200 years later, Austen is still a sensation

Popular as ever: Austen’s works have been translated into over 40 languages.

Today marks 200 years since the death of Jane Austen. All over the world, “Janeites” will come together to worship the great novelist. Just what is behind her enduring appeal?

She lived only 41 years. She finished only six novels. She published anonymously, enjoying little fame during her lifetime.

But 200 years after her death, the name of Jane Austen is as familiar as that of Dickens or Shakespeare, and her characters — Emma, Mr Darcy — are as familiar as Oliver Twist or Lady Macbeth.

What explains Jane Austen’s popularity?

At first glance, she appears limited. Her books all share the same basic plot — a version of the Cinderella story. And they all concern one class of people: the landed gentry of England with which Austen was familiar.

Of all the characters in the books, one towers above them all: Austen herself. The author’s voice cannot be replicated on camera, and Austen’s tone is gently mocking, though never cruel. Her characters can be ridiculous, but they are not as cartoonish as in Dickens. She is the queen of dramatic irony.

Her novels are also morality tales. All end happily ever after, with the triumph of good over evil and the restoration of order and “tranquility”. People are eventually judged on substance over style. The thoughtful, kind, unpretentious heroines end up more content than the more showy, abrasive characters. Character faults, such as pride and prejudice, are overcome.

And while her books are often dismissed as old-fashioned, they are actually an endorsement of youth. Many older characters are deeply flawed, from the nice-but-hopeless Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice to the snobbish, lookist Sir Thomas Kellynch in Mansfield Park.

The young women, meanwhile, are notable for their incredible spirit despite the narrow prospects of their lives.

But perhaps the most important reason why Austen’s novels keep getting made into films and TV shows is that they are period pieces. Many people dream of the days when elaborate balls were the height of society and when people would “take a turn around the room”.

Does Austen deserve her immense ongoing popularity?

Persuasion

“Yes she does”, reply legions of Janeites. One of those is Taylor Houston, who believes that her work is made greater for the fact that she was “an ordinary woman living in an ordinary time”. Her stories, she says, are “timeless”, and her writing “seamless”. According to Houston, she simply “viewed the world clearly and took notice of all its details.”

But there remain many unpersuaded by Austen’s charms. Writing in The Telegraph, Brooke Magnanti says she finds “focussing one’s entire being on the decision of whether and whom to marry” hard to relate to. She also charges Austen with creating a world with “an essential lack of romance” where people get married for the sake of it. Few would like to live in such a world.

You Decide

  1. Do you like Jane Austen?
  2. Does it matter that her novels are all fairly similar?

Activities

  1. List the three words you most associate with Jane Austen. As a class, work out which words were the most common.
  2. Write a 500 word description of a scene from modern life in the style of Jane Austen.

Some People Say...

“Where an opinion is general, it is usually correct.”

Mary Crawford, from Mansfield Park

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That Tuesday marks exactly 200 years since Jane Austen died. She was just 41 and her cause of death is believed to be Addison’s disease. She is widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the English language. While she published anonymously during her lifetime, she gained worldwide recognition after her death. Her books have been translated into dozens of languages and the most famous, Pride and Prejudice, has sold 20 million copies around the world.
What do we not know?
Why exactly her novels are so loved. It could be because they are escapist, transporting the reader back to a simpler time. Or it could be the exact opposite reason — that her novels retain timeless truths irrespective of their setting.

Word Watch

She finished only six novels.
Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma were all published in her lifetime. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously, while Austen began another, eventually titled Sanditon, but died before its completion.
Popularity
The Bank of England has confirmed that Austen will appear on the new polymer £10 note, to be released in September 2017.
Cinderella story
All of Austen’s books feature a heroine (in Sense and Sensibility’s case two heroines) who end the novel getting married to a wealthy man.
Landed gentry
A largely historical British social class consisting of land owners who could live entirely from rental income. It was distinct from, and socially “below”, the aristocracy or the peerage, although in fact some of the landed gentry were as wealthy as some peers.
Take a turn around the room
This means simply going for a walk — but just around the drawing room.