|Unappreciated in her day, Jane Austen has found|
relevancy in the modern world
(Illustration by Don Redman)
By Don Redman
How is it possible that a nineteenth century writer who was relatively unknown in her own lifetime could become one of the most influential authors today?
The theories vary among her fans, but there’s no denying that Jane Austen, an English spinster whose first novel was published anonymously, is today a household name. Austen is, as author Claire Harman said, much more than a mere writer, “she’s a cult, a brand and a cultural touchstone.”
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Alexander McCall Smith marvels, “(Jane Austen) is not only a climate of opinion, she is a movement, a mood, a lifestyle, an attitude and, perhaps most tellingly of all, a fridge magnet.”
And in 2017, she will also be the face of the British 10 pound banknote!
J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, grew up reading Austen, who she described as “the pinnacle to which all other authors aspire.” Writing in 1929, Virginia Woolf said of Austen: “Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote . . .”
That’s lofty praise for a writer who never came to realize real success before her death at age 41. Jane Austen’s first novel was published anonymously in 1811 – Sense and Sensibility, By a Lady – almost 20 years after her first draft. According to biographer Claire Harman, the book received “two brief, polite reviews, sold 500 copies and was swiftly forgotten.”
By the end of her life, she had published a total of six books, but after her death they fell out of favor and went out of print. That was until 1869 when her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published the first biography of Austen: A Memoir of Jane Austen.
“Victorian society became fascinated first by her exemplary, quiet life,” explains Claire Harman, “then by her novels.”
Writing for Stylist, Harman, author of Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, says this reintroduction to Jane Austen was the first opening of the floodgates leading to “Austenmania” in the modern era, with millions of copies of her books in print worldwide and translated in 35 languages, dozens of films and television series, hundreds of book sequels, games, dolls, toys, t-shirts and more. She has become a media mogul posthumously.
The Birth of Austenmania
Pop culture writer Anna Leszkiewiczi traces the outbreak of “Austenfever” to 1995 with the cinematic debut of Sense and Sensibility, as well as Persuasion, Clueless (Austen’s Emma reimagined) and the immensely popular BBC television production of Pride and Prejudice. It was also in 1995 that Doug McGrath began filming Emma and the BBC went into production on a television series, also Emma.
“First there is no Jane Austen then it’s raining Jane Austin,” Leszkiewiczi wrote in the New Statesman. In 1996, Vanity Fair declared Austen “the hottest writer in show business,” and Entertainment Weekly ranked her among the Top 10 Entertainers of the Year for 1995.
But why? What sets Jane Austen from all the other authors that followed her? What is it about Jane Austen that 200 years after her death, she still has countless fans across the globe who read and reread her books, eagerly await the latest film adaptation, and who attend conventions in Regency Era costumes?
“Thanks to her sharp wit and strong female characters, Jane Austen’s literature is still utterly relevant,” writes biographer Claire Harman. “We read her because we feel she understands us – despite being born over two centuries ago.”
“Themes of family, love, and relationships in nineteenth century England were not much different than today,” says Laura Mauffray Borchert, director of a staged adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at Slidell Little Theatre. “They had their unique manner of dress and speech, but they were still just ordinary people living extraordinary lives.”
Issues facing the women in the nineteenth century still apply to today’s women, says Borchert. Women in Austen’s era “suffered society’s injustices, not unlike today where women are frequently under-paid and under-valued, creating the timeless fears of financial ruin and social disgrace. Peer pressure and social expectations still control the hearts of the young facing the dilemma of whether to marry for love or for financial security, or whether to marry at all.”
Alexander McCall Smith agrees: “There are plenty of superficial romantic novels that are forgotten as soon as they are read. Austen is far from superficial. ... She is also extremely funny, able to paint the foibles of characters with a dry wit that has dated very little. Her books are intimate and compelling. She has a voice that somehow seems to chime even with a modern sensibility. She is, in essence, timeless.”
Ahead of Her Time
Or is it possible that Jane Austen is simply timely?
|Today, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy would|
communicate quite differently.
Claire Harman argues that Jane Austen was not successful in her own lifetime precisely because her audience was not quite ready for her. Instead, her stories are well-timed for today.
“In many ways, her books are more in tune with our times and tastes than her own,” writes Harman. “In the first review she ever received, she was taken to task for a ‘want of newness’, but her books now seem markedly more original than anything else of the period.”
Harman cites for example the writings of Austen’s contemporary – Sir Walter Scott. Despite what is widely viewed today as dreadfully bad writing, in the 1800s, Scott’s books sold proportionally as well as Rowling’s Harry Potter series and he was adored by the critics, the same critics who were less than enthused with Austen. “Austen simply wasn’t loved by the reviewers of her time,” Harman writes. The plot in Emma was described as dull and Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet was said to be tacky and devoid of taste.
It is obvious, says Harman, that Austen was ahead of her times and that she was not understood or appreciated by her contemporaries. While it undoubtedly ruffled the feathers of the women of her time that she would lift the veil on money and marriage and social standing, audiences today howl at Elizabeth Bennet’s confession that she had begun to love Mr. Darcy when she first saw his vast estate. Creating main characters that cut against the grain of society, Austen was consciously stepping out of her own times.
Romancing the Tome
It could be, too, that fans are simply lured by the romanticism and wit in Jane Austen’s books. Writer Lori Smith likens Jane Austen’s books and movies to “literary comfort food.”
Jane Austen is the mother of the romance novel, says Harman, who also recognizes the appeal of Austen’s fantasy world where “there are single men of good fortune like Mr. Darcy round every corner, in possession of a stately home and in want of a wife. There’s something for everyone: a great plot, a happy ending (always), carriages, ball gowns and romance.”
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, James Collins says Austen’s focus on moral education is the key to understanding Austen’s appeal today.
“Jane Austen is very funny,” writes Collins. “Her characters are vivid. The poise of her sentences is perfect... However, to write brilliant novels was not Jane Austen's foremost goal: What was most important to her was to provide moral instruction.”
And what does Jane Austen teach us? According to Collins, in addition to instructing us on “self- knowledge, generosity, humility, elegance and sensibility,” Jane Austen is the only credible writer who can “show us that it is possible to have moderation and deep feeling, good dinners and good poetry.”
Writing in the New York Times in 1995, Edward Rothstein tried to explain the Austen phenomenon similarly: “As Austen keeps showing, again and again, the language of gesture and counter-gesture ultimately reveals a person's deepest nature.” However, with the decline in manners in today’s ever-growing crass society, we are left to “gaze upon Austen's world with … envy.”
Manners and morals side, virtually every writer commenting on the power of Jane Austen notes her humor and wit as first and foremost among her assets. That’s also why she’s so widely adored today, says Laura Boyle, a contributing writer at the Jane Austen Centre.
Austen’s allure, says Boyle, is “her keen observation of human nature tempered by humor and the ultimate romance of the playful, witty repartee between her hero and heroine.” According to Boyle, many of today’s romance movies and books fail to deliver because they “lack an essential element of romance– witty repartee.”
“Playfulness and wit are something we all look for in our romantic attachments,” says Boyle. “How often has a female friend described the new man in her life to you as someone who makes her laugh? We all seem to be looking for someone to share a few laughs with on the road of life. There is also something so sexy about being intellectually engaged with another which can only be improved by the addition of humor.”
Whether drawn by her humor and wit or by romance and social commentary, Jane Austen’s fans are lured by her voice, resonating across the expanse of time with relevancy even in the twenty-first century.
Edward Rothstein: Jane Austen Meets Mr. Right: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/10/weekinreview/ideas-trends-jane-austen-meets-mr-right.html
Laura Boyle: Jane Austen’s Wise Wit https://www.janeausten.co.uk/jane-austens-wise-wit/
Alexander McCall Smith: The Secret of the Jane Austin Industry - http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-secret-of-the-jane-austen-industry-1427473889
James Collins: Jane Austen’s Lesson for the Modern World -- http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703683804574531863687486876
Claire Harman: Jane Austen, An Influential Woman - http://www.stylist.co.uk/books/jane-austen-an-influential-woman
Anna Leszkiewiczi: Why 1995 was the year Jane Austen catapulted into pop culture - http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2015/12/austenmania-why-1995-was-year-jane-austen-catapulted-pop-culture
Don Redman, associate editor of the AAA Southern Traveler magazine, is a veteran journalist whose work has been recognized by the Louisiana Press Association and the Associated Press. In 2006 Redman was named the St. Tammany Parish Literary Artist of the Year. A former volunteer on the Board of Directors, he is the editor of Prologue, SLT’s main stage audience guide and he volunteers as the Grants chairman.