Blair: Austen's Power

by Peter Blair | 4/18/11 10:00pm

One of the things I find most perennially curious is our generation's fascination with Jane Austen movies and the novels on which they are based. It seems like nearly every time I gain a new Facebook friend I notice that one of our mutual interests is something related to Jane Austen, usually "Pride and Prejudice" or its movie rendition. Austen seems to always come up in any conversation I have with people about their favorite writers. Given the relational context we find ourselves in one in which hookups are common and long-term, exclusive relationships are rare the ubiquity of Jane Austen is an extremely bizarre phenomenon. Our obsession with Austen and her work reveals, in part, our distaste for certain characteristics of our own culture.

Austen's popularity is bizarre because the world in which Austen's characters live is entirely alien to us. Her novels embody a view of society and human interaction that is radically different from our own. The men and women of Austen's novels exist within a complex and altogether foreign web of social, cultural, moral, prudential and even philosophical norms that guide and inform their interaction with each other and with members of the opposite sex.

There is, needless to say, no such thing as a hook-up culture in Austen's world, but a culture of courtship that operates according to certain prescribed standards and rituals. Though affection and the feeling of "being in love" play a large role in many characters' romantic decisions, other characters, like Charlotte Lucas, prefer to marry on pragmatic or prudential grounds. The virtues of constancy, humility, generosity and faithfulness feature prominently throughout Austen's corpus (especially in "Mansfield Park"). In addition, romantic relationships between individuals are understood to have an indispensably communal dimension. In Austen's works, sex and relationships are, as is often the case today, not viewed as purely private affairs, but as things that have public importance and significance.

This is the world of Jane Austen's novels, and it is hard to deny that in many respects, Austen's world is almost unfathomably different from our own. What, then, accounts for the popularity of her novels, especially because they are fundamentally anti-modern and moralistic? I think her contemporary fame indicates that, while not preferable in every respect, there must be something deeply attractive to us about her world. And since her world is so different from ours, it would seem that for the same reasons we are attracted to hers, we must also be displeased with our own.

We like Austen's novels, I think, precisely because we are dissatisfied with the norms and rituals that govern our interactions with each other, especially our romantic ones. If we like innocent flirting at country balls, as our penchant for Austen suggests, we must also, on some level, dislike drunken hook-ups after games of pong. If we like the faithfulness and stability that define Austen's characters' relationships, even when such fidelity brings suffering (as with Mr. Bennett), we must also be discontented with the fleeting and insecure relationships that define our culture. If we appreciate Bingley's courting of Jane, then the virtual death of meaningful courtship in our dating scene must fail to entirely satiate our social desires.

And that, in the end, is the underlying reason for the appeal of Austen's world. We want something that our culture isn't giving us, and we see that something in Austen's writing. What we want is stability and commitment in our relationships, and the social cues that will help us attain that end. Perhaps next time we interact with Jane Austen, we might take the time to discern how we can put into practice the lessons she provides.