Austen in August Challenge – Why Do You Think Jane Austen Is Still So Popular?

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?

Portrait of Austen by her sister CassandraThe 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

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4 thoughts on “Austen in August Challenge – Why Do You Think Jane Austen Is Still So Popular?

  1. Oooh, yes – the BBC was such a pivotal moment, it pushed Austen into the middle of the intersection between canon and culture, and I think that’s been the key. The nostalgia element is strong for some, but not for me; I’m more interested in the continued resonance, as you point out. Human beings really haven’t changed all that much, and she was such a keen observer of the human condition at the time, she was able to lay out for us a detailed and nuanced account that is still recognisable today. Great write up, as always! ❤️

    1. It’s interesting to realise how keen she was that her work be contemporary – revising repeatedly to make sure any references were current. She definitely didn’t intend to be a nostalgic writer but time has passed and that’s what’s happened.
      Thank you for the lovely comment – always lovely to hear from you 🙂

  2. Yes, Austen has certainly crept into popular culture in a way only paralleled by a few other writers. Most people know the plot of the majority of her novels, even if they have never read them, which suggests that her fandom and popularity is much broader than the novels themselves. I wonder if it is partly to do with the comparrative anonimity of Austen herself. As much of the information we have about her life is probably based on conjecture, she has become something of a blank canvas for fans to attempt to fill in. I have come across her novels being described as early mystery fiction, but has Austen perhaps become the biggest puzzel of all?

    1. It’s really interesting how each of her novels are based around a mystery (or at least a twist) of some sort. I suspect that she might have been a crime writer if she were working today. I think that Austen is quite a blank canvas, I also think that because she was an ironic writer, people are able to interpret her work in any way that they see fit. The more I read of her, the less I think we actually know about her for certain.

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