Why do readers still pore over Jane Austen’s books, two hundred years after their publication?

Puzzled researches have employed data analytics to get to the bottom of this mystery. The New York Times’ data scientists explain why the author’s popularity endures here. One key takeaway from the research is that readers are enthralled by Austen’s ability to deconstruct social relations and explain why “not all is as it seems."i

The ability to get to the bottom of a man or woman's true character,  and so unmask their hidden motives, has always been in short supply. But it’s more needed than ever today, as political correctness and social media posts often disguise people’s real opinions and values.  An additional problem is the increasing lack of agreement on what constitutes good or bad character.  If you don't value honesty, for example, catching someone in a lie won't be cause for alarm.

Austen understood the problem well. In this passage from  Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet underscores the value and rarity of honest communication, as she praises her sister Jane's purity of heart.

Affectation of candor is common enough—one meets with it everywhere. But to be candid without ostentation or design—to take the good of everybody's character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad—belongs to you alone.

At the time of their publication, Austen’s novels went against the grain of popular literary fiction. The Gothic novels of her rivals featured obvious villains and heroes. Her ability to convey the complexity of actual human interactions challenged such conventions. That helps explain, say researchers, why her works are still read and the Gothic stories are mostly out of print.

The conclusions of the Times' researchers struck a chord with me, and so, here are three lessons learned from an author who will not let us forget that “not all is as it seems.”

 

1. Don’t Confuse Appearance with Reality   

Pride and Prejudice may best illustrate this maxim. First-time readers will share Elizabeth Bennet’s shock at her misjudgment of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham. And when readers return to the novel again and again, they will continue to find fresh parallels in their own lives.

Like Elizabeth, we are tempted to choose the suitor who stirs our vanity, rather than the one who confronts the inconvenient truths we would prefer to ignore.

In fact, we allow our desires to reshape the truth for our own comfort, a point Austen makes in all her novels.

 

2. Predators Wear Many Disguises

Austen surely does not instill a sense of paranoia in her readers. But her stories underscore the need for prudence, for withholding judgment until a person’s true nature is revealed over time.

In Persuasion, Anne Elliot learns to regret her willingness to be persuaded into calling off an engagement to the love of her life.

But Anne is also a perceptive woman. From the sidelines, she observes two people insinuate themselves into her family circle. Her vain, coldly elegant father and sister don’t register the danger. Their self-absorption makes them an easy mark—another key lesson for readers.

In Persuasion, it is the humble, intelligent Anne, who sees beyond the surface of things. Though her father and sister have welcomed Mr. Elliot, a cousin who once shunned the family, Anne has reason to keep her distance, even before all the painful facts are disclosed. Of the charming Mr. Elliot, she makes the following observation: 

There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. … She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.

This clarity of judgment protects Anne’s heart from a manipulative suitor and leads her back to the man worthy of her fine character.

 

3. Know Thyself

In Emma, the title character occupies herself with the task of finding a husband for a new best friend. Several disastrous attempts at matchmaking follow. All the while, Emma tells everyone that she, for her part, will never marry.

“Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing; but I have never been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.” 

Only when her friend declares herself in love with Mr. Knightly, Emma’s oldest and dearest friend, does this busybody finally grapple with the truth: she is in love with Mr. Knightly.

Why don’t we always know our own minds and hearts?

Emma, for her part, is too preoccupied with the affairs of others, and so fails to reflect on her deepest desires.

But Mr. Knightly her faithful mentor, and now her suitor, affirms the gift of self-knowledge, however painfully acquired, in matters of love.

I You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it. Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them. The manner, perhaps, may have as little to recommend them. God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover. But you understand me. Yes, you see, you understand my feelings and will return them if you can.

These three lessons, and many others, are still as fresh and vital as they were in Austen’s day. But modern readers may be more inclined to ignore her cautionary guidance because it demands too much.

Non-judgementalism, the dominant ethos of our present culture, discourages this kind of thoughtful reflection. Likewise, the traditional virtues that are now ouf of vogue—prudence, patience and humility—are prerequisites for a fair and honest evaluation of another's character (especially when our deepest desires are engaged). Indeed, if we seek real goodness in others, we must first strive for goodness, Austen tells us. 

Still, a faithful, careful reader of her novels will learn to avoid the traps that ensnare her heroines, just as they will be inspired to overcome the character flaws that define someone like Mrs. Bennet—a woman, writes Austen, “of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”