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«Great writers, living or dead, such as Austen, get reinterpreted in ways beyond their control. » Sherlock Holmes
A love of Jane Austen is a habit the world just can’t seem to kick.
Today marks the 200th anniversary of famed author (and hopeless romantic) Jane Austen’s death. The author continues to bring England’s Regency period to life (and romanticize it) to her countless fans. In a sign of her legacy’s tremendous influence, the Bank of England debuted a 10 pound note with her face on it this week.
But to call Austen lovers simply “fans” is underselling their devotion. Fanatics, perhaps, is more accurate. They join clubs for Austen lovers in droves — the Jane Austen Society of North America has over 5,000 members and hosts an annual conference. (That’s just one — there’s societies everywhere from New Zealand to Brazil.) They make pilgrimages to the house she grew up in and the places she spent her life (the city of Bath, in particular, is a hot spot, with its Jane Austen museum) as well as the various homes used in screen adaptations of her books.
There’s enough demand for Austen-inspired film and television that there’s been at least 26 film, television and theater adaptations of Pride & Prejudice alone since 1938, and several others of each of her remaining five novels (and even a few of her novella, Lady Susan, which Austen herself never submitted for publication.) Works of Austen fan fiction, too, aren’t banished to the corners of the internet where only the most obsessive of readers can find them. Instead, these Austen-inspired authors nab book deals of their own.
It’s not just that Austen’s books have remained a presence. Texts far older and far less widely-read remain a part of English class curriculums, on book store shelves. But people aren’t shelling out thousands of dollars to go on Henry James-themed tours of England, or gathering at yearly conferences to discuss the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. And even beloved literary figures like Charlotte Brontë’s Heathcliff fail to inspire the same sort of worldwide adoration that Fitzwilliam Darcy does.
Austen inspires something bigger in her devotees (a club to which, I admit, I count myself.) And the question, really, is why? Why have Austen’s books become more than sheer novels, but cornerstones of culture and objects of obsession for thousands, if not millions of readers? The answer differs for each Austen lover, to be sure, but it’s all grounded in relatability.
While the customs and expectations of Regency era is so firmly a part of her stories, they’re practically a character of their own. There’s something about Austen’s stories — not unlike another famed Brit, William Shakespeare, a comparison that academics have been making since 1821 — that makes them applicable to any time period or scenario. In fact, her heroines, often quick-witted and bright, sometimes seem more at home in the modern era, a time when expectations for women are broader.
Case in point: It’s not hard to imagine the matchmaking, scheming Emma as a spoiled teenager in Beverly Hills in the mid-’90s (as she was in Clueless), or Elizabeth Bennet as an Indian girl bucking her family’s traditional conventions (in Bride & Prejudice). Though there are a few elements that feel dated today, like the Dashwood sisters’ desperation after the death of their father (now, of course, they could just get jobs instead of relying on the generosity of distant family members) but the foundation of each story remains relevant.
“The characters are just universal,” literature student and Austen obsessive Siobhan O’Brien told Australia’s ABC. “You can recognize them in the people around you.”
There’s no denying that women love Austen’s work the most dearly. And O’Brien’s quote explains that, too: They see themselves in them. Her heroines aren’t the most wealthy or the most attractive characters in the book. But still, they find love with kind men who deserve them — even if they may not seem it at first. A marriage like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy‘s is what you should aspire to, in the world of Austen, one that is based on love (but has practical benefits) versus one like Charlotte Lucas’ to Mr. Collins, a union formed out of desperation. Austen reminds people that the former is possible.
Of course, her plots wouldn’t matter much if it weren’t for the sharpness of Austen’s writing, which still sparkles today as it did 200 years ago. And like her plots, her words ring as true today as they did then. “There are people, who the more you do for them, the less they will do for themselves,” she wrote in Emma. Or “life seems but a quick procession of busy nothings,” from Mansfield Park.
But even with all this, Austen’s continued popularity is somewhat astounding when you consider how close her books came to extinction. Her first book, Sense and Sensibility, was published in 1811, and she died in 1817. And though she enjoyed success while she lived, it wasn’t really long enough to make her a household name in those immediate years. By 1820, her publisher destroyed the copies of her final two books, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both of which had not yet sold. Twelve years went by without any Austen work in print. Though they were put back into circulation (for good) in 1833, it was her nephew James Austen’s 1870 book, A Memoir of the Life of Jane Austen, that truly put her on the map.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that with every new generation of readers comes a new crop of Austenites. And though times change, fads fade and customs adapt, there will always be something about Austen’s characters that speaks to people, and keeps them hopefully for their own happy ending — and their own Mr. Darcy.