The reason that Jane Austen's novels have been popular for over 200 years, even though the world she lived in no longer exists, is that Austen has the ability to get into the psyche of her characters and convey their quirks, inner feelings, and concerns in a humorous and understandable manner. Human emotions and attitudes are timeless, even if they are displayed in different ways depending on the society or era. People might dress differently today than in Austen’s time, but despite changes in social customs, dress, and speech patterns, in many important ways, people remain the same now fundamentally.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
This brilliant opening to Pride and Prejudice shows Austen’s skill. To what truth does Austen refer? A man with money must need a wife. Is this a truth? Of course not. However, this is a truism or fact because the mothers of eligible mates want it to be. This book has been adapted as a movie many times, beginning with the 1940 version that starred Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy, again in 1995 with Colin Firth, and in 2005 with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth. The story remains popular today because it is the classic tale of boy-meets-girl with several twists that are so true to human nature. There are elements of snobbery, fear of rejection, foolishness, interference from busybodies, irresponsible behavior, and cads. These characters and elements ring true today because the same range of people, behavior, and emotions exist. That is why Austen’s stories resonate with modern readers and audiences. Plus, her wit is so sharp and ironic that it is a delight to read her works or watch them adapted to the screen.
Another popular Austen book, Emma, has also been made as a movie, with a new version just this year. The 1995 version, Clueless, transports the characters and the story to modern day Los Angeles. This is a far cry from Austen’s Britain, but the story still holds true because Austen was able to capture human nature and relate her characters’ stories in a way that people could understand and that evoked the reader’s sympathy. We all know someone who has good intentions but is clueless about the real emotions of people around her (or him), as well as her own emotions.