Her books were written more than 200 years ago, the language is formal, the pacing is slow. So what is it about Jane Austen's books that make her one of the most popular classic authors in the 21st century?
- story by Carole McKellar
In addition to movies and TV dramas based on her novels, many modern writers pay homage to Austen in their work: “Clueless” is a 1995 movie retelling of “Emma” modernized and based in Southern California; “The Jane Austen Book Club” was popular as both a book and a movie. The male lead in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” was Mr. Darcy, the central character in “Pride and Prejudice.”
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.
Jane Austen was the daughter of a clergyman who belonged to the gentry but was not wealthy. He had six sons and two daughters, Cassandra and Jane. Neither daughter married, though Jane had one marriage proposal that she at first accepted, but later turned down.
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.
Famous mystery writer P.D. James wrote an essay titled “Emma Considered as a Detective Story.” James points out that Austen leaves “clues” of plot surprises and characters’ moods.
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.