There is no doubt that the stories and characters of Jane Austen’s novels still strike a chord amongst women of all ages. Of course, men can enjoy her work too; it’s not exclusive to the female gender and each novel provides a fascinating insight into Regency period England and the intricate social pressures and attitudes of that time. But what Austen did so well was to pick up the relationships between female characters, as well as poke a little bit of fun and criticism at women’s rather low position on the social ladder.
It’s no mistake that Elizabeth Bennet starts to look at Mr. Darcy in a better light after she sees his home at Pemberley. Of course, a cynical reader might doubt that she falls in love with him at all; I like to think that she does soften towards him, but the timing of this change in attitude shines a tiny light on Austen’s humour. This playful wink towards the reader is much more evident in Northanger Abbey, a novel which satirises the Gothic novels that were popular at the time. Ann Radcliffe in particular was a successful and well known author of Gothic novels, whom Austen would undoubtedly have been familiar with.
Radcliffe’s novels usually included characters that dismissed supernatural phenomena with rational explanations, only to find near the end that all such strange occurrences and suspicious characters have a sinister and other worldly cause. Northanger Abbey’s protagonist is an ardent reader of such literature, and so her imagination leads her to draw other worldly opinions that turn out to have perfectly mundane explanations. Austen turns the Gothic narrative with which she was so familiar on its head; as modern readers we miss this wink to the reader, as Radcliffe’s work hasn’t survived as well as Austen’s has. The only reason I’m aware of her is my university degree, which introduced me to a wide range of books and poetry that I may never have read otherwise.
In some ways, I think that watching a TV or movie adaptation of an Austen novel is essential to enjoying her stories. Much like watching a Shakespeare play is better than simply reading it; seeing Austen’s world in visual with actors to convey the intricate world, themes and humour layered through her books makes it easier to appreciate them. Otherwise, the attention to manners and infuriating detail on social niceties and etiquette can be difficult to get through; the idea that the Dashwood sisters have next to no hope of a ‘good match’ just because they’re poor, that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are a scandalous match just because he’s that much richer than she is.
These barriers seem ridiculous and contemptible to us now, and can distract us from the clever and shrewd mind that created a series of novels that have survived hundreds of years thanks to their relatable characters. Austen captured something in the female imagination that connects to a modern audience and showed female relationships in a way that’s actually still rare in literature today, let alone in the Regency period.