Despite having been dead for 200 years (come 18 July), Jane Austen’s career is going better than many living 41-year-old novelists I know. A stage adaptation of her last novel, Persuasion, has just finished a run at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, and the Royal Literary Society recently hosted an auction of artistic responses to Austen featuring writing by Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood, and sketches by Grayson Perry. It seems that reading Austen is not enough; we’re forever drawn to writing about her and her world too, as recent books by John Mullan, Paula Byrne, Helena Kelly and Lucy Worsley demonstrate. Worsley’s book, about the houses Austen stayed in, has also been made into a BBC series.

Yet the way we remember encountering her actual novels is often through being forced to read them at school, with little pleasure. I did Persuasion for my GCSE, and was so bored that I only read every other chapter. In my bag I kept the books I really enjoyed: anything with a cover image of a robot unicorn diving into a tarot card, on Mars.

It’s a shame, because I think Austen is wasted on teenagers. While her books are witty and her heroines young, Austen doesn’t write romantic comedies or young-adult-with-parasols. A worldly reader is all too aware of the harsh, judgmental and unequal society the characters operate in. There are very few happy couples in Austen’s novels and countless disappointing spouses, would-be lovers, siblings and parents. The lives of Austen’s heroines are marked by boredom, frustration, the threat of poverty and dread of the future. The women’s unused drive and intelligence are sublimated through second-rate practices like gossip, matchmaking, reading sensational novels, wallowing in overblown fantasies and, in Elizabeth Bennet’s case, going for long walks to soak up energy.

Austen is often described as a satirist who only hints at depths of feeling. But in fact she is startlingly blunt about emotions, describing her characters’ feelings, from desire to envy to shame, with scathing exactness. In Persuasion – my favourite Austen novel – the hardness of life for a woman is laid bare. Only a mature reader – perhaps even one in a similar position to the novel’s central character, Anne Elliot – can understand how cruel, and yet how common, her experience has been.

Anne Elliot has lost her mother, her looks and her youth, and goes through life with her eyes lowered. Eight years previously, shortly after her mother’s death, she declined an offer of marriage from Frederick Wentworth, a poor naval officer just starting his career, whom she loved and who loved her. Wentworth went off to sea.

Eight years later, at the start of Persuasion, Wentworth returns. He is successful, well-travelled, wealthy and handsome. Nothing has happened in Anne’s life in the interim. She is valued by her few friends, though not her family, and she is practical and intelligent. She gets on with whatever is immediately in front of her but, at heart, she has stopped hoping.

I can well understand where Anne is coming from: the pain, the regret, the smarting embarrassment, the quiet horror and flat resignation. It is the feeling of having made an innocent mistake that you are still paying for; the steady realisation that time has passed and you missed your moment; an acceptance that the most dignified thing to do is open your hands and let your sexuality pass out of them, lest you humiliate yourself in your presumption.

Anne is a leftover woman while Wentworth is rich, hot, charming and successful. He is appreciated by people of both sexes, who shower him with admiration and invitations. Although she and Wentworth are the same age, Anne is regarded as an ageing spinster. She is exploited for her domestic and emotional labour, but dependent on and confined to whichever household will accept her. She is painfully aware that the eight years she has spent regretting her decision, mourning her mother and observing her own decline “included nearly a third part of her own life”.

Throughout the novel, Anne keeps bumping into Wentworth, or hears him being praised by the other characters, and these moments are a “silent, deep mortification”. Anne knows that time has “destroyed her youth and bloom”; she has nothing to hide behind, not even a pretty face. The first time she runs into Wentworth she congratulates herself simply on surviving it: “‘It is over! It is over!’ she repeated to herself again, and again, in nervous gratitude. ‘The worst is over!’”

I won’t give away the many wonderful scenes that lead to the novel’s lushly romantic conclusion. And yet, re-reading Persuasion, I am reminded that Austen is being kind in giving her heroine what she deserves, and in satisfying her readers by drawing us up from pity to rapture. The novel’s poignancy is only heightened by an awareness that, in reality, sometimes there is no triumphant final act. And it takes a grownup to see that.