"Jane Austen’s characters? I can never help feeling that the provincial life is all they have. The provincial life, and a huge dollop of middle class restraint."
"Madame Bovary found herself trapped in a dull marriage in a small town so she went on wild shopping sprees, had affairs, read romance novels and eventually (spoiler!) drank poison. Anna Karenina fled her family to be with her dashing lover only to throw herself under a train. These aren’t happy endings, but they do seem to indicate that the characters are too full of passion to ever accept a provincial life."
What do you think Flaubert and Tolstoy feel about them, my dear? Hail them as heroic? Praise them for their "great deal of passion and defiance of convention"? Flaubert depicts Emma Bovary as a woman with such a shallow mind that she must constantly have excitement, a bad reader who identifies with fictional characters and expects life to resemble romance novels, a philistine who wants to rise above the banality of the world around her and does it in the most banal way possible- through adultery. Anna Karenina is a woman who mistakenly thinks living for passion can bring her happiness, she can be selfish, unstable, irrational, paranoid. Flaubert clearly despises Emma, though later he pities her. Tolstoy doesn't judge Anna as a person, he sympathises with her and wants us to understand her, but it can still be felt that he doesn't approve of her actions- the 2 strands of the novel represent 2 kinds of love, intimate love (Levin- Kitty) brings understanding, happiness and harmony; romantic, passionate love (Anna- Vronsky) brings destruction.
It's not the job of the writer to create likeable characters or to offer role models, which is not the purpose of literature and which shouldn't be a criterion of literary merits. Emma and Bovary are described, depicted, dissected, and that's that. But to read them as heroines, "too full of passion to ever accept a provincial life"?
Jane Austen disapproves of Lydia's "passion" and elopement. But, you see, my dear, Flaubert and Tolstoy aren't very different from her as you think.
(You may mention Natasha, who is indeed an image of vivacity. All right, please look at Marya and Sonya. And see what Tolstoy does to Natasha in the epilogue).
"The only Jane Austen character I ever felt I really liked was Lydia, Lizzie Bennett’s younger sister who ran away with her soldier lover (she was brought back and married him, so was not ruined). Now she had the potential to have a really interesting story, there. If only Jane Austen had followed her!"
So you pick 1 of the silliest, most impulsive, most shallow characters to like? No wonder you don't like Jane Austen! As Gilbert and Gubar put it in The Madwoman in the Attic, Jane Austen makes fun of "such novelistic clichés as love at first sight, the primacy of passion over all other emotions and/or duties, the chivalric exploits of the hero, the vulnerable sensitivity of the heroine, the lovers' proclaimed indifference to financial considerations, and the cruel crudity of parents".
"And I do love Flaubert and Tolstoy, both of whom came only a little while after Jane Austen."
Oh do you really?