A lot of readers think so. In June I wrote a diary about Women Novelists. The poll listed 15 of the greatest Women Novelists before 1950. Out of 83 kossacks, 36 voted for Austen as the greatest of them all.
But plenty of readers disagree. They say Jane Austen only writes about one thing: comfortable middle-class women, chatting in their drawing-rooms, going on picnics, and finally getting happily married.
Let's take a closer look at Austen, and see what she excels at writing about; and what she fails to capture, that you must look for in other books.
Jane Austen wrote six mature novels, and each has its champions. I rate Emma (1816) one of the 40 greatest novels ever and, in many respects, the first fully realized modern novel. But Austen herself was unsure how Emma would go over. She feared that "to those readers who have preferred Pride and Prejudice it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred Mansfield Park very inferior in good sense." What's beyond dispute is, Emma is Austen's largest novel, and Emma Woodhouse is Austen's largest character.
I haven't the heart to tell you the story of Emma. Jane Austen has the heart in every respect: sensitivity, passion, and a deep, reliable moral compass. Austen is principled, perceptive, funny, forgiving, and overflowing with humanity. She plots Emma's story with care, and allows it to unfold organically, just as it should. So (re-) read the book.
I'm not sure Emma is inferior in wit to Pride and Prejudice, but it has less obvious jokes. The punchlines don't smack you, they lie in juxtapositions and the subtleties of relationships and perspectives. Several characters will be talking, and each of them knows some things, but misses others, or believes different things that aren't true. People misrepresent (or just don't know) themselves, and misconstrue each other's expressions and intentions. It takes careful attention to follow all that is explicit, implicit, and misdirected. Austen is extremely astute at juggling three or four perspectives at once. If you can follow all the balls, it's dazzling.
Austen is a queen of the ironic. Unlike Alanis Morissette, Austen knows the meaning of the word, and precisely how to apply it. At the simplest level, there are many speeches where a character diagnoses someone else, without grasping that they've also nailed themself. For example, Emma cries, "Oh! I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her."
That, at least, is where Emma begins the book. Highbury is a village full of people who are unable or unwilling to look beyond their own cares and concerns. The most blinkered is Emma's father, who projects all his own feelings and frailties onto everyone around him. The least blinkered, clearest vision belongs to George Knightley, who is the deeper conscience of the book. The plot includes love and marriage, but the real engine of progress is how Emma (and, to a lesser extent, her friends) learns, deepens, and grows up. At first we like Emma, but laugh at her; then we're alternately pleased and exasperated at her triumphs and her painful errors of judgment. As for the growing up, you should discover that for yourself, in Emma.
When it comes to Romance, Austen wrote the book. In the 1700s, the novel had as much romance in it as anything else. Fielding, Richardson, and dozens of authors in England and France were spinning plots of love. But Austen crystallized the genre, with so many gifts, and such a knack for shaping fiction to fit both nature and the heart that, in the plotting, style and characterization of Romance, she seems to jump a century ahead of her peers. Austen was writing two whole centuries ago; it's startling how easy, how clear and flowing, her books are to a modern sensibility. She's been copied by thousands of authors, indeed by the whole genre of Romance. Outside the genre, the ways she handles love have been borrowed for the romantic components in 90% of modern novels.
Austen is a queen of Romance, of psychology, of wit, and of style. Her ownership of English is larger than I comprehend, or can explain. She did amazing things with voice, with the handling of consciousness: with the narrator, the heroine, and every angle in between them. Anyone who reads her can see how exactly she expresses herself, with the perfect words and phrases to make her meaning transparent and lucid. You never get stuck or confused in Austen's prose. Though, as I said, you may skim past without penetrating all the deeper levels in her tale. There is something so inviting, and so solid, in her prose. Between her mind and her heart, Jane Austen strikes me as exceptionally sane.
If Austen's all that, why do so many readers call her boring and shallow? What parts of writing and life does she leave out of her books? I can see two areas she misses.
First, Austen is all about the gentle middle, and leaves out all kinds of wild extremity. She sticks to towns and villages - not London, but not too far away, either. No Scotland, let alone continental Europe or beyond. She pays attention to the middle classes - we see very little of the truly poor or the really rich or powerful. She likes things small and peaceful. When she wrote, England was embroiled in wars on the continent, men were marching off, and coming back covered in glory or death. Yet these earth-shattering events hardly figure in her novels. Socially, geographically, thematically, she sticks to love and society in everyday settings.
Second, Austen is a very feminine writer. That's a huge word with many implications. All I mean in this case is, she writes about the subjects we now make chick flicks out of, and she avoids the brutal masculine subjects that appealed to Hemingway and Norman Mailer. When it comes to Romance, all the subtleties of relationships, psychology - and what is admirable, or trustworthy, or dangerous in our characters: she gets all that to the nth degree. If you find those intricacies fascinating, you will love Jane Austen. If you want wars, bullfights and murders, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Even in her psychology, Austen prefers the gentle middle. Dante and Dostoevsky are penetrating in their visions, but they're interested in heroes and lunatics, in angels and demons. They look in the dark, twisted corners of human nature, and they explore the brilliant illumination of heavenly grace. Austen won't go very far up, down, or out of the everyday. There is a coziness to her world: bad things happen, but you don't have to worry about a sympathetic main character getting hacked to pieces. She's no George R. R. Martin.
As Jane Austen put it herself:
What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?I know this is a simplistic analysis: of just what Austen's missing and, even more, of what feminine and masculine writing are about. I hope you will tell me how I'm right, or wrong; and what you think on all these subjects.