 200th anniversary since the publication of Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. I spoke myself to Western Mail journalist James Al-Mudullah about why I thought Austen continued to demand our attention, and it was a welcome opportunity to crystallize my own thoughts on the matter. You won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t subscribe to the opinion PD James offered in her interview with John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today Programme, which seemed to hinge on a sense that readers of any historical age love a good romantic plot with a happy ending.
So, to expand on some of the topics I discussed with James Al-Mudallah earlier this week, I think that Austen’s appeal rests on three key features, which exist in fascinating tension. Yes, it’s certainly possible to read Austen’s novels as reassuring escapist fantasies, where each book culminates in a marriage that appears to uphold the social order. And yes, we also love the fact that JA was a forensic observer of human failings, and her novels are sharply attuned to the spites, envies and ill-will we harbour for our fellow beings, but imagine we manage to keep hidden from our peers.
Regency courtship woodcut
But there’s a far more interesting third reason why we still read Austen, 200 years on. Although her novels, and perhaps especially Pride and Prejudice, are often considered to be harmless comedies of manners and morality, set in polite society, they actually contain far darker, more subversive subtexts, and it’s these to which we respond. Austen’s novels aren’t fairy tales. Far from it.
Even Pride and Prejudice, which Austen herself thought was “too light and sparkling”, possesses these darker shades. We tend to focus on the famous courtship travails of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, helped along by such fantastic adaptations as the BBC’s 1995 costume drama with Colin Firth playing the aristo-in-a-bind. But with the “fairy-tale” marriage of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, Jane Austen wallpapers over much gloomier social issues – issues she leads readers towards with the subplot of Wickham and Elizabeth’s sister Lydia. The report of the 16-year-old Lydia’s elopement with Wickham takes us into far less salubrious but very real dimensions of the Regency world. Wickham isn’t only a feckless fortune hunter, but a predatory libertine with connections to crime, gambling and prostitution. This fate – and Austen is quite clear on this – is precisely what awaits Elizabeth Bennet’s sister. Only Darcy’s intervention, compelling Wickham to marry her, prevents this from happening.
Even the more upstanding Bennet sisters are only a throw of the dice away from a word of destitution and exploitation, since the inheritance laws of the day meant that only male heirs could inherit property. That’s the injustice on which the novel opens – with the Bennet sisters contemplating homelessness when their father’s house passes along the male line to Mr Collins. Marriage isn’t just a fairy-tale ending for the Bennets. It’s the only thing that will keep them out of the gutter.
There are other reasons, not usually cited, for why we still love Austen. She had a wickedly rude sense of humour, as anyone who’s noticed the sly references in Persuasion to “vices and rears” in the navy – couched in an allusion to different sorts of admirals – will appreciate.
But what attracts me to Austen most of all is her incredibly prescient and in important respects modern grasp of human psychology. At Aberystwyth University, we teach Austen’s novel Persuasion as a book dealing with the issue of what we’d now call post-traumatic stress. In that respect Austen is way ahead of her time. Has it ever struck anyone as a bit odd that Captain Wentworth goes to piece on the Cobb when Louisa Musgrove falls ands hits her head. After all, Wentworth’s a battle-hardened sea captain (actually a ruthless, state-sanctioned pirate). Yet he completely loses it, cries out helplessly for a surgeon, in other words falls to pieces. This episode can be seen as a scene of displaced violence, and trauma. In that instant on the Cobb, Wentworth is suddenly back on his ship, in the middle of battle, surrounded by wounded bodies – real, horrific wounds sustained in war. Whereas on the high seas he has to remain in complete control, back on shore the horror of what he’s seen – and, let’s be clear, done – in battle comes back to haunt him. It’s a story that hasn’t gone away, and in fact is being relived by many soldiers today. Austen’s is a remarkably modern understanding of how war scars, and destroys, human souls, combatants and victims. For me, it’s why Austen remains relevant.
It’s not just Persuasion that addresses topics of this kind. Mansfield Park touches on equally contentious issues such as slavery, and through the awkward silences that ensue when Fanny Price asks the patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram about his business interests, Austen invites astute readers to question the basis of wealth on which polite Regency society rested (sugar plantations, the trade in human lives).
So it’s perfectly possible to read Jane Austen's novels as polite romances, but there are more profound subtexts in her work that Austen challenges, and encourages, us to think about. It’s why we’ll still be reading her in another 200 years.