Jane Austen is loved mainly as a guide to fashionable life in the Regency period, but her own vision of her task was radically different. She was an ambitious and stern moralist. She was acutely conscience of human failings and wanted, through her novels, to make people less selfish and more reasonable. More dignified, and sensitive to the needs of others. Born in 1775, Austen grew up in a small village in Hampshire, where her father was the Anglican rector. They had high social status, but were not well off. She did much of her writing at a tiny octagonal table. She never married, though on a couple of occasions she was tempted. Mostly, she lived in the country with her sister, Cassandra. The novel was her chosen weapon in the struggle to reform humanity. She completed six: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Some of the main things she wants to teach you are: In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet start off heartily disliking each other and then gradually realize they’re in love. They make one of the great romantic couples. But why actually are they right for one another? Austen in very clear: it’s for a reason we tend not to think of very much today. Each can educate and improve the other. Darcy starts of feeling superior, because he has more money and higher status. Then, at a key moment, Elizabeth condemns his arrogance and pride to his face. It sounds offensive, but later he admits, “Your reproof so well applied, I shall never forget. “You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. “By you, I was properly humbled.” They suit each other because by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance. In other words, they balance each other out. We tend to think of love as liking someone for who they are already – total acceptance. But Austen is saying that the right person has got to be able to help us overcome our failings. And become more mature, honest, and kind; and we need to do something similar for them. Darcy and Elizabeth improve one another, and then the novelist lets them get engaged. The story rewards them because they have developed well. That’s why the novel feels so beautifully constructed, and it illustrates a basic truth: marriage depends on maturity and education. Mansfield Park starts when quiet, shy Fanny Price goes to live with her much richer cousins, the Bertrams. In social terms, the Bertrams are stars, and Fanny is a very minor character indeed. But Austen judges by a completely different standard. She exchanges the normal lens through which people are viewed in society, a lens which magnifies wealth and power, for a moral lens, which magnifies qualities of character. Certainly, Fanny has no elegant dresses or money and can’t speak French, But by the end of Mansfield Park, she is revealed as the noble one while the Bertrams, despite their titles and accomplishments, have fallen into moral confusion. Austen is quite frank about money. In Pride and Prejudice, she explains that Mr. Bingley has an income of 4000 pounds a year – that’s rather a lot – while Darcy has more than twice that. Rather than feeling it’s impolite to discuss money, Austen thinks it’s an eminently suitable topic for highbrow literature. Because how we handle our finances has a huge effect on our lives. She takes aim at two big mistakes people make around money. The first is to get over impressed by it. In Mansfield Park, Julia Bertram gets married to Mr. Rushworth, the richest character in all of Austen’s novels, but they are miserable together, and their marriage rapidly falls apart. But equally, Austen is convinced that it’s a serious error to get married without enough money. At one point in Sense and Sensibility, it looks like Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars – who are otherwise well suited – won’t be able to get married. She writes, “They were neither of them quite enough in love to think that 350 pounds a year would supply them with the comforts of life.” Elinor takes the view that wealth has much to do with happiness. Though, by wealth, she doesn’t mean great luxury, just enough to live carefully in moderate comfort. And Austen agrees. Marriage without a reasonable economic basis is just a folly. Austen is showing us an elusive but crucial attitude. Money is in some ways extremely important, and in other ways unimportant. We can’t just be for it or against it. In Emma, the heroine – Emma herself – takes Harriett Smith – a pretty girl from the village – under her wing. She wants to make her an impressive match with a smart vicar. Swept away by Emma’s excessive praise, Harriet turns down an offer of marriage from a farmer because she thinks now that he’s not good enough. Though in fact, he is good-hearted and quietly prosperous. Then the vicar turns out to be horrified at Emma’s idea and Harriet has her heart broken. The underlying point is serious, Emma is unwittingly but cruelly snobbish. She’s devoted to the wrong kind of hierarchy. The farmer is essentially a better person than the vicar, but social conventions and manners make it easy to ignore this. Jane Austen is careful to give this fault to Emma, who is in many ways an enchanting character. In other words, Jane Austen doesn’t mock snobbery as the behavior of ghastly and contemptible people. Instead, she regards the snob with pity, as someone who’s in need of instruction, guidance, and reform. As we all are, in our own way. Austen might have written sermons; she wrote novels instead. She doesn’t tell us why her sense of priorities is important, instead, she shows us in a story which will also make us laugh, which can grip us enough that we want to finish supper early to read on. Upon finishing one of the novels, we’re invited to go back into the world and respond to others as she has taught us. To pick up on, and recoil from greed, arrogance, and pride, and to be drawn to goodness within ourselves and others. Sadly, the moral ambition of the novel has largely disappeared in the modern world, yet it’s really the best thing that any novel can do. The satisfaction we feel when reading Jane Austen is really because she wants the world to be a certain way and we find that immensely appealing. It’s the secret, largely unrecognized reason why she is such a loved writer.