Jane Austen: An Empathetic Writer

Jane Austen's novels are treasures. They allow us to identify with the sufferings, desires, and situations in which her various characters find themselves.
Jane Austen: An Empathetic Writer
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 06 December, 2023

If you’re familiar with the work of Jane Austen, you’ll know how you always have the same feeling when you start to read any of her books. You feel like you’re literally stepping into the lives of her characters and discovering their most intimate secrets. The fact that she died over 200 years ago and that her world was very different from ours today is irrelevant.

In fact, although the historical and social contexts she portrayed were vastly different, human needs remain the same. Therefore, it’s really easy to empathize with many of the characters in Austen’s books. For example, you might identify with Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. She’s a character accustomed to containing her emotions, as she always prioritizes those of her sister, Marianne.

Then, there’s Austen’s most beloved female figure of all. The sharp and avant-garde Elizabeth Bennet. She appeals to the reader for her strong personality and, of course, for being torn between passion and pride in her relationship with Mr. Darcy. Also noteworthy are the male characters. For example, George Knightley in Emma, who’s fascinating for his sensitivity and kindness.

Undoubtedly, Jane Austen wrote about human psychology. Indeed, we can all identify with the map of emotions and needs she drew via her really convincing characters.

“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters…”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813-

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s novels go beyond the simple romance novel. They’re profiles of human emotions.

Jane Austen and empathy

Although Jane Austen endowed most of her novels with idyllic happy endings, this wasn’t the case in her own life. For instance, she was due to get married, but it was called off. Moreover, she died at the age of 41, and her death remains veiled in mystery. In fact, a crime novelist has suggested that she may have died of arsenic poisoning.

It was Lindsay Ashford, a British novelist and crime journalist who suggested that arsenic poisoning could well have been the cause of Austen’s death. Certainly, at the time, arsenic was practically everywhere: in water, wine, clothing, and many medicines. However, a more recent study claims that she was more likely to be suffering from Addison’s disease, a type of endocrine disorder.

Whatever the case, her last years weren’t easy. When she died in 1817, and her older brother was arranging for her posthumous novel (Persuasion) to go to print, he decided to write a memoir about her in her honor. He described her as a cheerful, sensitive, and benevolent spirit.

Just like the Brontë, Jane Austen had to publish all her books under a pseudonym. Be that as it may, she had an undeniable knack for capturing the complexity of human psychology.

“There are people who, the more you do for them, the less they will do for themselves.”


Perfectly imperfect characters

Many might think that Austen’s novels are mere romantic soap operas. It’s true that love is the central element that unites and motivates most of her characters. That said, you only have to study her protagonists to realize how richly drawn they are.

In fact, she made it easy for the reader to perceive the snobbery and subservience of many of the characters surrounding her heroes and heroines. Her depiction of latent hypocrisy both surprises and delights the reader. She also portrays greed and the eternal prejudices that create distances between lovers.

Realities that serve as a mirror

Jane Austen’s stories are a wonderful exercise in awakening empathy in the reader. In fact, they serve as a mirror for us to connect with our own needs, emotions, defects, and desires. For example, consider Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park. She’s a petite, unattractive girl suffering from considerable trauma, thanks to her Aunt Norris.

Her aunt raised her, making her believe that she didn’t deserve any attention, since her cousins were better than her. However, Fanny is a strong character. She’s honest, doesn’t allow anything to break her, and she’s always faithful to her conscience. As the reader, you connect with this rich and fascinating character from the first pages of the book, just as with many of Austen’s female figures.

Jane Austen taught us that the quality of relationships appears when we see things in perspective, drop our prejudices, and discover others as they really are.

The value of love in all its forms

Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. There’s no doubt that Jane Austen’s novels make you believe in true love.  But, it’s not only romantic love that she extolled. She also wrote of the love between friends, sisters, and parents for their children.

For instance, in Sense and Sensibility, she portrayed the empathy between the Dashwood sisters. Elinor is so sensible, while Marianne is passionate and sometimes superficial. Austen also traced, in an exquisite and charming way, the friendship between men and women. For example, the relationship between Emma and Frank Churchill.

Her books allow you, through the lives of others, to explore your own feelings, always an interesting and useful exercise.

Emma, novel by Jane Austen
In Emma, the protagonist thinks, at one point, that she’s in love with Frank Churchill, but their relationship is based on lies and deceit.

Clearly, Jane Austen’s novels place the reader in extremely different conventions and social contexts from those of contemporary society. That said, many of the struggles she portrayed we still tend to experience today. As a matter of fact, we all need to take a look at our biases, prejudices, and restrictions that limit our courage and prevent us from truly loving.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen. Richard Bentley & Son, 1871. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 April 2016.
  • Goodheart, Eugene. “Emma: Jane Austen’s Errant Heroine.” The Sewanee Review 116.4 (2008): 589-604. JSTOR. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.
  • Upfal A. Jane Austen’s lifelong health problems and final illness: New evidence points to a fatal Hodgkin’s disease and excludes the widely accepted Addison’s. Med Humanit. 2005 Jun;31(1):3-11. doi: 10.1136/jmh.2004.000193. PMID: 23674643.

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