- story by Carole McKellar
Jane Austen had only four novels published in her short life, with two more released after her death in 1817 at the age of 41. Six novels is a small body of work for someone of her literary stature. Her most famous book is arguably “Pride and Prejudice,” but all six are immensely popular, and Amazon ranks Austen number seven in popularity of writers of classic literature.
What accounts for the continued popularity of Jane Austen? Most people know of her primarily because of movies based on her novels. Reading Austen’s novels can be a challenge because the social norms Austen depicts are very different from contemporary culture. The speech is formal, and we’re unaccustomed to the slow pacing of the plots.
The Austen Project released four novels that are contemporary retellings of Austen novels. Respected novelists Joanna Trollope, Alexander McCall Smith, and Val McDermid retold “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma,” and “Northanger Abbey.” The Austen Project also recently released “Eligible,” based on “Pride and Prejudice” and written by Curtis Sittenfeld, author of well-received novels “American Wife” and “Sisterland.”
When Austen’s books were first published, novels were popular but not taken seriously as a literary genre, and women writers frequently used pseudonyms because writing was not considered respectable for women. Jane Austen’s novels were all published anonymously.
Her first novel, “Sense and Sensibility,” was simply identified as authored “By a Lady.” Subsequent novels were identified as written “by the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility.’” Charlotte Bronte used the name Currer Bell when “Jane Eyre” was published in 1847. “Wuthering Heights,” written by her sister Emily, was published under the name Ellis Bell. The Brontes used their own initials and the same fictitious surname.
English law from the period did not permit married women to own property, but as a single woman Austen was able to manage her own finances. Her novels deal with women’s dependence on marriage for security and social standing, but apparently Jane preferred independence rather than marriage to a man she didn’t love.
I am currently reading “Emma” in honor of the 200th anniversary of its publication. Celebrations by Austen enthusiasts are taking place throughout the country to commemorate the event. I chose the Penguin Classics Deluxe 200th-Anniversary Annotated Edition, which has an introduction by Juliette Wells, noted Austen scholar. She puts the book in historical context, but her “Tips for Reading Emma” were invaluable to me.
Ms. Wells recommends reading only one chapter at a time, advice that permits me to savor the repartee between Emma and Mr. Knightly. Ms. Wells further recommends reading portions of the dialogue aloud, which emphasizes that Miss Bates’ speeches are quite humorous rather than tiresome. Reading a book in small bites is especially rewarding with Jane Austen. The beauty and wit of her dialogue is not lost.
Fans of Jane Austen are myriad and diverse. The most avid are called “Janeites.” Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story titled “The Janeites” about a group of World War I soldiers who were fans of Jane Austen, albeit in secret.
I am a longtime fan of dramatizations of Austen’s work, but only recently read her novels. Carolyn Brown, about whom I wrote in March 2015, is the president of the Mississippi Chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). Dr. Brown has written biographies of Eudora Welty and Margaret Walker Alexander, and I attended a seminar she and Dr. Susan Ford led at Millsaps College on the novel “Mansfield Park.” The book and the discussion were pleasurable and enriching experiences.
If you appreciate well-developed characters engaged in witty dialogue, I recommend the novels of Jane Austen. Follow the experts’ advice and read slowly, savoring the experience. I predict that you will understand what made Austen so popular for the past 200 years. Which of today’s novels will have such a following in the year 2216?
The Hancock County Library is planning a tea and book discussion of “Emma” followed by a showing of the movie adaptation staring Gwyneth Paltrow. Check the Fourth Ward Cleaver calendar for dates and details.