A recent film on a romantic episode in the life of 18th century novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) has called forth a lot of commentary on the web. Here’s the blurb that prompted this article:
Becoming Jane: Author Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) eventually became famous for writing epic novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.
In popular usage, epic is often used to denote extraordinary length or size. For example, someone might try to ask a long-winded companion to get to the point by saying: Just give me the facts. I don’t need an epic. Used to denote size, epic is almost always accompanied by proportions. Indeed, so clichéd is the expression epic proportions that there’s a play with that title.
Since the longest Jane Austen novel comes to only about 300 pages, the writer quoted above cannot have meant to use epic in the sense of size or length.
When speaking of novels or poems, the word epic has to do with certain aspects of the story and its treatment. The baseline epics are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, stories of larger-than-life national heroes like Achilles and Odysseus engaged in struggles involving the fate of nations or entire races. In the classic sense, epics employ high-flown language. They have lengthy casts of characters, and they often take place over the course of many years.
Some well-known novel and film epics are Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, DeMille’s Ten Commandments, Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, Gibson’s Braveheart, and Tolkien/Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The romantic misunderstandings of Miss Bennett and Mr. Darcy, played out in elegant 18th century drawing rooms, belong to a type of novel called the novel of manners.
“Manners” here doesn’t mean merely such things as opening a door for a lady or the saying of “please” and “thank you.” The novel of manners focuses on domestic matters as opposed to warfare and the realm of the male. The central character is generally a woman and such novels are often written by women, although The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy is an example of the genre. This kind of novel describes the way people living at a certain time in a particular place behave, how they arrange marriages, how they bring up their children, what they hope for, and what they settle for.
Although usually thought of as a distinctly British genre, the novel of manners occupies a significant place in American literature. The novels of Edith Wharton, Henry James, Kate Chopin, and Claire Messud are novels of manners.
You’ll find a useful introduction to the genre and its feminist associations at enotes.com.