“My cynical answer is that her novels are tightly, yet simply plotted and make for good television,” Dr Murphy said.
“A more hopeful answer is that she reached a level of ability in the novel that no one had reached before and that her characters capture the complexity of the decisions people have to make in their lives.”
Dr Murphy said early 19th-century England was very much like our own time, with a focus on commerce and capitalism, and that Austen had an eye for moral dilemmas this created.
“She wrote about the middles classes, those who had the typical range of options open to them in their society, but who had constraints; they had to keep businesses running or get a job,” she said.
“These constraints led to decisions where ideals and survival had to be balanced – some, such as those relating to the slave trade or the war in France, which were politically charged.”
Dr Murphy has recently published her first book, Jane Austen the Reader, looking at how Austen subtly and skilfully used her novels to comment on everything from politics to female rights.
“Austen lived through a time of immense repression, where things such as going for a walk or going to see paintings were politicised actions,” she said.
“She had family employed by the government, so she couldn’t speak openly against oppressive laws that were starving people or stand up for feminist principles, so she implied and used codes.
“For example, at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth returns from a walk with mud on her petticoats and people are appalled, she is being politically subversive.
“At the time, people such as Wordsworth and Coleridge were very much into walking, but they were associated with a part of society in favour of the French Revolution, whom the government considered suspect.
“Beyond that, when women went out walking, they were generally prostitutes, so Austen is really saying, ‘I can go out for a walk. I’m not a prostitute. Women should be allowed to walk wherever they want.’”
Dr Murphy said at other times, Austen used references as subtle as a single word, or a line from a radical poet, which certain readers would understand.
“Mind you, the works are so rich that you don’t need to know the codes to enjoy them,” she added.