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What the modern woman can learn from Jane Austen, 200 years after her death

 The modern woman has much to learn from the heroines of Jane Austen's novels. While most of us are probably not as focussed on marriage as her plots might suggest, there are many feminist lessons in the pages of her classic stories.

As the world marks the 200th anniversary of her death, it's worth revisiting Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma and Sense and Sensibility, as a reminder that her heroines were indeed feminists before their time, sharp-witted, feisty women who knew when it was wrong to settle and when to follow their hearts.

Professor Will Christie, from the Australian National University's College of Arts and Social Sciences, said Austen's novels remain relevant and popular for many reasons.

"The reason Jane Austen remains relevant and popular is because she is endlessly engaging and entertaining, a controlled comic and satiric genius, balanced and blended with a genuine pathos and irrepressible romanticism," said Professor Christie, who is the head of the ANU Humanities Research Centre and an Austen scholar.

Professor Christie said the most important thing the modern woman can learn from Austen however is the balance between romance and realism, but the belief that there is a chance to have it both ways.

"'The visions of romance were over' begins the 25th chapter of Austen's Northanger Abbey," Professor Christie said, "as its heroine, Catherine Morland, wakes up to the fact that she is the heroine of a domestic novel set in her own period and not the heroine of a Gothic romance set in the superstitious past.

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"Yet the differentiation between the romantic and the real in Austen's novels is never that simple. Indeed, it is a tribute to Austen that she manages to get away with both common sense realism and romance – though it is also a tribute to the irrepressible romanticism in generations of her readers.

"Readers can enjoy a worldliness in Austen that appeals to their distrust of romantic fiction – this is the work of the satirist, the critic of illusion and its hypocrisies – but there remain portions of our brains that hunger after one or other form of the ideal."

He said Austen's appeal is precisely to our need for both: "to our need for a clear-sighted view of our own and of human limitation, on the one hand, and to our need for the romantic dream as an expression of irrepressible desire on the other."

Dead at 41, Austen's cause of death is still disputed.

Dead at 41, Austen's cause of death is still disputed. Photo: Stock Montage

He said when addressing the question of what the modern woman can learn from Austen, readers need to remind themselves that each of her novels, while betraying the mind and heart of the same author, is distinct in its interests and its strategies.

"From Elizabeth Bennet, for example, the modern woman can learn independence and self-determination within the constraints of common sense and common decency, however much these may alter and evolve over time," he said.

"From Elinor Dashwood, she can learn self-control, most obviously, but also trust and the fact that love can come in many forms. From Fanny Price, she can learn, some would say cynically, patience and humility, but also self-belief when facing powerful emotional and material manipulation."

He said Emma Woodhouse proves that people do not exist for one's own vicarious drama, and that "a mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer".

Anne Elliott teaches us to open ourselves to attention and to love.

To mark the anniversary, the ANU Humanities Research Centre has brought Austen Scholar and Professor of English at Arizona State University, Devoney Looser, to the National Library where she will give a special public lecture on the anniversary on July 18.

Professor Looser's talk, The Making of Jane Austen, will examine how Austen, who enjoyed modest literary success in her lifetime, was elevated to an international literary icon.

Around the world, Austen societies have a program of events to commemorate the bicentenary of her death. In the UK, her face will appear on a new 10 pound note and two pound coin.