Let's get this straight. I do not read romance novels. Well, not regularly anyway. I don't consider Jane Austen's books to be brilliant because of the romance, and I consider many of the "sequels" other people have written to be mostly failures if they focus on the romance and not on the wit.
Jane Austen's books are classics because of her characterizations and her way of portraying English society. The people seem real, and ridiculous, and smartly written. She's been criticized because her novels take place in such a proscribed circle (write what you know), but the variety of personalities she puts on the page is what really makes her writing stand out. Characters like the Eltons from "Emma" or Mr. Darcy from "Pride and Prejudice" or the Elliots from "Persuasion" have captured people's imaginations for generations, at least in part because of their manners and what those manners reveal about the people. The plots are usually intricate and well-balanced. The Cinderella-like qualities of her stories doesn't hurt--every book ends in a wedding, and usually it's a deserving heroine who has snagged true love, wealth and stability by early-19th century British standards.
Most people would list as their favorite Jane Austen novels "Pride and Prejudice" and "Persuasion." "Persuasion" tends to be a favorite with more mature readers like myself, who like the more somber tone, along with a heroine who is less sparkling but more thoughtful and accomplished as a result of past suffering. The plot has a few inconsistencies, but experts have attributed this to the fact that this was her last completed work and Austen was quite ill for part of the time she was writing this. "Sense and Sensibility," too, is well-liked--it features two engaging heroines who are affectionate sisters, but very different from one another.
Many consider "Mansfield Park" the least interesting, in part because heroine Fanny Price is too passive and unassuming by today's standards, although you could argue it's the only one of her novels in which there's some suspense regarding the identity of the man she ends up with. "Northanger Abbey," a satire of Gothic novels popular at the time, is also less popular, probably because the heroine is not nearly as sparkling or clever as Emma or Elizabeth Bennet from P&P. "Lady Susan," a novel of letters, is a shorter story about the activitIes of a seductive and deceptive woman. It's practically the only story that hasn't been turned into four or five separate movies, although I personally would love to see one.
Jane Austen's work includes a couple of unfinished manuscripts, including "The Watsons" and "Sanditon," that have been "finished" by a variety of other people. Unfortunately my favorite version of "The Watsons," written by a man, is not in print; however, "Sandition: Jane Austen's Last Novel Completed" by Jane Austen and Another Lady, is a decent completion of that fragment.
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