This is the question Rachel Brownstein (professor of English at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center) tries to answer in her book Why Jane Austen? (and, refreshingly enough, there are no subtitles).
Why Jane Austen? has the best opening line of any lit-crit book I've ever read:
Sometime in the 1908s, soon after the publication of my first book, I went to a literary party in Brooklyn at the home of a fashionably gritty playwright: jug wine, cheese and crackers, and brownies laced with cannabis, homemade by his wife.
And then she slips in an anecdote about some dude who is being a jerk about feminists. Like.
Brownstein examines Austen's world critically, noting how her novels have been re-interpreted and examined using theory of all types: economic, social commentary, feminism, politics, etc. The book is a very readable volume of literary criticism, but it stays firmly grounded in academics with good supporting documentation and writing.
Aside from a few weird typos/boo-boos in the first half of the book (the star of Bride and Prejudice is Aishwarya Rai, not Ray, and in the ITV adaptation of Lost in Austen the heroine enters P&P through a door in the bathroom, not a dream - although we could argue whether the either thing is "reality" or "fantasy") it was a very good addition to my shelf of Austen criticism.