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She’s the One

Jane Austen’s greatness is a truth universally acknowledged.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By BARTON SWAIM
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The most important reason for Austen’s near-universal appeal, however, is also the most obvious: Austen’s novels are love stories. It’s certainly true that her plots have all the elements of modern romance novels, but they also contain (as Harman writes) “matter for a lifetime’s rumination on relations between the sexes.” Austen dealt with a limited sphere of themes, as everybody knows: The Napoleonic Wars are hardly anywhere in her novels, and attempts to find social or political messages in them—I’m thinking of Patricia Rozema’s film version of Mansfield Park (1999)—must strain to do so. But Austen dealt exquisitely and unforgettably with the fears, desires, and false expectations attendant upon the passage from early adulthood to marriage—a theme, if you can call it that, touching just about every question worth thinking about. 

And she did it all without saying a word, explicitly, about sex—an absence that, as Harman is right to say, “leaves her books charged with sexual feeling.” That goes a long way toward explaining the improbable rise of Austenmania at the end of the last century. It turns out there are more insights into the nature of love and eros in Pride and Prejudice than are dreamt of in Freud’s philosophy.

 Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.

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