Jane Austen: Why The English Novelist Remains Relevant Even Today
Today is the birthday of one of the most loved English novelists of all time, Jane Austen. It is her 244 birth anniversary. Her six major novels take a critical and often humorous look at life in the late 1700s. The tales of life, and love, are filled with irony, and a sense of realism about the era and the characters she wrote about.
She died in 1817, when she was just 41. But in her short life, she exerted more lasting influence on English literature and culture than many of her peers who lived twice as long.
What I love about her writing is that it stands out for its comedy, self-awareness and realistic, detailed portrayals of characters and their relationships. I agree with Laleen Sukhera who edited Austenistan, a collection of seven stories that are glued together by Jane Austen, when she says “The beauty of Austen is that you can keep re-reading her and find far more layers and nuances over the years and reinterpreting and reimaging all kinds of things. She brings us closer together and it’s such fun!” Yes, that’s one more endearing quality about her writing that I too have discovered each time I read her books I discovered new things I didn’t notice before, subtleties and connections and they are inexhaustible.
A reason she is admired and looked up to most for is that she proved that women can write as well as men can. I love her for giving us incredible, unique, and engaging heroines like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. And for giving girls the likes of Mr Darcy, and Mr Knightley to dream about. Yes, they are teenage crushes even today.
“An Austen novel and character I love to bits is Emma. Emma begins with a most frivolous woman being centre stage and ends with the best romances of all time. Emma is cluelessly good intentioned, goofily loveable and Mr Knightly saying ‘Badly Done’ is iconic because to love someone and to dress them down is a selflessly heroic thing to do.” – Aarti V Raman
So on her birth anniversary we asked some authors about why they think Austen is relevant even today and which are their fave Austen characters. Read on to know:
Kiran Manral, author of books like Missing Presumed Dead, Saving Maya, Once Upon A Crush and The Face At The Window among others and is the Ideas Editor of SheThePeople as well says, “For all that they showed of women conforming to the role expected of them in society, Jane Austen’s books were in truth a layered commentary on social mores and pressures that confined women and we identify today with the protagonists in her books because in their defiance and struggles we as women still see ourselves 200 years later.”
“Jane Austen’s novels are remarkable for their brilliant and astute portrayal of 18th century British society, and especially the lives of genteel women, who needed to make a “good” marriage if they hoped to survive with any kind of comfort and dignity. That might seem like an outdated idea today. But, in fact, her novels are astonishingly relevant even now, because marriage and money — the two main themes of her works — continue to dominate our lives (even if marriages have become more ephemeral than they were 200 years ago.) Austen’s portrayal of social snobbery, too, is ageless and spot on. For me, it is not just the marvellous contemporaneity of her language that makes Austen a writer for all times; it is also her deft handling of the warp and weft of personal relationships that puts her up there among those whom we want to read today.” says Shuma Raha, author of The Love Song of Maya K and Other Stories.
Milan Vohra, author of books like Our Song and Tick-Tock We’re 30 says, “Classics help set a foundation or context to benchmark future work against or compare the change in attitudes. Jane Austen’s strong female characters didn’t allow society to trample on them. A strong female protagonist will always be relevant, until it has become the absolute norm.”
While Aarti V Raman, author of such novels like The Worst Daughter Ever, Kingdom Come and With You I Dance among others says, “Jane Austen is as relevant today as she ever was, because her stories deal with social divide, the place of women and how they take up spaces that are traditionally occupied by men in their own, gentle inimitable way. Characters like Emma, Marianne, and Elizabeth Bennet embody all that a woman becomes when she really wants to and that is always, always important in literature and IRL. Austen’s stories are about people interacting with each other, discovering more about themselves and getting rid of innate judgments through some marvelous and clever storytelling and that is something I, personally, admire.”
“Jane Austen continues to be relevant in our subcontinent because no matter how much we evolve, we still retain social norms and niceties and hypocrisies prevalent from Jane’s era two centuries ago. In many ways, her regency world is more relevant to us than it is to our counterparts in England. In Pakistan–and I assume much of India as well–our image-conscious upper echelons and eager aspirants retain social codes, etiquette, a social season, a marriage market and inherent snobbery. Beyond the delicious frivolity of it all exists a harsher underlying social reality that prevails because it’s still very patriarchal and misogynistic here.” says Laleen.
Of characters and her novels
Author Zarreen Khan who has written books like Koi Good News? And I Quit Now What? talks about one of her most loved and adapted novel Pride and Prejudice, “Jane Austen’s romance is timeless. At a time when romance was damsel in distress and saviour hero, Elizabeth and Mr Darcy redefined characters, emotions and relationships.”
Milan talks about her fave Austen character, “Elizabeth Bennett, for sure! Because even for the times she is written in, she stands out as a woman with a mind of her own. She is a strong, individualistic, opinionated woman and not just that, she is upbeat and can see when she’s in the wrong. Ragini in ‘Our Song’ is like that. She fights for what she believes in. I like Lizzie Bennett’s strength and ability to critique herself. ‘My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.’”
When further asked which Jane Austen character she loves the most, Aarti says, “An Austen novel and character I love to bits is Emma. Emma begins with a most frivolous woman being centre stage and ends with the best romances of all time. Emma is cluelessly good intentioned, goofily loveable and Mr Knightly saying ‘Badly Done’ is iconic because to love someone and to dress them down is a selflessly heroic thing to do. The other characters too provide a juxtaposition and complement Emma’s growth and self-discovering making it a novel that’s too important to miss reading.”
“Of course I adore Darcy and Wentworth and Emma and Lizzie and Catherine, but I’d like to mention how fascinating, fun and swoon-worthy I also find some of her cads, namely John Willoughby, Henry Crawford and Frank Churchill. Frenemy-wise, I think Mary Crawford’s depiction is particularly skilful, she intrigues me a lot more than Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. And I’ve related to Kitty Bennet since I was 12, I get how she feels when she’s always FOMO and growing up as a younger sister! Gayathri’s Darcy in Austenistan is a stiff English diplomat (Hugo) who refuses to dance with his wife and Saniyya’s Caroline Bingley (Kamila Mughal) shows her vulnerabilities.” says Laleen.
For Kiran it is, “
“Classics help set a foundation or context to benchmark future work against or compare change in attitudes. Jane Austen’s strong female characters didn’t allow society to trample on them. A strong female protagonist will always be relevant, until it has become the absolute norm.” – Milan Vohra
While Shuma says, “My favourite Jane Austen character is the predictable one! Yes, it’s Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. Though I do like many others, such as Emma Wodehouse in Emma or Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, Lizzy Bennet tops my list because she is intelligent, spirited, speaks her mind, is just a little bit flawed, and, quite uncompromising in her own way. I adored her as a teenager venturing into Austen for the first time, and remain fond of her to this day.”
Today when popular Hollywood actors like Emma Watson talk of being self-partnered, when she was asked about marriage, isn’t Austen relevant more than ever? Because, along with writing about people and their problems, their dysfunctional families, money, why, and even if, women should marry were issues she dealt with. Those issues were relevant then, and they’re relevant now
The views are the writer’s own.