By Peter Clark
Jane Austen created some of the most memorable characters ever to appear on literature’s grand stage. Born in 1775—the year marking the start of the American Revolution—she lived during the age of the French Revolution and Napoleon, but her characters rarely talk about or even allude to these massive turning points in European and American history. For that reason, she has been labeled, mainly by male critics, as a miniaturist, as opposed to such 19th century titans as Tolstoy or Dostoevsky who focused on some of the major movements of their day. However, since when is human nature a small subject?
Jane Austen’s continuing appeal to all ages comes from the fact that she writes about real human beings in such depth and with such artistic wit and irony. In some ways, Austen herself is an enigma, a spinster aunt who never rubbed shoulders or exchanged ideas with the literary elite of Regency England. She never married and perhaps was courted just a time or two, yet every scene involving Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy—even when they seem to dislike each other—crackles with romantic energy and tension. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy seem to Austen’s millions and millions of followers in countries around the world as real people, not simply make-believe characters in a novel. Her characters pop off the pages and walk around your home as if they were members of your family.
Though she lived only 42 years, four of her six books—Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Emma—are classics that appeal to one generation after another and which seamlessly translates into movies. Why? Because she is a master of dialogue, so much so that directors usually let the books tell the story without changing so much as a noun or pronoun. Not even Shakespeare invented a comical character as hilarious and entertaining as Reverend Collins in Pride and Prejudice, whose pompous vocabulary and toadying to his superiors leaves us in awe of Austen’s wit and her mastery of irony.
Other authors, nearly all of them male, often discounted Austen’s writing. Henry James underrated her work, sniffing that she accidentally found her metier and produced tolerably decent novels dealing with the manners and morals of the English country gentry, but of course nothing like his more “sophisticated” books. Mark Twain claimed he hated Austen’s novels, although his famous line (“I hated Pride and Prejudice the first time I read it and still hated it after a sixth reading”) suggests otherwise in ironic fashion.
Peter Clark earned a Ph.D. in History and Literature from the University of California-Berkeley. He has taught numerous courses in both subjects for the UC San Diego Extension program, including courses in English, Russian and American literature. He is currently teaching The Genius of Jane Austen which begins April 12, 2012.
Please note, in a previous version, a research paragraph was added by an editor that lacked proper attribution and was included without Dr. Clark’s knowledge. We apologize for the error. It has been corrected in the current version.