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Upon first reading Jane Austen, there are those who would reward her by smiles of approbation and others who would punish her with a cudgel (or in the words of Mark Twain, “dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone”). Some two hundred years after her death, why is it Jane Austen is still so very much loved—and so very much hated?

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What is it about the slow-moving spectacle of good manners in grand manors, in a confined and unvarying society of three or four families, ending in a rewarding marriage to the satisfaction of all, that gets readers all fired up? Austen’s contemporary Maria Edgeworth complained that there was no story in it.

Possible Worlds Become Real

People can’t seem to decide who Jane Austen really is. There are as many ways to enjoy Jane Austen as there are ways to be infuriated by her. Was she the “narrow-gutted” spinster aunt of family legend turned naive romance writer? Was she actually her own Elizabeth Bennet without a Darcy, as many fans want to believe? Was she an ironic observer of life, a comedian with a well-regulated hatred, writing for those she secretly despised? Was she really “everybody’s dear Jane,” malleable to everybody’s purpose, as Henry James complained? It’s enough to throw one into a succession of fainting fits, though perhaps we should heed the wise words of a young Jane: “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.”

Of the mysterious Jane Austen herself, apart from her handful of delicately worded novels and other surviving scribblings, we know relatively little. All that is left is language.

It’s her deft use of language that gives us something we take for granted now, and think nothing of, a new kind of realism in a new kind of novel that eschewed the sentimental clichés and the well-worn “novel slang” of romances past. In Austen, we can think and feel along with characters who are full of doubt. Possible worlds become real. Her language gives us real, faulty people, with their own words, linguistic tics, thoughts, and flawed observations. Austen said “pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked.” Her subtly subversive ironic language allows readers to receive her work in a layered way—romance, comedy, mystery—keeping us off-balance and misdirected, causing confusion in some and delight in others. And it happens so seamlessly we might not even notice.

In answer to reviewer George Lewes, who praised Jane Austen as “one of the greatest artists, of the greatest painters of human character” the not-so-slouchy herself Charlotte Brontë responded:

“Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. […] What did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden […]; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air […]. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.”

“Miss Austen being, as you say, without “sentiment,” without poetry, maybe is sensible, real (more real than true), but she cannot be great.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed wholeheartedly.

“I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. … All that interests in any character [is this]: has he (or she) the money to marry with? … Suicide is more respectable.”

Ooh! Way harsh, Tai. The problem is, as Virginia Woolf damned with faint praise, “It’s hard to catch Jane Austen in the act of greatness.”

What the Film Adaptations Forget

And yet, there is something about these pinched and narrow stories that people love. People are still talking about Austen, making movies about her, dressing in period costume, and nostalgically touring abandoned fields that Austen or her characters might have been reasonably deduced to have once walked upon. The cult of Jane is real.

Straitlaced film adaptations play up the marriage plots, troubled by how to interpret her finely crafted stories for a modern audience that expects instant gratification. They inevitably end up “Brontifying” Austen, dispensing with sense in favor of all out sensibility, in which unrelenting passion kicks quiet introspection or cool mockery out of the well-cultivated shrubbery and onto the misty moors. Darcy jumps in a pond because he just can’t deal. Elizabeth Bennet lives close to nature with her pet pig gamboling in the parlor. And Fanny Price weirdly just isn’t who she says she is. This is not to say they’re not enjoyable, but they may slightly miss the point, and the irony, of Jane Austen.

By focusing only on subject matter and fleshing out the barest of plots for more palatable public consumption, these films forget that Jane Austen’s genius lies in how she uses language, not what she says but how she says it. Austen leaves just enough linguistic room for each generation of readers to see themselves and laugh at life’s inconsistencies.

Though the 20-year-old film Clueless can be viewed superficially as just another fluffy teen rom-com, it’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Emma set in Beverly Hills. It captures the same comical, ironic linguistic spirit of Jane Austen. The more straitlaced film adaptations are way more dependent on period costumes, country dances, and simpering manners to convey this effect. Director Amy Heckerling put language front and center, armed with linguistics studies and eavesdropping on teen slang. A reviewer noted that “almost all the humor in [the film] is verbal—a patter of quotable epigrams, asides, and ironic by-play.” The lively, cleverly linguistic world of Clueless becomes just as quotable as anything in the Austen-verse.

Cher, the Emma Woodhouse stand in, uses speech that’s noticeably hyperbolic, using intensifiers like “way existential” and “totally” in a way that’s picked up by others mocking her:

CHER: This is an Alaïa.
ROBBER: An a-what-a?
CHER: It’s like a totally important designer.
ROBBER: And I will totally shoot you in the head.

The verbal tics are, like, totally in evidence throughout Emma as well, such as when Harriet Smith overuses “you know” when she’s anxious:

. . . I found he was coming up towards me too—slowly you know, and as if he did not quite know what to do; and so he came and spoke, and I answered—and I stood for a minute, feeling dreadfully, you know, one can’t tell how. . . .

Like Cher’s “totally,” Janine Barchas’s study on the language in Emma reveals a surprising abundance of “very,” a bland kind of word that most style guides suggest avoiding. Things are so emphatically “very busy and very happy” in Highbury, that it might seem the characters doth protest too much. In an isolated place, driven by measured manners rather than action, where even an accomplished heroine like Emma has never seen the sea, language is what makes everything happen. All power and control exist through language.

Austen, known to be economical with language, uses “very” so much more in Emma than in any other work that it can’t be accidental, and yet, cleverly, it’s also not immediately noticeable because the word is so common. Just by using this simple word in the right places, Jane Austen is able to give the dialect of Highbury a unique voice. Walter Scott, in his anonymous, positive review of Emma, did notice it, and appreciated it, mimicking that voice: “Miss Harriet Smith, a boarding-school girl without family or fortune, very good humoured, very pretty, very silly, and, what suited Miss Woodhouse’s purpose best of all, very much disposed to be married.”

Austen’s Linguistic Life

Austen was very attentive to linguistic details, but perhaps not so much a grammar pedant as conservative admirers might expect. She used innovative natural language in her works, such as the singular “they,” turning nouns into verbs (“Let me not suppose that she dares go about Emma Woodhouseing me!”), turning intransitives to transitives (“I must hope better things”), as well as slang for comic effect (“‘What else have you been spunging?’ said Maria”). Austen is often at her most amusing when she pokes fun at the ridiculous, the overly sentimental, the perfectly good, the inauthentic. She wasn’t one to shy away from a good joke, even a racy one, especially if it was linguistic. In Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford (a.k.a. evil Elizabeth Bennet) makes a questionable pun about the navy: “Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”

There were early warning signs that the young Jane Austen would develop into this subtly subversive writer—her penchant for ridiculous comedy, for instance, with badly-behaved, biased characters full of flaws. Austen parodies some of the more sensational reading material she had to hand:

“I murdered my father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister. I have changed my religion so often that at present I have not an idea of any left. I have been a perjured witness in every public tryal for these past twelve Years; and I have forged my own will. In short, there is scarcely a crime that I have not committed.”

As her writing matured, her comedy became less overt and more nuanced, her irony sometimes harder to detect. Her language was often commented on as a fairly accurate record of how a certain class of people spoke and interacted with each other in their domestic lives. Austen was a very good sort of linguist.

Characters are revealed through the language they use. For example, the literary scholar Zelda Boyd observes how Austen’s writing is often heavy with modal verbs, as her characters speculate about possibilities and wonder about the world and the people around them. When Elinor Dashwood says “he must… love her” in Sense and Sensibility, she reveals that rather than being absolutely sure, she’s trying to convince herself of something she doesn’t know. Austen’s most famous opening line “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” ironically plays with this bias—not an actual universal truth, as it is often misread, but something that subjectively must be so (in Mrs. Bennet’s opinion at least).

Boyd points out that Austen’s most naive heroine, Catherine Morland, at first unable to think critically, is largely lacking in modal auxiliaries, and as she develops they begin to appear in her language: “…could he therefore have loved her?—He must have been dreadfully cruel to her! … It was no wonder that the General should shrink from the sight of such objects as that room must contain.” Using this linguistic trick, Austen is able to keep us on the verge of believing in a neutral narrator as we get lost in the indirect discourse of her characters, when really there are double-readings all along.

So, when it comes to Jane Austen, perhaps we should forget the plot and think more on the language. Her unique linguistics keep us intrigued and fascinated, hide and reveal twists and turns, and build a world that seems utterly real, with imperfect people thinking their imperfect thoughts, in which every word may be a delightful revelation.


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