Friday, September 21, 2012

What Makes Jane Austen So Enduringly Popular?

In Trisha's post a few weeks ago, she said she was dissecting Jane Austen's work to see why it was still so popular. That sounded like a very entertaining task she had set herself, so I decided to join her. Here's my opinion. I'd love to hear yours.

(Unfortunately there are a few spoilers here--don't click on the appropriate link if you don't want to know. At the very end I spoil Howl's Moving Castle as well. Consider yourself warned.) 

What makes Jane Austen so enduringly popular? In my opinion, there are two main reasons. Let's call them the Anti-Apocalypse Principle and the Howl Effect 

The Anti-Apocalypse Principle
Jane Austen is enduringly popular because of her romances. (Is anyone surprised?) But her romances remain popular because of the rigid social and religious conventions that defined her era. When so much is forbidden, even a glance can be filled with romance. And a touch? Wow.

Contrast that to sexual tension that is constantly pushing the envelope...eventually there is nowhere left to go. (I really, really don't want to know if you disagree with that sentence. :)

Trying to write a romantic storyline in a world where anything and everything is acceptable follows the exact same principle Sabrina wrote about in her post yesterday about writing the end of the world:
 "Frankly, the overall ubiquity of world-ending plotlines makes the whole thing a little boring, and can take away from the tension. Some writers try to up it by making this the end of all existence. One wonders where they'll go from there: the end of existence, and you still have to do laundry first?"

 The Anti-Apocalypse Principle in Action:
Pride and Prejudice

The Howl Effect
Howl's Moving Castle provides another insight into Jane Austen's brilliance (I know, I know, she didn't write it. Just bear with me for a minute.) The genius of Howl's Moving Castle is this--When the story starts, you cannot see how it could possibly be a romance. The heroine has been cursed to look and feel like she is in her late 80s! How could Howl fall in love with someone he treats like a grandmother? Ew.

And then--at the end--this is the spoiler!--you find out he's been in love with her all along! It's the most fantastic ending ever. But the fun part is reading it again--and again--to see if you can figure out when it happened. His character becomes more rich and our belief that happy endings are possible for everyone increases with every reading.

I think Jane Austen does the same thing. Characters seem doomed for unhappy endings--not marrying the person you love is much more dire when you have no chance of taking care of your self. And when, at the end, they end up perfectly happy, we read and reread (and watch and rewatch) so that we can find the clues that happiness was waiting for them (and for us??) all along.

The Howl Effect In Action:
Sense and Sensibility

What do you think?


  1. Two words: fantastic dialog. Jane Austin wrote witty, fast paced, humorous bordering on tragic, fantastic dialog. That's why I love her.

    1. Me too! I hadn't thought about that, but I agree completely.

  2. Ahh, enlightenment! How is it that I'd never realized how completely social restrictions affected the tension in her books? So totally true! 'If only they would just talk to each other,' we think. But they can't.
    What a great post and excellent insight.
    Oh, and I agree w. Adam, too. The dialogue is exceptional.

  3. I agree with you. And I love the way the movie handles the ending of Sense and Sensibility with Edward and Miss Dashwood--perfect!!

  4. I can't believe it never occurred to me that the reason I read Howl's Moving Castle from front to back 4 times in as many days was because I was looking to pinpoint the moment Howl fell in love with Sophie. I knew I was looking for something, I just never questioned what exactly. Excellent post. Thank you for exploring this. I think I'm terribly under qualified and it's nice to see someone do the topic justice.

    1. I think you are selling yourself short on that one, Trisha. And I did the exact same thing with Howl's Moving Castle. :)

  5. That's one of my favorite things about Diana Wynne Jones. All her best books are like that. You don't see where these amazing plot threads are going until the very, very end - and then you can have many happy rereads trying to figure it out.

    1. What are your other favorite DWJ books, Sabrina? I've mostly only read the Chrestomanci books and the Castle books, and I'd love to know what else to try.

    2. As it happens, my post next week is going to be about my favorite DWJ books!

  6. Excellent points Melanie.

    I agree with Adam about the clever dialogue too. Man, that woman was witty, but Jane Austen was also so brilliant. Her cleverly disguised social commentaries (many of which are still relevant today IMO) definitely contributed to her works enduring the test of time. Her books truly are classics.


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.