Why Jane Austen's idea of love endures
Her love is not made easier by chastity. She taught us that love and the 'happily ever after' have nothing to do with virtue.
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This year will mark the 200th death anniversary of one of the world’s most beloved novelists: Jane Austen.
The proof of her popularity rests in the fact that her novels are still widely read, her work has been adapted to almost every form, and she’s the face of the new £10 note!
One can’t help but wonder what it is that makes Austen’s writing from the 19th century endure in the 21st century.
After all, things are done differently now. The way we interact and manage our time has changed thanks to WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat.
The way we meet people has transformed thanks to Tinder and Shaadi.com.
Even the way we watch movies shape shifts every decade: cassettes two decades ago, DVDs a decade ago, and Netflix currently.
The world is in constant churn.The proof of her popularity rests in the fact that her novels are still widely read, her work has been adapted to almost every form. Photo: Pinterest
Therefore, for any piece of art to endure — whether it’s a movie, a sculpture, a book, or Mozart’s symphony — we have to find a piece of ourselves in it. And that’s what Austen has nailed.
Her narrative motif, her characters, the way she constructed situations, was life-like and timeless. Her themes were universal in their appeal and cut across nationalities, gender and religion.
She reflected life in a funny and melancholic way using biting irony, sardonic humour, and absolute realism.
The central premise of all her work was emotions, and that’s where her USP lies. Austen painted a large canvas of love and cast it prism-like in several lights.
In Sense & Sensibility Marianne Dashwood seeks passionate love with John Willoughby, but eventually warms up to Colonel Brandon’s soothing love.
Emma Woodhouse in Emma finds love in friendship. Fanny Price from Mansfield Park knows the difference between real love and pretentious love when she rejects Henry Crawford. Austen helps us understand love in all its shades.
Why does this matter? Because, two hundred years later, being in love and being loved still remains the most basic human yearning.
Yes, times have changed but our emotions remain the same. We spend most of our life in the pursuit of love, of being understood, of trying to meld with another person despite our eccentricities, failings and flaws.
Of course, the way we do things has drastically changed, but the spatial and temporal semantics haven’t. So, Emma would set up her friends on Shaadi.com.
Marianne would discover that Willoughby is a casanova on Instagram.
Fanny would realise that Henry is rakish by reading his Facebook comments. It’s the character’s journey towards love that echoes inside us two centuries later.
What also endears us to Austen’s work is the way Austen replicates the implicit role of women in the carousel of love.
This was especially startling in the Georgian era when a woman’s identity was tied to the economic and social status of her husband.
Women were meant to be an insipid colourless form of existence.
Doubling up as an author and social commentator, Austen shrugged aside this inherent patriarchy by writing about the individuality of women, by giving them personality, pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility.What also endears us to Austen’s work is the way Austen replicates the implicit role of women in the carousel of love.
Austen also shied away from vindicating her characters, as great pieces on love sometimes do. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy are flawed (read: normal) human beings.
But they find their happily ever after, as does the rather comical William Collins.
Jane, Liz’s sister, is full of goodness, but she has to walk the same road of uncertainty when falling in love with Mr Bingley.
Her love is not made easier by chastity. Austen taught us that love and the "happily ever after" have nothing to do with virtue.
What further caps this is how difficult Austen’s personal journey as a writer was.
Her actual name was not used in her books, she paid to have her first book published (a sum of more than a third of her family’s meager household income), she wrote about romance and love but remained unmarried (a tough act given the era), and she gained popularity only after her death.
It couldn’t have been easy. But she kept writing, never losing her sense of purpose.
This is why Austen has withstood two centuries later and why her name is synonymous with the best male writers through the centuries.
Like her characters, Austen found her true love and she held on to it. Isn’t that all that greatness needs?