Author Katherine Reay really loves Jane Austen and her contemporaries. She has written multiple novels that draw from Austen’s novels and Recency classics, and her latest is a fun tale of friendship and falling head-first into history.
In The Austen Escape, Mary Davies is an engineer in need of a holiday, and she receives the perfect offer from her childhood friend Isabel Dwyer: a two-week stay in an English manor house. But then Isabel loses her memory and becomes convinced she lives in Austen-era Bath. Reay’s latest is a charming romp full of dancing, misunderstandings and romance.
Reay can’t get enough of Jane Austen—and neither can we. Here’s five reasons why.
Why we (still) love Jane Austen
By Katherine Reay
1. Austen introduces us to ourselves—and we are well dressed.
Austen shows that human nature is static—all while moving through life in silk dresses, cravats and shoe-roses got by proxy. From Pride and Prejudice alone, Austen shows we will always get things wrong, carry prejudice, look out for our own interests, demonstrate beautiful loyalty, stand firm when pressed and often rise above it all with the truest sacrificial instincts. In her fiction and in our lives, we see that sibling love is powerful and a gift, sibling rivalry undeniable, and families, good or bad, are for life. We interact with Wickhams, Caroline Bingleys, Lydias and Marys, and if we’re blessed, we count a few Lizzys, Janes, Georgianas and Charlottes among our friends. We not only meet these people daily—we are these people.
2. Austen wrote unlike anybody else—and exactly how we think.
We are taught to use active verbs when writing. Run! Slay! Dart! Use “ponder” rather than “think long and hard.” And never load up the adverbs—that’s clearly and noticeably weak. Yet, we think that way. We think in gradations of an unspoken, often even subconscious, standard. Comparisons are in our nature—likes, winks. Austen writes just this way. She describes Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility as “still handsomer . . . so lovely . . . though not so correct” as her elder sister, Elinor. She employs a prodigious number of very-s, most-s and much-es throughout all her novels. She continually compares because we understand it. We instinctively understand her.
3. Austen reminds us everyone is flawed—even our beloved heroines—but they, and we, can change.
In Northanger Abbey, Austen introduces an unlikely heroine:
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.”
It’s a delightful way to begin a story, and reveal a truth. We can change, learn, think and grow. We can become the heroes and heroines of our own stories. Human nature writ large may be static, but we as individuals are not. Her most beloved heroine, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, backs this up:
“But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”
Now, Catherine and Lizzy don’t overturn their presuppositions and refine their thinking all at once. Austen’s books are carefully drawn journeys of self-discovery. Her young heroines learn who they are, where they stand and who they want to be over time—and if that comes with love, all the better. Catherine constantly sparred with the quixotic Henry—her education was challenging and slow going. She had to break old patterns and expectations—her thirst for good gothic drama, for one. Lizzy needed to recognize she was fallible. Her education was almost the opposite of Catherine’s. One came at the world with wide-eyed naiveté, and the other with a cynical belief in her own complete understanding. Like Catherine, we too can see mystery, pain, subterfuge and drama where only a laundry list exists. And like Lizzy, we often don’t pay attention to what’s around us and make discerning judgments. We judge on what we think we know.
Emma is also a delightful example of this. Austen, in an ironic play, exposes Emma’s self-absorption and arrogance by naming the novel after her—solely Emma. Yet Austen also gives Emma a remarkable capacity for understanding, empathy, sacrifice and selfless love. This novel is a beautiful story of transformation, and as often is true in own lives, it takes a little outside correction to get Emma there. No one will ever forget Mr. Knightley’s “It was badly done, indeed!” He could say the same to us, many times over.
4. Austen calls out what we know to be true: It is vital to pay attention to life right around you.
As I alluded to above, we often go with what we know, rather than paying attention to the truth around us. Austen opens her most famous book, Pride and Prejudice, with that immortal line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged. . . .” But she cautions readers to not be fooled. She is not going to dazzle the reader with a “universal” story, a sweeping saga with adventures across continents, great mysteries or international intrigue. Instead, Austen expresses the very small truth: A woman with five daughters believes that every young man must be in want of a wife, because all the Mrs. Bennets of the world have daughters who need to marry them. Austen’s characters stayed in their villages—or complained about a 50-mile carriage ride outside them. In those close quarters, her men and women moved through kitchens, ballrooms and life. She didn’t need more canvas. Nor do we. Although the concerns of the world do and should draw us to the larger stage, our actions close to home are paramount. How we love those nearest us will determine how we help and love those far away.
On that note, in Mansfield Park, Austen created Fanny Price—an often overlooked heroine, but one who confirms this point. Fanny is not a character many readers love. She is not a heroine who says much or even seems to feel much. But Fanny does much. She takes care of her indolent Aunt Bertram, continually assists her cousins, even taking part in a play she dislikes because it is their wish to continue it, and works time and again towards their welfare rather than her own. Fanny serves her family. She shows love through doing—on a very small stage—and she changes lives.
5. Ahead of her time, Austen recognized the multifaceted benefits of exercise.
I loved playing with this in my new book, The Austen Escape. One character pulls another up from a park bench with the truth, “When there are serious matters to discuss, Austen women walk. And it has the side benefit of keeping our figures so light and pleasing.” (Thank you, Mr. Darcy, for that visual.) Time and time again, Austen reinforced what we know to be true—a good long walk is always a good idea. Need to clear your head? Take a walk outside. Need to gain some perspective or relax? Again, go for a walk. Need exercise to get your heart rate up, purge some anger or avoid an unwanted guest—go walking. Exercise clears the mind, helps sleep, improves your mood, strengthens your bones and muscles and helps prevent disease. What more could we want? Lizzy was Austen’s most famous walker, but Catherine, Emma, Marianne, Fanny and Anne all walked as well. And another benefit? Good things happened on walks. Don’t forget it was during a walk Mr. Knightley proposed to Emma; Darcy to Elizabeth; and after one that Captain Wentworth handed Anne into a carriage and, I say, fell in love with her all over again.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little traipse into Austen with me. Bottom line: I contend we still love Austen because Austen is still relevant.