When you hear the name Jane Austen images of grand old houses, women in bonnets, and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy come to mind. We tend to associate Jane Austen with romance and wealthy country estates. However, the real Jane Austen, the woman behind the legacy, is a bit of a mystery.
While many readers and admirers have tried to pigeonhole her into being an Elizabeth Bennet prototype, (as evident by Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of the young author in Becoming Jane) the real Austen was at once all of her beloved characters and none of them. She wrote novels famous for their romance, but she died unmarried. She wrote famously wealthy characters like Mr. Darcy and Emma Woodhouse, but Jane Austen herself was never fully part of that world, merely an outsider peeking in. In fact, the real Jane Austen is just as fascinating as some of her most beloved heroines whose appeal is enhanced all the more by the mystery and contradictions that surround her.
Jane Austen was an outsider to the landed gentry that we now associate her with. Her status as an outsider makes her the best observer and critic of this social class, its customs, and behaviors. Perhaps her characters feel real because they were. Writers tend to be inspired by the people they meet and the stories they hear, whether they are aware of it or not. It is not outrageous to think that this was the case with Jane Austen (not that I’m underestimating her creative abilities). Two hundred years later, we still recognize versions of her characters in the people we meet—we all know a babbling and idiotic Mr. Collins, the gigging flirts like Lydia and Kitty Bennet, sour old women like Catherine de Burgh, sweet and often ignored wallflowers like Fanny Price, Elinor Dashwood, and Anne Elliot, and even awkward but ultimately loveable loners like Mr. Darcy and Col Brandon. This is a testament to her talents as a writer and as an observer of human nature.