Austen’s Universal Appeal

~ By Marilyn Brant 

Note: This post originally appeared here.

When I was a fourteen-year-old high school freshman in the 1980’s, my English lit teacher had the audacity to foist a supposedly romantic novel on our class.

The story took place in Regency England and was considered a “classic,” which I figured was literary shorthand for “deadly dull, full of obscure symbolism, and probably selected by the members of the department while drinking too much spiked punch at a staff holiday party.”

After listening to our teacher’s introductory lecture on the book and its author, I was underwhelmed.

So, I read through the story description on the back cover: Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, was vivacious. Mr. Darcy was arrogant. And the drama, such that it was, would take place in parlours and ballrooms and whatever.

“Gag me,” I thought (because, you know, it was still the eighties) and sighed in annoyance. How could this antiquated novel be remotely relevant to my life? I had important problems. Guys I liked who didn’t like me back. Guys who’d hinted that they might like me, but to whom I wasn’t attracted. Snotty girls who made fun of me or gossiped about my friends. Friends who had relationship problems of their own and who consulted me for advice I wasn’t wise enough yet to give them. And my very own family, who seemed determined to embarrass me at every turn and keep me from being the cool teenager I’d fantasized about becoming, rather than the awkward bookworm that I was.

I did not want to read about, think about, or discuss Elizabeth and Darcy’s “courtship” and what that entailed when I was so mired in my own early dating experiences. Besides, what could an author, who’d lived two centuries before me, know about the issues that concerned me during high school?

Not. A. Thing. I was sure of it.

Well, I’m sure you’ve already guessed just how wrong I was. Reading Jane Austen that semester quite simply changed my life. I hadn’t gotten more than fifty pages into Pride and Prejudice before I realized the truth: this was an author who saw people. She knew them—their thoughts and behaviors, their foibles and strengths. She had an innate sense of what was timeless and universal. Her insights into human nature were so acute and her characters so well rendered that she taught me to spot a modern-day Caroline Bingley or Mr. Collins or Mary Bennet from a striking distance of half a football field. Jane Austen was a genius when it came to relationships of all kinds and, moreover, I knew long before I’d reached the final chapter of her book that I had a lot to learn from her. For me, she was simultaneously a literary idol and an unexpected life coach.

Over thirty years later, I’m still learning from Jane’s wisdom and still deeply in awe of her brilliance. Happily, I’m far from alone in my admiration of her writing. In recent decades, an industry of Austen fandom has sprung up around her work, inspiring blockbuster film adaptations, frequent references in pop culture, cross-cultural characters that are nods to Jane’s own, and thousands of fanfiction works that include prequels, sequels, or twists on her novels.

I recently published my twentieth book, and nearly everything I’ve written thus far has been, in some way, an homage to our beloved Miss Austen—from my debut novel, According to Jane, which was inspired by my experience of reading Pride and Prejudice as a teenager, to my most recent release, Coming Home: A Mirabelle Harbor Duet, which includes a romantic novella that’s a modern nod to Persuasion. Being that I write contemporary stories, though, as opposed to historical fiction, and I typically set my novels in the American Midwest, rather than in Great Britain, the influence of her work on mine isn’t always as obvious as it might be, perhaps, if I wrote Regency romances. And, yet, this is one of the many treasures Austen offers those of us who admire her and who’ve chosen to become authors. Her intelligent writing style, her thought-provoking themes, and her insightful characterisations made me want to try hard to emulate her impeccable narrative craft while working on my own stories, even when the books I was writing seemed utterly different on the surface.

Taking a look at just one of her iconic characters, say, Mr. Darcy (because who doesn’t love him?!); his universality should be surprising and, yet, it’s completely understandable. Despite being fully grounded in Austen’s era, his characterisation transcends the period of the novel. Why? Oh, friends, let us count the ways… Yes, he’s the hero of the story. A fictional Prince Charming to Elizabeth’s Cinderella. A wealthy and sophisticated White Knight-type who enters the sphere of the impoverished (relatively speaking) heroine and has the ability to sweep her away to a life of significantly greater luxury. So far, he could be like many of the romantic heroes in literature before him.

Mr. Darcy
Mark Darcy, the modern day incarnation of Mr Darcy, featured in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Credit: Miramax, Universal Pictures, StudioCanal.
What is it, then, that makes him endure? What makes him stand out? One major characteristic is his value system. He’s not looking only for a pretty face; he respects an educated mind. And, more than even that, Pemberley—his castle, if you will—is a place with a huge library, symbolising the gift of furthering the education of his intended bride and sharpening her already sizable intellect. Elizabeth Bennet needs riches of the mind as well as the body, and Austen is almost revolutionary in pointing that out to her generation.

But what’s even more unique about Fitzwilliam Darcy is that he’s portrayed as fully human—one with marked flaws, despite his tall, dark, and handsome exterior. It’s that combination of the universal Cinderella story plus the humanisation of a hero who resembles men we know in real life that makes this tale so translatable across eras and cultures. It’s why readers and viewers can buy into portrayals of Darcy in such a wide range of settings…those as different from each other as Bridget Jones’s Diary is from Bride and Prejudice…or the Latter Day P&P cinematic version is from a traditional Regency adaptation. Who in the world hasn’t had a bad first impression of someone and gotten off on the wrong foot?

Prince Charming is merely a fairy-tale character and frequently etched in a quick and superficial manner, but Austen raises the standard for a hero. She pens Darcy as a recognisable and relatable man. A man who not only behaves rudely and coldly at the start of the novel, due to his irritation at being judged only on his appearance and fortune during that first assembly, but also as a thinking man who learns from his mistakes. He models what a mature real-life gentleman would do: apologise sincerely to the woman he loves for the errors he’s made and strive to correct his behavior within the community at large.

And, speaking of the story’s heroine, Austen’s stunningly realistic character development is true for her, too. Elizabeth candidly admits to her prejudice, once her eyes are open to it, and works to try to make amends to Darcy for her misjudgment of him.  She’s capable of turning her sharp observations and astute introspections upon herself, recognising her missteps, and owning up to them—and this allows the reader to learn right along with Elizabeth.

But the protagonists of Pride and Prejudice aren’t the only ones Austen shades with three-dimensional realism. Captain Wentworth might be a man who loves with great passion, but he’s also a grudge holder with a simmering temper. Catherine Morland frequently lets her imagination run away with her. Edmund Bertram is easily led astray by a woman with clearly more fashion sense than ethics, despite his religious bent. And what can I say about Emma Woodhouse? Whether portrayed traditionally or with delightful modernisation, as in Clueless, she’s a meddlesome mess, and that’s even before she starts getting mouthy with the neighbours.

Clueless, a modern day adaptation of Emma. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Then there are the Dashwood sisters. Here, Austen paints her characters with such a beautiful dichotomy, allowing them to be foils for each other and giving the reader the opportunity to see how extremes of behaviour are both limiting and, potentially, a source of deep pain. By playing out the opposing worldviews in Elinor and Marianne’s romantic actions and experiences, Austen illuminates the downsides of their sense/sensibility pairing and, simultaneously, the benefits of each perspective. Yet another gift Jane bestows upon her readers across the centuries: an awareness that polarities of behaviour are just as prevalent—and just as emotionally dangerous—in our modern world as they were in years’ past. And young people in today’s society (like, oh, high-school teens who, maybe, think that “classic” novels aren’t relevant to their lives) need to learn how to recognise this, too.

I’ve enjoyed so many facets of Austen’s writing in my life, particularly her delicious use of irony and humor, her moral lessons that were delivered with such flair, her utterly distinctive characters, and her memorable romantic plots. But, in my opinion, her greatest legacy will always be her clear-eyed vision of human nature and how timelessly translatable those insights have been into new works that honor her stories. From subtle tributes like The Lake House to faithful BBC productions, many artists have tried to tap into her genius and show the world what Jane showed us.

For me, once she drew my attention to a personality trait through her perceptive prose, I was never able to “unsee” it. Her spot-on, keen observations of human strength and frailty are as accurate today as they ever were. And as much as I owe her a debt of gratitude for my writing inspiration, I owe her a far greater debt as a person for the many priceless lessons she’s taught me through her novels. I doubt there’s a better life coach out there…and I’d be willing to bet that millions of devoted Jane Austen fans around the globe feel the same.

Marilyn Brant is a New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of contemporary women’s fiction, romantic comedy & mystery. She was named the Author of the Year (2013) by the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. She loves all things Jane Austen, has a passion for Sherlock Holmes, is a travel addict and a music junkie, and lives on chocolate and gelato. 

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