With friends and lovers in our lives, Jane Austen will always speak to us
It is perhaps the most tortured marriage proposal of all times.
In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.
Jane Austen wrote those famous lines 200 years ago in "Pride and Prejudice." Proud Mr. Darcy approaches courageous Elizabeth Bennett to confess his love, and at the same time points out the many flaws of her upbringing and family. "Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?" he asks Elizabeth, who strikes down his offer of marriage with pure fury, and calls Darcy "the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."
The sizzling tension in the relationship between these two unforgettable characters continues to capture audiences 200 years after the book was published, and for many Austen readers, the infatuation with the author reaches rather ardent levels. Some refer to themselves as Janeites, and live and breathe Jane Austen.
So, what explains Austen's enduring popularity?
"Jane Austen has uncanny insight into human nature," says Austen scholar Colleen Sheehan of Villanova University. "She has something to say about us all, but she is not blunt, she is very nuanced, and has a high art of describing to us who we are." Sheehan was 14 when she first read "Pride and Prejudice" and has re-read the book countless times since then.
Deborah Yaffe was 10 when she discovered the novel and quickly turned into a self-professed Janeite. She has just written a book about fanatical Austen fans, titled "Among the Janeites."
"Austen doesn't tell you what to think, or how to be," says Yaffe, "but she makes you figure it out and involves you in the process of self-examination." She says that Austen, who was a preacher's daughter, comes from a place of moral centeredness, but she is "not preachy."
Yaffe says Austen's novels offer such a rich tapestry of human nature that her readers always find aspects of their own lives within the pages. She interviewed fans who were radical feminists who discovered that message in Austen's books, as well as Christian women who found Austen to portray a moral world.
Austen hits on "big themes" of friendship and love, of right and wrong, says Colleen Sheenan. "Her novels are moral novels, but not in your face. There is no finger pointing," she said. Sheehan calls Austen a "master of self discovery" who writes scenes in which we can discover ourselves. "It is the same as the Socratic method," she says.
The rest of us
Two centuries years later, Austen continues to inspire readers to think about who they are, who they want to be, how they ought to behave — and "Pride and Prejudice" can certainly leave one craving a dose of civility and flowery and powerful language so often missing in a 140-character world.
Yesterday, I sat on a Philadelphia bus, next to a young man who was talking to a friend on the phone. Loudly. He said, "You know, I'm not getting any taller, or any thinner, or any younger. I'm kind of past my prime, right? So, it's probably time to settle down and get married."
Jane Austen does point out in the opening lines of "Pride and Prejudice" that "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune [not a pot belly] must be in want of a wife."
Overhearing this brief conversation made me want to hand the young man my copy of "Pride and Prejudice" and say: "Try to be more like Mr. Darcy, and less like Wickham."