Why we still have Austen-ma­nia

Jane Austen’s work forms an en­dur­ing strand of our cul­tural DNA. Matthew Den­ni­son ex­plains how she rev­o­lu­tionised novel-writ­ing and why she’s still much loved 200 years on

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

‘Her prose re­minds us of the glo­ries of our lan­guage

That young lady had a tal­ent for de­scrib­ing the in­volve­ments and feel­ings and char­ac­ters of or­di­nary life, which is to me the most won­der­ful I ever met with,’ wrote Sir Wal­ter Scott in his di­ary in March 1826, af­ter read­ing Jane austen’s Pride and Prej­u­dice for the third time. Un­re­servedly, he cel­e­brated austen’s ‘exquisite touch’ and her abil­ity to make ‘com­mon­place things and char­ac­ters in­ter­est­ing from the truth of the de­scrip­tion and the sen­ti­ment’. By con­trast, thomas Car­lyle dis­missed her six nov­els as ‘dish­wash­ings’ and ‘dis­mal trash’.

hap­pily—and with good rea­son—pos­ter­ity has mostly pre­ferred Scott’s ver­dict on Britain’s best­loved fe­male nov­el­ist, who died 200 years ago, at the age of 41. austen de­fined her ap­proach to fic­tion as work­ing on a ‘lit­tle bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory… with so fine a brush, as pro­duces lit­tle ef­fect af­ter much labour’, typ­i­cally sto­ries cen­tred on ‘three or four fam­i­lies in a Coun­try Vil­lage’.

She did not in­tend this dep­re­cat­ing self-es­ti­ma­tion to be taken at face value. ‘I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way,’ she wrote with dogged con­vic­tion the year be­fore her death. She was fully aware of the ef­fect of her labour and the va­lid­ity of her ap­proach, which con­trasted with the more histri­onic ef­fu­sions of her con­tem­po­raries, no­tably the Gothic nov­els of ann Rad­cliffe, which she satirised in Northanger Abbey.

austen achieved cult sta­tus tardily, a late-vic­to­rian phe­nom­e­non rebooted more re­cently in the austen-ma­nia that fol­lowed an­drew Davies’s 1995 adap­ta­tion of Pride and Prej­u­dice for the BBC, with a host of other 1990s and 2000s film and tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tions and spin-offs. how­ever, de­spite mod­est sales in her own life­time, the au­thor rev­o­lu­tionised novel writ­ing. her adop­tion of what crit­ics cum­brously la­bel ‘free in­di­rect dis­course’, a merg­ing of third-per­son and first-per­son nar­ra­tives, en­abled her re­al­is­ti­cally to ex­press her char­ac­ters’ voices and thoughts.

her fic­tion pre­sented fe­male pro­tag­o­nists ap­par­ently glimpsed from the in­side. With a light, of­ten sar­donic touch, she cap­tured un­chang­ing truths, like the mo­ment in Emma when har­riet Smith, see­ing Mr El­ton’s trunk be­ing loaded into a cart for Bath, re­alises that her would-be hus­band is de­part­ing ‘and ev­ery thing in this world, ex­cept that trunk and the di­rec­tion, was con­se­quently a blank’. She wrote nov­els about men and women, which, for two cen­turies, have en­gaged read­ers of both sexes.

to­day’s ‘Jane austen’ is a much-mythol­o­gised fig­ure. In his memoir of his aunt pub­lished in 1870, James Ed­ward austen-leigh wrote: ‘We did not think of her as be­ing clever, still less as be­ing fa­mous; but we val­ued her as one al­ways kind, sym­pa­this­ing, and amus­ing.’ De­spite her work’s prickly wit, this sac­cha­rine ver­sion of the nov­el­ist con­tin­ues to en­joy wide cur­rency.

In Winch­ester Cathe­dral, flower ar­range­ments ded­i­cated to austen, in her role of dis­tin­guished lo­cal au­thor, have typ­i­cally been dom­i­nated by sugar-pink roses. her widerang­ing ap­peal—the ex­is­tence of this her­itage-in­dus­try, teatowel and Sun­day-night tv-adap­ta­tion austen along­side less cloy­ing ver­sions—is it­self a facet of her ge­nius, proof of the en­dur­ing vivid­ness of her fic­tional world and the in­sight and per­ti­nac­ity of her ob­ser­va­tions on that world.

Read­ers and non-read­ers alike cher­ish their own austen. as one critic in­di­cated re­cently, she is the only Bri­tish nov­el­ist iden­ti­fi­able sim­ply from her Chris­tian name. her ap­pear­ance later this year on a new £10 note will con­sol­i­date her po­si­tion as the only fe­male Bri­tish writer in­stantly recog­nis­able from her por­trait.

austen’s ge­nius lies in the live­li­ness and cer­tainty of her char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and her ex­tra­or­di­nary mas­tery of irony, which colours, un­der­cuts and el­e­vates each ob­ser­va­tion of ev­ery novel. to read these books ab­sorbedly is to see the world afresh and yet within a frame­work that seems both in­evitable and inar­guable.

amer­i­can lit­er­ary critic harold Bloom claimed that ‘austen in­vented us’. In Britain her view of hu­man­ity and so­ci­ety has in­deli­bly shaped our vi­sion of our­selves. Like the works of Shake­speare and Dick­ens, austen’s writ­ing forms a strand of our cul­tural Dna—no mean achieve­ment, given the emo­tional cos­tive­ness and aver­sion to self-ab­sorp­tion typ­i­cal of our is­land race.

a re­viewer of anna Maria Ben­nett’s Anna; or, Me­moirs of a Welch Heiress: In­ter­spersed with Anec­dotes of a Nabob (1785) sug­gested ‘the in­ci­dents are scarcely within the verge of prob­a­bil­ity; and the lan­guage is gen­er­ally in­cor­rect’. Few crit­ics to­day would level ei­ther crit­i­cism at austen. her nov­els re­tain the abil­ity to con­sume their read­ers imag­i­na­tively. She was an ex­pert sto­ry­teller and an adroit plot­ter. these nov­els are read on beaches and buses as well as in the class­room.

this year’s an­niver­sary of austen’s death of­fers a nudge to re­visit her slen­der oeu­vre. the pel­lu­cid prose, so care­fully and ex­pertly mod­u­lated, re­minds us of the glo­ries of our lan­guage. her nov­els show us the won­ders of hu­man in­ter­ac­tion: its ag­o­nies and, ul­ti­mately, its ec­stasies.

Par­tic­i­pants in the Jane Austen Re­gency Cos­tumed Pa­rade in Bath

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