In a piece a couple of weeks back, Kathryn Hughes over at the Guardian argues that Jane Austen's books are not about love, but about money. Ms. Hughes is exaggerating, I think, but only a little. It's hardly coincidence, after all, that the men Austen's heroines eventually end up with are always men of significantly greater income than the rivals they upstage. They are also, to be fair, men of superior character and moral worth, so that it isn't just money that Austen's heroines are marrying for, but her reluctance to ever put her heroine in a position where she has to choose between true worth and net worth speaks to her general disdain for what we now call romance. The thrill we feel at Elizabeth's achievement of Darcy is as much the excitement of love accomplished against all odds, as it is the thrill of a venture capitalist who sees her daring investment pay off. Darcy's proposal to her is the ultimate IPO, and vindication enough for not investing in the Mr Collins Savings Account.
Austen's stories are not so much about love as they are about revealed eligibility. Nowhere is this clearer than in Mansfield Park whose conventional, lifeless ending, coming at the conclusion of such a breathlessly dramatic work, is both a tragic failure of literary courage and a testament to Austen's dogmatism in placing logic over feeling. Austen's heroines have two key tasks: they must identify a man they can be happy with, and having made that discovery, must somehow secure him - and the former often takes a lot longer than the latter. Love is irrelevant here, or rather, it plays a role only as a wilful puppy who must be patiently trained to recognise its true advantages.
As I said in my comment to DoZ's post about the proliferation of Pride & Prejudice spin-offs, I'm always surprised by the way popular imagination seems to privilege Pride & Prejudice over all other Austen novels. Don't get me wrong, I adore Pride and Prejudice, but if I had to I'd still pick Emma over it any day, and I enjoy Sense and Sensibility as much as I do P&P.
But the thing that really bewilders me is the seemingly widespread notion the Austen's novels are about Love. Personally, I've always found the romantic bits of Austen the most plodding. What makes reading Austen a pleasure, aside from the sparkling miracle of the prose itself , is the acuteness of her social observation. We love Austen's characters not for the depth of their emotion, but because they are silly like us - because they are obtuse and idiosyncratic, largely well-meaning but frequently misguided. Far from being stodgy archetypes or symbols of some idea, her characters are deliciously real - the kind of people we, centuries later, can see reflectd in our neighbours and relatives, their stories played out among the delicate bric a brac of the everyday, the mundane gossip of living. This is social comedy at its finest - a body of work that turns the domestic into epiphany, makes us see the patterns of social posturing and self-deception that we all live by.
The truth is, Austen has no ability to write about love revealed or accomplished - an actual declaration almost always spells the death-knell for her books and happily ever after is never a state actively portrayed in her work. Her real interest is in the delicate negotiations by which people exist in society, the politics of interpersonal relationships. Because romantic relationships often require the most secrecy and delicacy she chooses to focus on them, but they are far from the only form of social manouvering her novels explore. What Austen is particularly good at is showing us how the most ordinary social interaction can take on the dimensions of pitched battle. Her most emotionally charged scenes are models of scrupulous politeness, her most dramatic plot developments occur in seemingly casual conversations. This is the chessgame of human relationships in all its fraught and intricate brilliance, and it is a sport made all the more compelling by the fact that we all continue to play it.
For me, the best chapter in Pride and Prejudice, perhaps the best chapter that Austen ever wrote, doesn't involve Darcy at all, or only at second hand. It's the scene between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine where the latter, suspecting her nephew's interest in Elizabeth, tries to warn her off. It's a savage, savage conversation - a verbal duel unmatched for the briskness of its thrust and parry, the intricacy of the little feints and stabs each adversary takes at the other, the clash of steel clearly audible behind the politeness of the words. Yet it has a formality that is almost musical in its flow and elegance. You could score this conversation for piano and cello and it would sound exactly the same, except that you would lose the impeccable logic of the arguments being made. It is her ability to write like this that makes Austen one of our finest novelists - not the silly excuse of a plot that Hollywood and the publishing industry seem hell bent on celebrating.
 I've never understood the whole notion of Austen adaptations. Without the verbal magic of her writing, without the precision and meticulous wit of her descriptions, there is, it seems to me, no Austen left worth adapting. Doing Austen in some hack script writer's words is like performing Don Giovanni with music by Elton John.