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Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Cover of Jane Austen, the Secret RadicalI have one friend who will never read Jane Austen because he thinks they’re “just” romances, and he doesn’t like romance. I have another acquaintance who believes Jane wrote anti-romances. I think they’re both right (although that first friend isn’t right to deride romance out of hand.)

The thing I love about Jane Austen’s novels is that they’re not just one thing; just about any interpretation can’t encompass them, but has to leave something out. I’ll go out on a limb and say this attribute — complexity, if you will — is the main thing that propels a book from being merely good into greatness. Emma, for instance, is both a mystery and an ironic comedy, depending on the sharpness of the reader and whether it’s a first or second reading. And it’s about much more than whom Emma decides to marry in the end.

Of course, all of Jane’s novels are romances in the structural sense, because they all feature couples achieving an apparent happy ending by getting married. But did Jane’s central interest lie in getting the couples to that point, or did she perhaps use the structure of the romance as a convenient (and sales-worthy) framework on which to hang the real business of her novels — social satire, moral lessons, skillful delineations of character, or the many other things you can say her novels are about?