A guide to Jane Austen’s humor

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Dear reader, let me tell you about a little-known aspect of one of my favorite authors. Contrary to what the average person might think, Jane Austen is hilariously low-key. Personally, I burst out laughing while reading and re-reading his six complete novels and the short and shady Lady Suzanne.

Without a doubt, you’re shaking your head right now and calling me weird. While you’re right about it, you’re wrong if you don’t think Austen is funny. Readers and literary scholars praise his work for its biting irony and constant roasting of British nobility.

Of course, the humor was different in the 18th century. Therefore, it can be difficult for a modern reader to catch his nuanced jokes. So let me clarify.

Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817 in Hampshire, England. Austen never married, focusing instead on family relationships and her writing. For the time she lived, not getting married was remarkable. His so-called old maid gave him material to write about women determined to find “good” husbands. Rumor has it that she agreed to get married in 1802, but changed her mind the next morning. What. A. Icon.

Austen published four novels during his short life: Sense and sensitivity (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). My favorite, Persuasion, was released posthumously with my favorite, Northanger Abbey, in 1817. One of his nephews published his short epistolary novel, Lady Suzanne, in 1871.

Despite this relatively short list of published works, Austen’s legacy has endured for centuries. His books have been adapted for the stage, television and the big screen dozens of times. Plus, there are countless stories and reimaginings based on his books. (My favorite is Distraught, which is a modern version of Emma.)

image of Mikkaka Overstreet recreating the look of the movie poster Clueless
I REALLY love Clueless.

I argue that one of the reasons his work endures is his humor. We humans love to laugh at ourselves and at others. As Austen says in Pride and Prejudice, “What do we live for, if not to play sports for our neighbors, and make fun of them in our turn?”

Austen laughs at marriage and patriarchy

Pride and Prejudice introduces us to the Bennet family and their ridiculous matriarch, Mrs. Bennet. She is described as “a woman of average understanding, uninformed, and uncertain temper. When she was unhappy, she thought she was nervous. The business of his life was to marry his daughters; his comfort was the visit and the news.

All Ms. Bennet wants in life is to see her five daughters “well married”, but not only does she hamper their success every moment, but she doesn’t even seem to understand what “well married” means. She is just as happy when Lydia marries the evil Mr. Wickham as she is when Jane and Elizabeth make matches with rich and good men.

Of course, Ms. Bennet’s relentless quest for marriage wouldn’t be so necessary if it hadn’t been for the patriarchal society she lived in. Because she had had five daughters and no sons, her family’s estate was removed from her daughters and would be inherited by a male cousin. As she and her husband were barely living within their means, they had nothing to give their children. Austen even made sure to point out the stupidity of the involvement by contrasting the Bennets’ situation with that of Lady Catherine’s family. Lady Catherine and her husband’s estate would belong to their only daughter.

There are so many moments of sheer madness with Ms. Bennet. She’s a hypochondriac who goes to bed when Lydia runs away, but gets out of bed ready to party when she finds out that Wickham has been convinced to marry her wayward child. She constantly says the wrong thing, gets drunk and chats.

Most telling, however, is that despite all her fervor for the wedding. Mrs. Bennet is unhappy in hers. Her husband neither loves nor respects her and enjoys making fun of her in front of his children. Like her neighbor, Charlotte Lucas, Mrs. Bennet relies all her marital happiness on her children and the management of her home. (Of course, Charlotte knew her husband was a jerk when she married him, which is also hilarious.)

Austen roasts the rich and classed

Since I mentioned Lady Catherine de Bourgh, I’ll start with her as an example of Austen’s relentless roasting of the rich and the ranks. In Austen’s day, your birth, land ownership, and titles were very important to your status in society. They’ve figured out who you might get married to or even who to talk to.

Gentlemen and ladies were expected to be well behaved and followed a complex set of rules of politeness. However, when Elizabeth Bennet meets Darcy’s wealthy aunt, she isn’t who she should be. Rather than a role model of good breeding, Lady Catherine is curious, boisterous, distraught and unofficial. Her sickly, cranky daughter is just bad, albeit calmer. Austen shows it to us through hilarious scenes where Mr. Collins crawls and flatters, while Lady Catherine raves about how great she and her daughter are. It doesn’t matter if they have the talent or knowledge to back up his claims. For example, after shouting across the room to find out what two other characters were talking about, Lady Catherine said this:

“If you talk about music … it’s all subjects my pleasure. There are few people in England, I suppose, who enjoy music more than I do, or have a better natural taste. If I had ever learned, I would have been very competent. And Anne too, if her health had allowed her to apply. I am convinced she would have played wonderfully.

Dame Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Lady Catherine is one of many examples of a rich and / or highly ranked character who turns out to be the worst. In Persuasion, everyone in the Elliot family except Anne is obsessed with their rank. They are all constantly offended if they are not treated with the honors due a baronet and his daughters. They are conceited and petty and constantly seek compliments and attention.

Just as Lady Catherine must learn to accept Darcy and Elizabeth rejecting her judgment and authority, the Elders Elliot get their reward. Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot lose their lackey to another Elliot who has more to offer. They are somewhat reassured that they have greater relationships with which to spend time. However, they soon learn (in Austen’s words) “to flatter and follow others, without being flattered and followed in their turn, is only a state of semi-pleasure”.

Austen just cast some shade

In closing, here are some of my favorite shady or sassy quotes that show just how witty and sarcastic Jane Austen can be.

  • “I don’t want people to be very nice because it saves me the trouble of loving them very much.” – personal correspondence
  • “The person, be it a gentleman or a lady, who has no pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” –Northanger Abbey
  • “Silly things stop being silly if they’re done by sane people in a shameless way. “-Emma
  • “In addition to being married, a girl likes to be seen a little in love from time to time. It’s something to think about, and it gives him a sort of distinction among his companions. –Pride and Prejudice
  • “Nothing ever tires me but doing what I don’t like.” – personal correspondence
  • “A woman, especially if she is unfortunate enough to know something, should hide it as best she can. “- personal correspondence
  • “Stupid men are the only ones worth knowing after all.” – personal correspondence
  • “Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure. “-Mansfield Park

I didn’t do half as well as I hoped to express how hilarious Austen is, but the time and word limits won’t allow me to elaborate further. Every novel has at least one character who is a walking joke. Believe me: make yourself comfortable with Lady Suzanne and you’ll see.

In the meantime, if you want more of Jane Austen, check out our Jane Austen archives.