Greg Wise and Kate Winslet in the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility. Photograph: Allstar
A literary historian argues that the author’s genius lies in the way she holds up a mirror to each generation
Her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, came out 200 years ago, but it could have been yesterday for Jane Austen’s legions of fans.
At this year’s annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, about 800 pilgrims travelled to Fort Worth, Texas, to worship the fiction. A cavalcade of readers, mainly women, mostly in full Regency costume, congregated for a joyous weekend of workshops and lectures, receptions and dinners, a costume parade (past ersatz saloons and Tex-Mex restaurants), crowned by a Regency ball. The bonnets carried all before them.
Top billing went to the screenwriter Andrew Davies, whose testosterone-fuelled Pride and Prejudice for BBC1 rebooted the franchise in 1995.
The buildup to his keynote lecture, Mr Darcy’s Wet Shirt and Other Embarrassments, was tremendous. Four cinema screens beamed a montage of climactic moments from his Austen back catalogue to the full-throttle accompaniment of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma. Davies, a genial seventysomething, looked stunned by the fervour of his reception. “He’s our rock god!” panted one fan. “Do you think he knows what he’s done for us?” gasped another.
The Jane Austen brand has global reach. There are booming Austen societies in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina. Austen’s novels have been re-imagined as California high school romcoms, Bollywood extravaganzas and most recently as a comedy zombie shocker. In Britain, Pride and Prejudice is one of the nation’s favourite novels (second only to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the BBC’s Big Read of 2004).
Teenage readers and moviegoers might think that Austen has always been adored.
In fact, although she made some money in her lifetime, her tombstone does not mention her novels. By the 1820s, with the books out of print and remaindered, it looked as if her short-lived reputation had died with her. The Victorians found her passionless and parochial. “Why do you like Jane Austen so very much?” Charlotte Brontë remonstrated with the critic George Henry Lewes. “Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place… I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.”
Only from the 1870s did Austen’s critical fortunes revive, courtesy of a saccharine biography by her dull nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, and the twee chocolate-box illustrations of the Macmillan edition of her novels. But it was a pyrrhic victory. Austen was marketed as a universal Aunt Jane in a perfect Hampshire cottage – sweet, cosy, ladylike, amateur and unthreatening. Anthony Trollope found Austen’s novels “full of excellent teaching, and free from any word or idea that can pollute… Throughout all her works, and they are not many, a sweet lesson of homely household virtue is ever being taught.”
It was not until the 20th century that Austen would be celebrated for biting social criticism and for, in the words of the literary critic and psychologist DW Harding in 1940, “regulated hatred”. In 1948, the cantankerous but influential scholar FR Leavis crowned Austen mother of his great tradition of the English novel. By the 1970s, Austen had emerged as the subversive heroine of feminist literary studies.
She is rare among writers in enjoying highbrow, middle-brow and mass appeal. Austen’s long posthumous reign on the small screen – inaugurated with a television play of Emma in 1948 – ensured that drawing room romance defined Sunday teatime for the postwar generations. It is a rare adult who has not glimpsed a gent in buckskin taking an arch beauty in muslin for a stately minuet beneath a chandelier.
Why should Austen survive when so many of her bestselling contemporaries have faded into obscurity? Who reads Susan Ferrier, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Porter and Lady Morgan today, or even Walter Scott? For Austen’s most ardent fans, her novels capture something universal about the human condition that resonates as easily in 21st-century Texas as in the polite drawing rooms of Regency England.
As a historian, however, I don’t hold with the idea that everyone in the past experienced exactly the same emotions as readers of the Observer, just in frillier clothes. And anyway, if her fictional world is so timeless, why has it gone in and out of fashion?
Miss Elizabeth Bennet is easy for moderns to admire, with her independence, wit, zest and fine eyes. She belongs to that roster of rebellious, often tomboyish, heroines with whom clever girls have recently identified – from Jane Eyre and Margaret Hale (of North and South) to Maggie Tulliver (The Mill on the Floss) and even Jo March (Little Women) and my favourite, Anne Shirley of Green Gables.
Lizzie Bennet has an irreverent, protofeminist sparkle that makes her character easy for progressive audiences to enjoy. One can imagine her blazing her own way on any university campus today.
However, clever Miss Bennet was not an automatic crowd-pleaser on her first outings. One of Austen’s earliest Victorian fans, Mary Russell Mitford, was appalled by “the entire want of taste which could produce so pert, so worldly a heroine as the beloved of such a man as Darcy”.
But what of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price? She is a conduct-book evangelical, “extremely timid and shy, shrinking from notice”, a frail girl who grows faint on a scorching afternoon cutting roses. The reticent, pious, even priggish character was too alien, possibly repellant, for the writer and director of the 1999 film version, Patricia Rozema, who drew on Austen’s letters to fabricate another creature altogether. “I am a wild beast!” declared this updated Fanny, swishing her riding crop.
How to get contemporary TV audiences to like a heroine so unlike the spritely Elizabeth Bennet obviously exercised ITV in its adaptation of Mansfield Park in 2007. Hence it cast Billie Piper as Fanny, hot from her success in Dr Who and en route to Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Not so priggish then.
Modern audiences also puzzle over Edmund Bertram’s rejection of the mesmerising girl he loves (the naughty Miss Crawford) because she countenances adultery in his sister. Propriety dates. The novelist Howard Jacobson, who roguishly calls himself “the Jewish Jane Austen”, certainly found it a struggle teaching Mansfield Park in 1960s Australia, worrying that decorum was just too hard a sell. In the end, Fanny’s patient love is vindicated and she marries Edmund, the clergyman. But as John Mullan, professor of English at University College London has admitted, “this is the one novel where the man the heroine loves does not quite convincingly love her back”; niggling for those of us who like a wholehearted happy ending.
We moderns take what we find congenial in Austen and often ignore the rest. Each generation have looked for their own reflection in
the novels, admiring and rejecting, cutting and pasting as fashion demands.
Most recently, Austen has been crowned the doyenne of romantic comedy, her six novels repackaged as picturesque chick lit.
Deidre Lynch, who lectures in English at the University of Toronto, observes: “One curious thing is that 100 years ago Austen was read mostly by men. Now it’s a woman’s thing because of the way the films have been marketed.”
For many men, Austen is the archetypal women’s author – her canvas too domestic, her domain too girly, her men too starchy and conformist, her settings too chintzy and her plots too prim to excite the average male reader. But this conviction is very recent. Harold Macmillan spent many Downing Street hours lost in Austen and Trollope; Winston Churchill claimed Austen and antibiotics helped him win the war; Rudyard Kipling gave solace to his family after the death of his son in the first world war by reading Austen aloud in the desolate evenings.
Why should a focus on female dilemmas be any less universal than an obsession with male problems? As an intelligence officer at the Western Front, Reginald Farrer recorded in 1917: “Talk of her ‘limitations’ is vain, it must never be thought that limitation of scene implies limitation of human emotion.”
Many different Jane Austens have been celebrated since 1811 – sweet Aunt Jane in her rose-wreathed cottage, sardonic critic, master stylist, mother of the novel, feminist rebel and queen of romantic comedy. I think the key to her adaptability is her restraint. Austen leaves room for the reader’s intelligence and fantasies, which has the uncanny effect of allowing each new generation to see themselves reflected back from her pages. And in another 200 years, I am sure readers still will.
Amanda Vickery is professor of early modern history at Queen Mary, University of London. Her film, The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen, will be screened on Friday, BBC2, 9pm