It's no secret that huge numbers of readers (mostly women, granted) adore Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice in particular. (The A&E version and Colin Firth have nothing to do with that, right?)
Today, more than 200 years after her books were published, Jane's popularity is greater than ever. We've had more movie adaptations (you probably know Emma Thompson's Sense & Sensibility, but if you haven't seen the 2007 version of Persuasion, you're missing out.).
Many readers fall for Jane's romantic story lines. While I enjoy those, the English-major nerd in me enjoys other parts, too. I love knowing what society was like then and seeing how Jane's books are often pointed attacks on less-than-desirable elements of that society. (P&P is an excellent example.)
I could go on about the witty dialogue, which I find hysterically funny, but others, who can't stand Jane, find dry. (Chances are, if you don't think Jane's laugh-out-loud funny, the jokes are slipping by you. They're in 200-year-old language, so it's not like watching a sitcom.)
Jane Austen often wrote comedy, but many of her stories are built on social outrage. The opening line to P&P is a great bit of satire in and of itself. I believe it’s that uncanny blend of humor and angst that made and keeps her books classics.
So here's the total English nerd coming out in me: One of my favorites is Sense and Sensibility because of how brilliantly it uses two literary styles of her day. Jane straddled two periods, the Neoclassical and the Romantic.
The Neoclassical side of the fence was very much into science, logic, and reason. Those who clung to this side of things (not just in literature, but pretty much anywhere: politics, science, education, you name it) viewed emotion as a fickle thing you couldn't trust. But science and measurement and logic! Those were put on a pedestal. Being objective and dispassionate was highly valued.
The Romantic movement came largely as a backlash against the Neoclassical view. It embraced emotion above almost all else. (A modern example: Keating in Dead Poets Society embraces emotion and passion for life . . . and quotes mostly from the Romantics.) So we get Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge and other guys who did drugs and wrote poetry while high on opium and who viewed that level of emotion as almost a religious experience.
And then there was Jane, watching the two sides battle, with Neoclassicism dying out on one side and Romanticism rising on the other.
It's no surprise to me that she wrote a novel lambasting both. She used a great story to clearly demonstrate how neither extreme is healthy. She created one character who embodied reason ("sense") and another who embodied emotion ("sensibility").
See where I'm going here?
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne represent the two sides Jane saw each day in literature, the newspapers, and society in general.
Elinor holds back emotions to an unhealthy and destructive level, using reason and logic to the point that she almost loses her one real shot at future happiness because she's closed off her heart and refuses to feel.
Her sister Marianne, on the other hand, is so caught up by Romanticism--emotions and passion--that when true happiness shows up right in front of her, she can't recognize it. Since it's not draped in iambic pentameter and glowing sunsets, she doesn't recognize the good, down-to-earth (logical) reality right in front of her that will make her happy.
Of course, by the end of the book, both sisters learn to adopt a bit of the other's way of seeing the world, learning that neither sense nor sensibility exclusively is a good way to live your life.
In further nerdiness, I'll point out that American literature also had a Romantic period, but it came a bit later than the one in England and featured a slightly different kind of passion and emotion (think Whitman and his barbaric yawp).
The two periods were similar enough for Mr. Keating to use both kinds of Romanticism with his students at Welton Academy and get himself into trouble.