Why Jane Austen Matters in the Twenty-First Century

Jane Austen is my favourite author. I’ve read all six of her novels multiple times, and I find myself addicted to her world. For those who don’t know, Austen published her works in the early 1800s, so it has been a little while. And you might ask yourself exactly why someone in 2019 would keep going back to books that are 200 years old. With adaptations of her works still thriving today and museums dedicated to her, I am not the only one living in Austenland. But why? What makes her works relevant today?

In 2019, we are not in suffering from a shortage of stories that centre around a heroine finding her way in the world while meeting the love of her life. Watch any rom com and you’ll see it done 100 times. But few of these heroines ever rise to the fame or admiration of Austen’s most famous character, Elizabeth Bennet. You would assume that more modern leading ladies would outshine these women of the past, but many of them don’t.

 

 

To me, a lot of female characters today lack a certain amount of depth to make them the characters we love forever. Bella Swan has very little character aside from liking a vampire; Katniss has barely any fun to her personality and feels more like just a trope of the “tough girl.” Female leads feel copy and pasted into their stories a lot of the time. They can feel like space fillers; they are just there so that the story can happen to them. Meanwhile, many modern male characters feel like the writers of their own stories, whereas the women just get caught up in situations.

Austen heroines, in contrast, are continuously learning just how to make their lives their own. All of them are living in Regency England, and most of them don’t have a lot of their own money. Their lives are dictated by men and the strict society they live in, yet they show more resistance to their situations than you might expect. Many of them deny proposals from wealthy men they don’t love or disobey a major figure in their life, not just to be rebellious but for their happiness. Fanny Price from Mansfield Park is a great example of this. Throughout the novel, she’s passive and takes orders from just about everyone, but she’s miserable. It isn’t until she stands up to her parental figure and denies a man who thought he could convince her to do anything that she starts to find happiness.

 

 

On top of the strong female roles, the draw to Austen's writing is largely the more simple character-directed plots. A complicated plot isn’t a bad thing (look at Game of Thrones) but viewers can find comfort in simple plots that focus more on the very real struggles that the characters face. It’s hard not to fall in love with the English countryside once you open Emma or Persuasion. But what makes it truly genius is the amount that Austen observes in her fairly simple plots and what messages she is able to slip in.

Many other authors use very direct and obvious plots or storylines to get across a message—I don’t think anyone was confused by Animal Farm—but Austen lets readers figure it out more on their own. Details like the fates of certain characters, the use of sarcasm, and the language of character’s dialogue clue us into her true thoughts. It isn’t a mistake that the self-serving John Thorpe uses slurs or the mean uncle in Mansfield Park is implicated in using slaves, which aretraits that Characters like Darcy would never be associated with.

This matters because her storytelling style assumes that her readers are smart enough to to read between the lines. She doesn’t just hand it to you. In a lot of modern stories, everything is explicit; characters will even directly say the message in dialogue. Think shows like Modern Family or books like The Hunger Games. They aren’t necessarily bad, but they hand the audience all the answers.

 

 

So over 200 years after her death, I think we still have more to gain from Austen, which is why her stories are still loved to this day. A woman with very little formal education living in a time when women were given very little freedom told the stories of the world she lived in. She criticized the patriarchal society, observed human nature, and gave us relatable stories. All in all, she can still teach us some lessons today.