200 years of First Impressions

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”

Pride and Prejudice

A 21 year old woman finishes the first draft of her novel that would, one day, make her a household name across the world. The book, however, wouldn’t be published for another 16 years – like many writers, she didn’t find success immediately. Far from it.

It has been exactly 200 years since that publication, and now, there are few who don’t know the name Jane Austen; few who haven’t at least heard of Pride and Prejudice. That novel, along with others such as Northanger Abbey and Emma, were praised by critics at the time and loved by the public too. If anything, Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice are more popular now than they ever were. Every year sees more and more sales of the book; there have been screen adaptations, spin offs, unofficial sequels, modern day imaginings, and let’s not forget the hardcore fans who dress up and act out the words of Austen’s famous characters….

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21036818

So why are these stories still so popular? Is it simply because they are good love stories? Perhaps yes, if you go by the films alone. But the books, though, are so much more. They are witty and heartfelt, and provide a real, sometimes sensitive, sometimes critical, view of the society in which Jane lived. Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility in particular all paint a picture of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century life, particularly highlighting the lives of women, written by a woman who lived it.

Commendable though this is, does it explain Austen’s continuing hold on our imaginations? Why would a Twenty-first Century audience be so interested in the lives of women 200 years ago? Are we as much in love with the time period as we are with the stories? What makes this combination so compelling? Is it perhaps the innocence with which the romantic attachments are played out? Though the books are about so much more than mere love stories, the power of the romance Austen created between characters like Elizabeth and Darcy can’t be denied. I’m not a fan of pure romance novels, but I love Pride and Prejudice.

So perhaps the real question is what makes a good love story? What really makes the reader care about the success or failure of a relationship between two people? What makes you want to follow every step, every obstacle, every stolen glance, every moment of denial, every smile, every tear, every heart wrenching look, all leading up to that moment of realisation, and that oh so anticipated first kiss? These things are the essence of a good, believable love story, no matter what the setting. And yet some, despite seemingly having these ingredients, can leave the reader feeling cold. Some just don’t work at all.

Whenever I come across one of the ones that do work, it invariably makes me look at my own writing, and I wonder whether the love story I have woven into my novel is one of the good ones or one of the bad ones. It’s hard to judge when it’s your own work and your own story. I know how I feel about the characters; I know how much I’m rooting for them because I know how much they love each other. But will a reader feel the same?

And what of Jane? What would she think of her on-going popularity? What would she make of the actors that have brought her characters to life? What would her opinion be of the transfer of her stories to a modern Twenty-first Century setting? I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who would love to know.

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Jane Austen

 

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