There are two types of people in this world: those who are Janeites, and those who are not.
Janeites—as hard-core Jane Austen fans choose to call themselves—cite their idol's gift for plot, snappy dialogue, well-rounded characters, and love stories that are believable and heart-melting at the same time. In the six novels Austen completed during her 41 years, they see the work of a woman who perceived the realities of eighteenth-century English gender politics and wasn't afraid to tell it like it was, a writer who single-handedly raised the profile of the novel from trashy entertainment to literary art form.
Non-Janeites cringe at the thought of yet another movie version of one of Austen's novels. Aren't all of these books, they ask, basically about the same thing? Did she have nothing else to write about? And why is everyone in her books so obsessed with marriage? "I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate," groused non-Janeite Ralph Waldo Emerson. "…All that interests in any character [is this]: has he (or she) the money to marry with?"1
Both groups have a point. Readers of even the first editions of Austen's novels were struck by how realistically she portrayed their world, how "alive" and honest her characters seemed. While the novel had previously been considered a clichéd, mindless source of entertainment written by and for women, Austen's books showed that the novel could be an original and thoughtful literary form. It's worth noting that in her time, men from the future king of England to Sir Walter Scott were outspoken fans of her work. The novel Emma is among "a class of fictions which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel," Scott enthused. Austen is "presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him."2
Austen, who was born in 1775 and died in 1817, wrote solely about the world that she knew, which happened to be the world of middle-class society in Regency-era southern England. Yes, her books are obsessed with marriage—but so was everyone else at that time. In previous centuries, marriage had been far more complicated than meeting someone special, falling in love, and getting hitched. The institution of marriage had been, instead, primarily an economic transaction. Selecting a spouse carried the weight of choosing a college, a profession, and a life partner all at once. For women, who couldn't work outside the home, live alone, or legally inherit property (at least not if there was a first-born son around), the only reliable source of income and security, for herself and for the female relatives dependent on her, was a husband. For men who were not their family's eldest son, marrying into money was likely their only shot at a fortune as well. It was only during the Regency era that love even began to be considered an acceptable motive for marriage.
Jane Austen knew this all too well. "Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony,"3 she wrote to her niece. Her role in life was determined by her status as an unmarried woman. She, her widowed mother, and her unmarried sister were all dependent on the charity of her brothers for support. Despite her vast intelligence, Austen was mostly home-schooled and had no career opportunities. Her novels were published anonymously, their author listed only as "a Lady," and she never earned enough money from her writing to support herself. Profound social transitions are always challenging, and Austen lived during a time of transformation in one of the most fundamental human institutions. For women of Jane Austen's day, marriage remained the most important of life's decisions, but the very definition of marriage itself was in upheaval. This is reflected in characters like poor Elizabeth Bennet, whose wise father counsels her to find a husband she "truly esteemed," while her mother carps at her to shut up about love, already, and just get married.
Jane Austen wasn't a radical—she wasn't suggesting that women burn their corsets and hold out for a better deal. She was just describing life as she saw it, with frankness and humor that no one had ever read in a novel before. Austen knew that relations between men and women could be complicated, messy, and frustrating. And that's just the way she liked it. For as she told her niece: "Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked."4