Two centuries after her death, Austen-mania shows no sign of letting up. Almost more than any other writer, she has transcended her actual writing. She is more than the sum of her words. Austen is a brand. Austen is an icon. In the popular imagination, she is probably only rivalled by Shakespeare and to a certain extent, Dickens. Looking at the situation objectively, this seems strange. She had only six major works. Other than these and some other pieces of juvenilia, she left little behind her. The vast majority of her letters were destroyed. Her opinions were kept private and her work has been seen as largely apolitical. She has often been scorned for failing to acknowledge world events in her novels and has often been dismissed as dealing with only domestic drama. Why then is she still so popular? Why do people still flock to Austen?
The answer to this question really depends on the kind of fan you are. For many people, the answer is that Austen sparks nostalgia. The costumes, the manners, the balls. Living in a world governed by such strict social rules has its appeal in our own world of 24-hour communication and diminished inhibitions. This is interesting since Austen wrote without consciously evoking her time period and certainly without any attempt to celebrate her own era. To her, she was writing in her own present, often challenging the status quo. But the modern reader does not see that. They only see the bonnets.
It helps too that Austen was such a fiercely observant writer. When I shared my choice of favourite Austen character, Mrs Jennings from Sense and Sensibility, it transpired that I am not the only person to have encountered a Mrs Jennings-type in my own life. We may be two hundred years on but people haven’t really changed that much. You still get the giddy Lydias not thinking of the consequences, the arrogant entitled Lady Catherines who always want it their own way, the embarrassing mothers just like Mrs Bennet. We recognise these people and their behaviour and embrace the idea that although we are separated by time, we can still feel a connection and find things in common.
Yet both of these aspects could be said to be true of a number of nineteenth century writers. Why then has Austen eclipsed them all? I would say that a number of factors have come into play in her favour. First of all, she wrote only six novels so it is relatively easy to read her entire body of work. I was very intrigued by Kathleen Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project which suggested a world where Jane Austen lived to write seventeen books but then also slid down to the second rung of celebrated writers, more akin to Anthony Trollope. With only six, there is more of a recognisable Austen ‘brand’.
If I were to take a straw poll of friends about their opinions on Austen, I think that the ‘wet shirt’ scene would also come up fairly frequently. The BBC 1995 production managed to become an iconic cultural touchstone and really boosted Austen’s profile within the popular imagination. From there, it seemed that it was possible to be a fan without bothering with Austen’s pesky novels. I have been stunned (and, I’ll admit, slightly saddened) to discover lists of books for people who like Austen but find her books ‘too heavy’. There have also been whole hosts of modernised retellings, from Clueless to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to Scents and Sensibility (The Book Rat’s hilarious takedown of the latter can be found here). 1995 lit a fire and from there Austen-mania reached a fever pitch which has never really died down.
I would suggest though that there is another, simpler reason why Austen is popular. To use an analogy, while at university I had to take a module on Shakespeare and Early English Citizen Comedy. The module I had actually wanted to do was sadly cancelled that term. I remember how the plays we studied which predated Shakespeare were fairly so-so. The plays we studied which came after him were also so-so. Whatever was going on in the Shakespeare writer team (I’ve studied Shakespeare a few times, I don’t think he was a lone wolf), it worked. Shakespeare plays have stood the test of time for a reason. Similarly, I also had to study the Development of the Novel at university. From Pamela onwards, the novel’s form matured and took on greater naturalism. But I would not pick up The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker or even Tom Jones for light entertainment, whereas I would with Austen. She directed her characters with precision and acuity and in a way that meant we barely even noticed her presence. Having studied how the novel developed, it definitely changed in her hands. The main reason why Austen remains popular is because her writing is just good.
For the rest of my Austen in August Fan Challenge – see here