It is remarkable that for over two centuries now, and in our present time, Jane Austen’s writings are still popular. Why is this so? This question’s answer is profound in its simplicity and truth.
Why do soldiers in deadly combat enjoy Jane’s writing? (Due to her impact on many who read her and appreciate her, she will herein be referred to as “Jane.”). The term “Janeite” was invented by Sir George Saintsbury in 1894. Writers and scholars, including Rudyard Kipling, were Janeites, as were many soldiers. Kipling recounted a story about some soldiers in World War I who, with everything available, chose to have Jane’s novels read to them when they were not fighting. In World War II, the government in the U.K. put out the word that there was a shortage of Jane Austen’s books for the troops and asked the public to please help supply them.
Why, with virtually no crime, no trials, and no slam-bang action are Jane’s works so popular? Rapes, muggings, murders, and assaults, actually almost anything that would be judged to be major crime, provide very little in the way of any issue, plot device, subject, or primary theme in Jane Austen’s works. Yes, some are there, but they are not the primary focus of what Jane does. Huge catastrophes, dangerous journeys, torture, magic, spells, curses, and impossible quests are nonexistent. Lingering illness, addictions, mortal injury, and gruesome death are not of any prominence.
Why do so many, especially those who are schooled in what makes a novel “great,” say that Jane’s works are among the greatest ever written; some say they are the “greatest”? Why would a modern celebrated novelist, Eudora Welty, say that what Jane does is “still unrivaled in the English novel,” and that her stories are “as nearly flawless as any fiction can be” ? Why are many works of other authors, Jane’s contemporaries, which were then accepted as the “best” of the novel genre, today out of style and virtually unknown? Why are the names of these novelists – names like Scott, Eliot, Bronte, Richardson, Fielding – foreign to most people, and the titles of their stories even less familiar; yet, Jane’s works are known to this day, and quoted, around the world, in numerous languages?
Why, again and again, are Jane’s books reprinted, her stories filmed, acted on the stage, made into new movie adaptations, plays, and TV shows, serialized, in version after version, and celebrated? Why are the books read repeatedly and the movies watched over and over, to the point where the lines are remembered verbatim? Why do so many young women know immediately, without explanation, what a friend means when they say “I hope you find your Mr. Darcy”?
The answer to these questions is not evident from many available “notes” about Jane Austen’s novels, nor from many “summaries” and scholarly articles that list her “themes” and “motifs.” Many have suggested that her overriding concerns were things such as love, money, self-realization, social education, reality, property, class, individual and society, feminine freedom, morality, and religion. These are all there in her work, in some form, but they miss what is the very fabric of her message, her theme of themes, Jane’s core belief.
Quite by accident and mere happenstance, your present author stumbled upon an essay by Eudora Welty, who herself was called the “Jane Austen of Mississippi.” In “Jane Austen” (Atlantic Brief Lives, 1965) Miss Welty provided the answer to the “Why” questions:
“Everybody doing everything together – what mastery she has over the scene, the family scene! The dinner parties, the walking parties, the dances, picnics, concerts, excursions to Lyme Regis, and sojourns at Bath, all give their testimony to Jane Austen’s ardent belief that the unit of everything worth knowing in life is in the family, that family relationships are the natural basis of every other relationship.” [emphasis added]. . . .Jane Austen was born knowing a great deal – for one thing, that the interesting situations of life can, and notably do, take place at home.”
Just as every scientific fact depends for its reality upon the underlying theory that it supports, from the scientific “paradigm” that gives it meaning, family is the overarching meaning-invigorating paradigm of the work of Jane Austen, the “Jane Paradigm.” And her paradigm is a paradigm of goodness, of good news, of the family as gospel.
Although many critics and scholars have simply missed the Jane Paradigm – the life foundation of the enduring, basic, supporting, real family – others besides Miss Welty have seen it and written about it. For example, Professor Stephanie Eddelman noted:
“Austen fully appreciates the importance of family. In Mansfield Park she writes, ‘Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement . . . if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived’. And Dr. Kay Souter tells us that: ‘The plots of all the novels are in fact made up of groups of siblings interacting with each other. . . . Sibships thus provide the essential intersubjective space in Austen’s novels and much of their psychological structure.’ “
One of the interesting clues to the nature of Jane’s Paradigm is the first words of her first published novel, Sense And Sensibility: “The family . . .”
Take any of her works and it becomes evident, again and again, that family is the canvas for her masterpieces. It is never an ideal perfect family, it is sometimes a “deranged” family as Jane refers to the Bennett family in Pride And Prejudice, the “luckiest family in the world,” and a family of “folly and indecorum;” but it is still, with all its warts, all its imperfect members, all its noise, and all its love, family.
British novelist Rebecca West was mistaken about Jane’s Paradigm when she said that Jane’s stories showed an “underlying faith that the survival of society was more essential to the moral purpose of the universe than the survival of the individual.” As Miss Welty makes so clear, Jane’s Paradigm is not a typical statist or socialist faith in “society” in general. Jane’s Paradigm says that It Takes Families To Raise A Village.
Miss Welty sees that in the “familiar” of a family, Jane presents “the full presence of the world;” but Miss Welty’s insights about the Jane Paradigm also go further than simply seeing that it exists and its universal scope. Miss Welty realizes that we, the readers, are not only included in, but are welcomed by Jane into her family circles:
“The felicity they have for us must partly lie in the confidence they take for granted between the author and her readers.”
This “confidence” within which Jane includes us is how Jane “adopts” us all into her families. In familiar terms, her words invite us to join the family and “come on in and set a spell.” We are included in the family inner circle; we talk with Jane and Elizabeth Bennett about Mr. Bingley and that other “odious man;” with Elinor we try to comfort Marianne and feel her pain; and joining our voice with that of Mr. Knightley, we scold Emma, the heroine whom no one but Jane would much like.
Perhaps the soldiers in combat wanted to listen to Jane’s words because it took them home, home to their Mums and Dads, home to their snot-nosed little brother and to their sister who always wanted to play with them. Home to be with family – comforting, loving, weeping, caring, laughing, safe. And that is a place we all like to be, so it is no wonder that, again and a gain, we enjoy Jane’s transporting us there, and we too find meaning in Jane’s Paradigm.