Two hundred years ago this summer, Jane Austen died at the age of 41. Although her novels were published anonymously and received scant attention during her brief life, they have rarely been out of print since and can now be enjoyed in 40 different languages and multiple screen and stage adaptations. As Austen herself might have said, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that she has become one of the most beloved writers in the canon of English literature.
Austen’s position in the canon is secured by the four novels published during her life: “Sense and Sensibility” (1811), “Pride and Prejudice” (1813), “Mansfield Park” (1814) and “Emma” (1815). Henry James lauded Austen’s “genius” and “the extraordinary vividness with which she saw what she did see, and her … perfection of form” (p.403).* Eudora Welty wondered admiringly, “Who among novelists ever more instantly recognized the absurd when she saw it in human behavior, then polished it off to more devastating effect?” (p. 404)*
Austin’s place in the hearts of her admirers is secured by her unforgettable heroines. Elizabeth Bennet, for example, is the remarkably complex and admirable protagonist of “Pride and Prejudice.” She is witty, rational, feisty, passionate, highly intelligent and observant, but she is sometimes too quick to form an opinion. Her unquestioning acceptance of Wickham’s slanderous depiction of Mr. Darcy leads her to reject the latter’s proposal. Rationally, she knows that marriage to a wealthy gentleman like Darcy is a smart move for a woman with no fortune and no other suitors; emotionally, she does not like him.
True love and good marriages, Austin believed, must be based on rational reasons and honest emotions. Later in the novel, after she has learned the truth about Wickham’s calumny, Elizabeth cannot rationally fathom why Darcy – the suitor she coldly spurned – did so much to rescue her sister Lydia from an aborted elopement with Wickham that threatened to ruin her reputation, as well as the entire family’s. Lacking a rational explanation, she allows her emotions to guide her: “Her heart did whisper, he had done it for her” (p.222).*
A more controversial Austen heroine is the eponymous protagonist of “Emma.” Like Elizabeth, Emma Woodhouse is smart, witty and passionate; unlike her predecessor, Emma is spoiled, self-centered and over-confident. She gives horrible advice to Harriet, her naive protégé; misjudges the worth of the beautiful and accomplished Jane Fairfax; mistakenly believes that Frank Churchill, who is secretly engaged to Jane, is interested in her; misinterprets the goal of the loathsome Mr. Eton’s amorous advances; and unfeelingly insults a poor spinster.
To Emma’s credit, she takes responsibility for her mistakes and shows remorse. She accepts the constructive criticism of Mr. Knightly, for whom she comes to feel more than a “sisterly” affection. Realizing that Mr. Knightly is a wealthy gentleman of virtue and good sense who loves her, Emma accepts his proposal and, presumably, lives happily ever after with a man she respects and loves.
Celebrate Austen’s Beloved Novels
In commemoration of the anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, GCU’s English faculty is hosting a series of presentations as part of our annual Novel Ideas discussion club. The Austen presentations will be held during Chapel hour in the Engineering Building (bldg. 1, room 120) on the following Fridays:
- 15: Sense and Sensibility (Professor Helfers)
- 29: Emma (Professor Raftery)
- 6: Northanger Abbey (Professor Santos)
- 20: Persuasion (Professor Goodman)
- 3: Jane Austen and Pop Culture (Professor Zafonte)
Please be sure to join us for lively discussions of your favorite novels by Jane Austen.
Which is your favorite novel by Jane Austen? Why?
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- Gray, Donald, and Mary A Favret, editors. Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. 4th ed., New York, NY, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.