The works of William Shakespeare have often been referred to as a compendium of the human condition. Every life lesson you can imagine, everything you might ever want to know about what it means to be human, about hope and despair, love and loss, ambition and cowardice, can be found in the pages of his plays or the lines of his sonnets. If there's one author about whom the same can be said on the subject of marriage, it is Jane Austen.
For most people, Jane Austen is an obscure name they've heard somewhere but can't quite place. At best, she is responsible for those frilly, ribbons-and-lace period movies that make women curl up with a box of kleenex and make men head outside to mow the lawn. But at her essence, Jane Austen, a woman who herself never married, had more to say in her short life about the truth of marriage than any writer of fiction - or non-fiction - has since.
She is best known for her favourite book, Pride and Prejudice, written in the early eighteen hundreds and made into a lavish mini-series by A&E and a feature film starring Kiera Knightly. Her other works, such as Sense and Sensibility and Emma, have also been made into feature films starring Emma Thompson and Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively. Few people are aware that the Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless is actually Emma in disguise, proving how timeless Austen's writing really is.
Without giving away too much for those who haven't introduced themselves to her yet, Jane Austen had a genteel yet rapier wit, and applied it to stories primarily involving middle class English country society. In each story, young women of often limited financial means face what was somewhat inevitable for all women in those days - a lucrative marriage - with wit, charm, grace, and incredible dignity. It would have been easy for Austen to create mercenary characters of low morality who connive to marry the richest man they can - Thackeray did it quite well in his book Vanity Fair - yet she chose instead to imbue her girls with intelligence and self-sufficiency and an implacable sense of their own worth.
Her books explored the dilemmas often facing women of the Regency period, the years between 1800 and 1820, who were not able to legally work and were prevented by law from inheriting property. She makes each character unique yet believable, gives each one the moral fortitude to turn down wealthy or presitigious suitors when there is no love between them, and brilliantly but gently shows us the consequences of marrying someone you don't love for the sake of the money or the position in society they might afford. She writes about many different kinds of couples, and isn't above showing us the initial flaws or misjudgments of her heroines, all for the sake of revealing basic truths about marriage.
In an age when marriage was a career for women, and when women of low income, no matter how beautiful or intelligent or accomplished, had little hope of ever marrying, Jane Austen was still able to see through the "business" of marriage and concentrate on the fundamental principles of it. Love, respect, and admiration for each other's character figure prominently in these books, as does independence and strong-mindedness. Her main heroines - the lovely, mischievous and thoughtful Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, for example, are wise and mature beyond their years and don't flutter and blush at the initial attentions of suitable bachelors. The antagonists in these books, the characters we grow to disrespect or dislike, are the ones who are flighty and greedy, who manipulate men and who nag their husbands to death with their pettiness and spite. The line between the two character types is always clear, always shows us which is the proper moral road to take and which will ultimately lead to happiness in marriage.
Austen was centuries ahead of her time in depicting equal relationships between the couples in each book; the reader is left with the impression that no matter what the rest of England may have been like at the time, the married women in these books were loved and respected by their husbands and valued for their minds as well as their beauty or maternal characteristics. In fact, the husbands, like the once proud and arrogant Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, are often completely smitten by these women, unabashed fans of their wives' independence and intelligence, and are far better men than most male characters in literature are depicted as.
And no matter what hardships or tragedies befall the people in these books, the endings are always happy ones. The women always find loving husbands and are themselves made blissfully happy by love. This kind of pro-value, ultra-positive optimism is sadly lacking in most of our modern literature and movies; it is so refreshing to read a book that does not apologize for ending happily, even if we have to go back two hundred years to find it.
As a writer, I would never usually advise anyone to see the movie version of a novel before reading the book, but in the case of Austen, the somewhat thick style of Regency England can be hard to read through with no reference points. The movie productions are incredibly faithful to the books - verbatim dialogue, exact reproduction of every plot point, etc. - so the viewer doesn't miss much by watching the movie first. Most people who see Austen's movies choose to go back and read the books anyway, just for the subtle nuances and casual wit that sets her apart as a truly great novelist. Either way, Austen is a reward for those who believe in marriage, a welcome respite from a world that is cynical and jaded about the institution. Someone once described her books as a "long, luxurious bath on a Sunday afternoon" - hopeful romantics out there, lose yourself in one her stories and find out why.