I’ve just put down Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and it has got me thinking. How can scenarios so seemingly removed from our daily life still be so relevant and pertinent, and most of all, consumed by people of all ages today?
Let’s take one of my favourite books of all time. The tale of the priggish and correct Mr Darcy, finally getting married to the girl with hutspah Elizabeth Bennet, has to be one of the most famous love stories of all time. I mean, we’ve all seen at least one version of Pride and Prejudice. Be it the classic Colin Firth version, with him looking all rugged and divine, emerging from the fountain:
This moment in film history had women nationwide swooning on their sofas and desperate to find their own Mr Darcy. Or Colin Firth. Bridget Jones’ Diary also reintroduced a reminiscence of Mr Darcy into popular culture, and recently a vast structure in homage to Firth (and Mr Darcy) was recently erected in Hyde Park, causing much media hype.
How can a few, seemingly stuffy, tales of etiquette, manners and very restrained conversation still capture our imagination? Because, it is pure romance. I am personally the ultimate die hard romantic. Austen is escapism to the maximum. The chivalry, the manners, the propriety of the courtships seems so alien to women nowadays. The closest I get to having some kind of romance is getting the odd wolf whistle from an undesirable builder whilst I walk down the road. Or getting touched inappropriately in a nightclub. I don’t get letters declaring undying love, no one plays the long game, no men with a vast fortune and a large country estate approach me and I certainly don’t get asked to dance at a ball. Let alone two dances.
The most famous versions of Pride and Prejudice tend to stay true to era, and are period dramas. Yet, this infatuation with Austen is clearly demonstrated by the vast number of modern adaptations. For instance, Clueless. How many of you knew that the 90s classic was based on Emma? The fact that the basic premise of a Jane Austen novel translates into one of the biggest cult films of the 90s, constantly rewatched (by me at least) just proves that it is still relevant!
Pride and Prejudice is undoubtedly Jane Austen’s most famous tale. Yet her other novels, the famous 6 in total, all feature some love affair which eventually works itself out – love conquers all. And the female protagonists all offer something to ally yourself with. They are sensible, yet driven. They get the guy. Eventually, they take their lives into their own hands. My personal favourite character, Anne Elliot, in Persuasion, is placid, reliable and sensible. A bit dreary sounding. Yet, she is bright, realistic, and chooses real love over a marriage of convenience. It demonstrates that being rational doesn’t make you boring, you aren’t ridiculed or mocked for acting in the correct manner. You are shown to have decorum and ultimately have independence in the end. Free will equals happiness, which was a liberating concept for women in the time of Jane Austen.
I think this is only exacerbated by the great wit that Austen exudes through her writing. People shy away from Jane Austen. Her novels are seen as long, dry, hard work and dull. But you know what? They just… aren’t. Her cynical derision over the ridiculous hysteria women of wealth (Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park…) is just pure humour. Austen is one funny girl, once you get a handle on the tone. You can tell when Austen inherently dislikes one of her own characters, through subtle wit and snidey remarks. I find it brilliant – like bitching from 200 odd years ago.
So why is Austen still around? Why does her writing still permeate popular culture? Because ultimately we are all suckers for true love and we all love the chivalric romance which is long since gone from our lives. Simple as that.