Listen: Hope presenter Katrina Roe talks Jane Austen with literature expert Katrina Clifford.
Image: Mr Darcy and Lizzy Bennett in the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice. Source: BBC Drama
Here’s what I find most amazing about Jane Austen – that 200 years after her death women still relate to and admire her fictional female characters.
When you think about how much has changed for women in that time – in regards to love, marriage, employment, politics, society and almost every aspect of life – it’s remarkable that her characters are still so engaging.
Let’s think about Lizzie Bennett, the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice, for just a minute. She’s not the shining star among the women she hangs out with. She’s not the most beautiful, the richest, the best-educated, the star piano player or even an amazing singer. She’s just okay at everything. Even in her relationships, she stuffs up. When she tells Darcy exactly where he can put his proposal, she mistakenly blames him for mistreating the dastardly Whickam. On this count, she couldn’t be more wrong. But do we blame her? No.
We love that she’s fiercely loyal to her wronged sister, Jane. We love that she demands to be treated as Darcy’s equal. We love that she makes up her own mind and speaks it. The fact that she happens to be wrong about nearly everything only makes us love her more. She’s the perfect imperfect heroine. Oh and she gets that powerful, rich, handsome, adoring husband with the big house, did I mention that?
Why So Popular?
When Jane Austen died in her early forties, her novels weren’t particularly successful. She wasn’t a household name. She never would have imagined that 200 years later her face would appear on the British ten pound note.
So why are her works still so popular?
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I asked Katrina Clifford, a literature expert from Macquarie University.
‘That, I think, is the million dollar question because they weren’t particularly popular when she wrote them. They had moderate success, but they certainly weren’t best sellers. She wasn’t the best known author of her day. She didn’t make millions of pounds or even thousands of pounds from her writing, but they’ve just really taken off since.’
“It’s possible to see in her almost anything that you want to see…that’s probably the key to her success.”
Katrina Clifford thinks that part of the appeal of Jane Austen is that what she stands for really depends on what you want from her. Austen is huge in Mormon culture, she’s held up in American evangelical Christian culture as an promoter of modesty, chastity and family values, but she’s also a feminist icon because she promotes women’s agency, education and choice. But it’s her prevalence in pop culture that has made Jane Austen a household name.
‘She’s got a huge amount of pop culture value. She’s really adaptable. Hollywood worked this out years ago almost a hundred years ago and started adapting Jane Austen for the screen in the very early days of film and television. And she keeps on being re-created. She seems to be almost endlessly adaptable.
We now have Jane Austen with Zombies and Jane Austen with vampires… It’s possible to see in her almost anything that you want to see and I think that’s probably the key to her success. You can’t quite pin her down but you can change her into whatever you want her to be.’
Writing That Empowers Women
When asked what Jane Austen’s is really trying to say, Katrina replies, ‘I think she’s all about women and trying to empower women.’ While female heroines of the day tended to be all the same, Jane Austen’s heroines are all unique.
‘They’re not super radical but in their small way they know what they want and they’re given the power within Austen’s novels to go out and get it. So Elizabeth Bennett is allowed to challenge Darcy, she’s allowed to turn him down even though he’s this amazingly wealthy powerful man. She can stand up to him. And so he has to change in order to make himself worthy of this woman.’
If you’ve never read Jane Austen, this is the perfect year to try her out. Katrina Clifford recommends starting off with Pride and Prejudice.
‘’It’s her happiest novel. It’s all about happiness.’ Even though Clifford is a fan of the TV series and the movies, she urges fans of both to try the book. ‘The book itself is much better than the TV adaptation or the movies.’
Austen herself described Pride and Prejudice as rather too bright and sparkling.
Oddly, nobody else seems to agree.
My Top Five Jane Austen Quotes:
On romance: I cannot make speeches, Emma. . . . If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. ~ Emma
On human nature:Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure. ~ Mansfield Park
On life: For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn? ~ Pride and Prejudice
On reading: I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! ~ Pride and Prejudice
On society: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. ~ Pride and Prejudice