Books That Make Us Human: Jane Austen

In his play “Murder in the Cathedral”, T. S. Eliot makes the observation that, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”.

And this seems to be true, despite – or rather because of – being a poetic dramatization. As human beings we find it difficult to see reality to closely. We prefer the mediums of opera glasses, abstractions, and art.

Perhaps this is because there is just so very much reality! It is hard to focus on it all, and much easier to see through a veneer of concentrated form and substance.

And it takes art to teach us how to see. And WHAT to see.

#8: Jane Austen

Jane Austen did not write Romances.

There was some romance in them, but they were not part of the that genre of tale.

Disabuse yourself right now of this modern notion that her stories are similar to fairy tales. Or Harlequin paperbacks.

Jane Austen wrote about people. REAL people.

Every single exchange, feeling, awkward character, or tension between social norms and interior expressions are things that ARE STILL HAPPENING TODAY!

Yes, her stories end with good marriages for her good characters, and bad marriages or endings for her bad characters. But that does not mean that all is rosey and lovely and perfect for our hero and heroine: Eleanor Ferrars is going to have rough time making ends meet; Anne Wentworth will always suffer the sharp pang of worry over her sea-captain husband; and even Elizabeth Darcy will be required to put up with Lady Catherine.

Austen was a student of literary form: she can pack one sentence with  tight irony and humor, and can with a few word turns create an atmosphere. Her prose is spare and masterful, with no extraneous words. What she can do with style will forever be one of the hallmarks of great literature.

But more pertinently, Austen was a student of human nature.  She noted the awkward collide of social expectations and personal desires. She watched how people act, interact, and react. She could see the hearts and minds of the human beings around her, even on the tiniest scale of village life.

Especially within the intimate communities of village life.

Austen is often described as writing comedies of manners. Her plots are based around the minutia of the social rules, forms and customs. Some of which seemed ancient and absurd even in Austen’s time.

But those are only the setting of her stories: the real action of Austen occurs in the hearts and minds of her characters.

The drama of Austen’s romances is in the deeply real experiences of humanity. The struggles that each person faces when confronted with their own sense of being human, and being required to live with other humans, is the primary concern.

Jane Austen told not merely the affects and effects of minor events, but the great interior knowledge, challenges, and conversions of individual people.

Austen’s novels are not even simply masterful use of the the English language, but resonate with the very heart of all good story telling: they share a deeply personal view of humanity with the reader.



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