Why we still love Jane Austen

LIT­ER­A­TURE Two cen­turies later, the Pride and Prej­u­dice au­thor’s death is marked by fren­zied fan­dom and a wave of new books on her last­ing legacy

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - TARA HEN­LEY

It’s hard to imag­ine Jane Austen-ma­nia hit­ting more of a fever pitch than it has in the past sev­eral decades, with a zeal­ous global fan base snap­ping up ev­ery­thing from Bol­ly­wood re­makes to Austen-in­spired zom­bie fan fic­tion and guinea pig ver­sions of “Pride & Prej­u­dice.”

Still, here we are at the 200th an­niver­sary of her death and the craze has some­how man­aged to kick up a notch.

To cel­e­brate the Bri­tish nov­el­ist’s legacy this year, Austen devo­tees — also known as Janeites — can at­tend ex­hi­bi­tions, talks, per­for­mances and cal­lig­ra­phy work­shops, go on lit­er­ary pil­grim­ages to her home in Hamp­shire and en­ter writ­ing com­pe­ti­tions in her name. They can don bon­nets for themed pic­nics and gowns for Re­gency Balls, buy T-shirts and totes, col­lect the new Jane Austen Bri­tish £10 note and, of course, share all on so­cial me­dia feeds in her hon­our.

Ac­com­pa­ny­ing this frenzy of ac­tiv­ity is a wave of new books about the lit­er­ary celebrity, ex­plor­ing her in­flu­ence anew. Fans can read about her do­mes­tic life in “Jane Austen at Home: A Bi­og­ra­phy by Lucy Wors­ley;” about her politics in “Jane Austen, The Se­cret Rad­i­cal” by He­lena Kelly; and about the in­flu­ence of plays on her writ­ing in “The Ge­nius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hol­ly­wood” by Paula Byrne.

Those who’ve made it their life’s work to study Austen, such as Goucher Col­lege scholar Juli­ette Wells — au­thor of the aptly ti­tled “Ev­ery­body’s Jane: Austen in the Pop­u­lar Imag­i­na­tion” — are well-po­si­tioned to make a mark. Her new book “Read­ing Austen in Amer­ica,” which tracks the au­thor’s transatlantic pop­u­lar­ity, is due out in Oc­to­ber and al­ready get­ting buzz.

Wells is an ideal per­son, then, to ask the press­ing ques­tion: Why Jane? What is it about Austen that’s so cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion for so long, across cen­turies and con­ti­nents?

“That is a great ques­tion,” Well says, “and there’s no one an­swer to it.” The TV minis­eries and Hol­ly­wood films of the 1990s — which were “very lik­able, very au­di­ence-friendly” — have no doubt played a role in en­dear­ing Austen to le­gions of fans, she says. As has the burst of fic­tion and non-fic­tion pub­lished in their wake. But Austen has long held ap­peal for read­ers, who be­gan vis­it­ing her grave in Winch­ester Cathe­dral a good cen­tury be­fore the swoon-wor­thy Colin Firth ever graced the screen.

In­deed, gen­er­a­tions of read­ers have flocked to Austen for her ex­pert sto­ry­telling and her wit and hu­mour, which tend to stand the test of time.

“There are works pub­lished by her con­tem­po­raries that were con­sid­ered hu­mor­ous at the time, which are just so dated to us: they don’t work at all,” Wells says. “But Austen’s hu­mour con­tin­ues to res­onate. I hear from un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents all the time who are just amazed when they re­al­ize how funny she is.”

Still other read­ers are drawn to the “moral uni­verse” Austen de­picts, Wells ex­plains, “how much her main char­ac­ters care about be­ing good peo­ple.”

And then there’s the fact that Austen ar­guably wrote women with more depth than any writer who came be­fore.

“Austen is un­par­al­leled in her abil­ity to cre­ate be­liev­able, re­al­is­tic char­ac­ters with in­ner lives,” Wells says, “and cer­tainly she por­trayed women with more at­ten­tion, more thought, than any­one had done prior to her.”

Then, of course, there’s her artis­tic mas­tery — Vir­ginia Woolf rated it on par with Shake­speare’s — which em­ployed sub­tlety to pow­er­ful ef­fect. “Of all great writ­ers she is the most dif­fi­cult to catch in the act of great­ness,” Vir­ginia Woolf noted, writ­ing in the New Repub­lic in 1924. (Woolf also joked about Austen’s fa­nat­i­cal fans, even then a force to be reck­oned with: “There are 25 el­derly gen­tle­men liv­ing in the neigh­bour­hood of Lon­don who re­sent any slight upon her ge­nius as if it were an in­sult of­fered to the chastity of their aunts.”)

Add to all of this: Austen qui­etly pro­vided a model for the pro­fes­sional woman, then such an anom­aly. Writ­ing in a time with few fe­male voices, she fo­cused nov­els such as “Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity” and “Emma” on draw­ing room dra­mas — and the clas­sic mar­riage plot — but she her­self elected to lead a soli­tary, lit­er­ary life.

Austen pos­sessed an ex­tra­or­di­nary work ethic, Wells says, and was a con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional.

“Be­ing aware, to any de­gree, of Austen’s home life and her au­thor­ship re­ally deep­ens your ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing her nov­els. If you read her bi­og­ra­phy, or visit her house, you have some aware­ness of the choices she made in or­der to write.”

It’s only thanks to sec­ond-wave fem­i­nists and their re­search, Wells adds, that we were able to move be­yond the pro­tec­tive Austen fam­ily de­pic­tions of spin­ster Aunt Jane and see her for the am­bi­tious work­ing woman she was. “She re­ally val­ued her cre­ativ­ity and she was an in­cred­i­bly de­ter­mined writer,” Wells says. “She wrote for decades be­fore she was pub­lished. Once her first novel was pub­lished in 1811, she pub­lished at an as­ton­ish­ing rate.”

“It’s amaz­ing,” Wells adds. “She died too young, but she left us so much.”

It’s no won­der, then, that read­ers con­tinue to ex­press their en­thu­si­asm for Austen in myr­iad cre­ative ways. “Pro­fes­sion­ally, noth­ing can sur­prise me,” Wells says of Jane-ma­nia. “What de­lights me is when some­one can en­ter the very crowded field of trib­utes to Austen and cre­ate some­thing ex­cit­ing and new.

“There (are) lots of dif­fer­ent takes out there and I’m in­ter­ested in all of them,” she adds. “I’m just fas­ci­nated by this phe­nom­e­non of pop­u­lar­ity. I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in what makes peo­ple dress up, and join Austen so­ci­eties and take lit­er­ary pil­grim­ages. And what makes them write an­other se­quel to “Pride and Prej­u­dice” when the world al­ready has so many. It’s about love and what it means to love lit­er­a­ture. It’s very per­sonal.”


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