What is it about Jane Austen? Why do her stories keep enthralling me? And it’s not just me. Based on the number of republications of the books, movies made (both from her stories and based on them), and other paraphernalia, there’s a broad audience for this.
Now, I am an avid reader. I devour books, sometimes at a startling pace. However, there are very few books that I find the time to re-read at all, let alone multiple times. And I have read Austen multiple times. I have read each of her books at least three times, and a couple much more than that. Of her six complete books, I have duplicate copies of three and electronic copies of two. I have seen, to my knowledge, every movie version of her books. Yes, even the horrible ones. While I watch the worse ones, I complain, but I am still enthralled.
This last surge of interest happened because Lifetime showed "The Jane Austen Book Club" which has been on my to-watch list for an age. (Cute movie. Starts uneven. Middle is very strong. Finishes decent.) Even though I read that book a couple of years ago, I didn’t remember some of the opinions they express about why Austen did this or that with these characters, how the movie of Mansfield Park mangled the story (though I love it anyway), or what she was trying to show us.
I have had the newest rendition of Emma on the Tivo for a few weeks and hadn’t managed to find the time to watch it. Last night, I sat down and watched the entire two hour first episode. And I started reading Mansfield Park again. And I started reading Persuasion again. (One is the physical book at home and the other is the Kindle version on my iPod.) It seems silly to juggle three stories at once, but I can’t choose to do otherwise right now. I am, again and always, enthralled.
And yet, I still cannot put my finger on why. I can tell you what concepts most attract me, but I’ve seen these in other books and I don’t have the urge to read them repeatedly. Her writing is difficult for a modern reader at first, until you re-adapt to the period terminology and colloquialisms, so it cannot be because they are easy to slide into in that sense. Is it something about the story itself? I suppose some of them read like a Regency fairy tale, but there is as much a sense of harsh reality of a woman’s lot in that time as there is any joy at finding true love.
Maybe that is it, though — it is like a fairy tale for grownups, set at a time distant and different enough to be enchanting, but in a world real enough that we can empathize and be in the protagonist’s skin with only a little stretch of our imaginations.