One thing that’s really struck me in doing background readings is just how controversial Austen is. When I read her books, it’s perfectly clear to me what she’s saying, and what the story means and how it’s to be interpreted. And then I read someone else’s take on it, and they see things exactly opposite, and what’s worse, they have a point!
There’s Kingsley Amis saying that “Edmund and Fanny are both morally detestable and the endorsement of their feelings and behavior by the author … makes Mansfield Park an immoral book” (in “What Became of Jane Austen”, A Truth Universally Acknowledged, p.125); he much prefers the Crawfords. And then there’s Colleen Sheehan saying that the Crawfords are machiavellian monsters, horrifically evil to the core. In Sense and Sensibility, lots of readers want to marry Elinor to Colonel Brandon, because they think that Elinor deserves better than Edward or Colonel Brandon better than Marianne. Or they feel that Marianne is the sacrificial lamb on the altar of patriarchy, that her marriage to Brandon is a sad instance of her exuberant spirit having been beaten into submission by society’s (and Elinor’s) expectations of what a woman ought to be, and that the ending of this book is really lame and ought to have been written differently. And so on and so forth.
And those debates have been going on ever since the books first came out! Lovely, simple, easy-to-understand romances? I don’t think so.