It has been said about Jane Austen that she is basically trying to show her readers how they should live their lives. Do you agree with this statement?
Jane Austen’s ironic depiction of high and middle-class society never ages and never loses its fierce critical edge. However, she has been almost entirely domesticated through her popularity. The subversiveness inherent in Austen’s accomplishment – a woman making great, lasting art by describing little, fleeting lives – has been overshadowed by the pleasures she offers; a world in which we can completely immerse ourselves. Jane Austen’s Highbury is not a real English town of 1815 but a literary creation, which many readers, imagining themselves living there, forget. Somehow we have forgotten too that Austen’s novels are a comic depiction of society, offering piercing comprehensions of our social habits. Jane Austen is not showing readers how they should live their lives, but how readers already do live their lives.
In 1852, George Henry Lewes, the literary critic, contributed an essay to the Westminster Review titled “The Lady Novelists.” In it, Lewes gave a survey of what he called “the field of female literature.” Here he agreed that there were spheres of life that Austen did not attempt to depict, understanding that she was always an English countrywoman describing the lives of other English countrywomen. But “her world is a perfect orb and vital,” he wrote. “To read one of her books is like an actual experience of life.” Lewis went on to argue that Austen is not doctrinaire; there is “not a trace of woman’s ‘mission’” about her.
Jane Austen is a reflective author, not presumptuous, but this is what makes her novels immortal. We continue to live in a culture in which self-presentation and social nuance are topics of keen interest. Austen understood that we are almost invariably subjective and self-interested, she does not ask us to change this, instead, she pinpoints the irony in these human characteristics and laughs with us. It is from this perspective that Austen can still teach us something about human nature and its social expression, nearly two hundred years after her death.