Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Jane Austen; The Legacy of a Lady

The Legacy of A Lady

'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife' Probably the most famous opening line in literature. The author was of course Jane Austen who died on July 18th 1817, so this year marks the two hundredth anniversary of her death. There are countless events being organised across the world to celebrate and remember a writer who is undoubtedly one of the most popular novelists of all time, when it comes to the classics Jane Austen is one of the few who is still regularly read for enjoyment and her stories have helped to create a whole industry; Austen-mania is big business.

I am the first to admit that I am a devoted Janeite and just recently attended a fantastic afternoon organised by Jane Austen Ireland in the splendid Georgian room at the Teacher's Club in Dublin. The event featured the performance of Regency music and singing including some of Jane Austen's own favourite pieces as well as readings from her work, an introduction to regency fashions and regency dancing. It was great fun and a fantastic tribute to the great lady.

The stories and indeed the characters that Jane Austen created are now famous beyond the books; in fact there are many who have never read a Jane Austen novel or sat down to watch an adaptation who nonetheless have an awareness of Mr Darcy of Pemberley or the Bennet sisters of Longbourn. Colin Firth will forever be Mr Darcy for a whole generation of Janeites who were treated to a wealth of adaptations during the mid nineties. 1995 was a bumper year with BBC adaptations of both Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion and the Hollywood treatment for Sense & Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet.

The nineteen nineties may have seen Austen mania take over our televisions but interest in her stories had been building long before; Pride & Prejudice must be one of the most adapted novels of all time. There was a fantastic black and white film version starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier which appeared in 1940 and there were two TV mini-series in the nineteen fifties as well as countless stage versions. The BBC adapted all the novels into mini-series during the seventies and early eighties. However Jane Austen's stories were notably absent from our screens during the late eighties and early nineties so that a younger generation discovered her anew when the stories were re-imagined from the mid nineties. It was at this point that the popularity of Jane Austen and her stories really took off. These later adaptations played on the broad appeal of Austen's humour and there was an emphasis on detail so that costumes, hair and background were less gawdy and more authentic than the previous adaptations with their polyester gowns and wobbly sets.

I first discovered Jane Austen at school in the early nineties and went on to study her again during my English degree and I loved her narrative style, her wit and the glorious silliness of many of her characters. So having read all of the novels, I was an avid viewer of everything Austen. The late nineties and early noughties saw a huge growth in works; films, books and other formats that were inspired by Austen books rather than direct adaptations, these include the 1995 movie Clueless which is an updated version of Emma set in a Los Angeles high school. Two years later the first of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones books appeared featuring Mark Darcy. These books have gone on to become a huge film franchise in which Colin Firth once again features as Darcy. The following decade saw a number of popular Bollywood versions of the stories; I Have Found It (2000), Bride & Prejudice (2004) and Aisha (2010). Jane Austen is hugely popular in Asia as the recurring themes of arranged marriages, dowries, and inheritance laws which favour sons over daughters are part of everyday life for many in India and Pakistan making the stories both relevant and easy to adapt.

This decade also saw the beginning of the boom in Jane Austen fan fiction both online and in published form. Sequels to Austen's novels and works inspired by her plots or her characters are nothing new Emma Tennant and Joan Aiken both wrote “Austen” novels in the nineteen eighties and nineties and she was a formative influence on popular historical fiction authors throughout the Twentieth century in particular Georgette Heyer and those who imitated her. But after 2000 there was a flood of books based in Austen's world and featuring her characters that range from tales of class and social commentary such as Jo Baker's Longbourn (2013) which retells Pride & Prejudice through the servants eyes to murder mystery in P.D. James Death Comes to Pemberley (2011) to comedy horror with Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) there are even spin offs which are inspired by the Jane Austen fandom itself Austenland which features an American fan visiting an Austen theme park hit the bestseller lists in 2007 and cinema screens in 2013 and the gloriously funny Lost in Autsen made by ITV in 2008 has a modern London girl do a life swap with Elizabeth Bennet. There are also a growing number of websites and blogs were people can share their own fictional accounts of their favourite Jane Austen characters.

Jane Austen's critical reputation has grown and grown and there have been a number of biographies and re-examinations of her work which have not only established her firmly within the cannon of English Literature but dismissed any earlier notions of cosiness or a conservative or limited world view. These include Jane Austen The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly (2016) The Making of Jane by Devoney Looser (2017) and Paula Byrne's The Genius of Jane Austen (2017). Our obsession with Jane's own story has also been growing with popular films such as Becoming Jane (2007) based on an earlier book which posited the idea of a doomed love affair between Jane and her neighbour's nephew Tom Lefroy both the film and the book seemed to suggest that Lefroy was the inspiration behind Darcy and while that idea was popular with Janeites it was less so with the critics.

Nonethless the productions, books, films, podcasts and theories continue to appear. What is it that draws us to Jane Austen and her world? A nostalgia for a different era certainly, a life of balls and music, dresses and dancing, but I think what really makes us long to be part of that world is the characters. Jane Austen created people that are recognisable and real we can spot ourselves and others amongst her creations and we can laugh at their foibles as she did. Nowadays we can buy Jane Austen mugs and tea towels, take a Jane Austen tour or re-enact a regency dance but I believe Jane Austen's real and lasting legacy is in those carefully drawn characters and her cutting remarks. I would urge anyone who has only ever seen adaptations or updated versions to pick up her books, go back to the source and see what a talented and funny writer she was.

This article originally appeared on the Books Ireland Blog 

Lisa Redmond is a writer and reviewer. She blogs about books, writing and women in history at lisareadsbooks.blogspot.com.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Katherine, so many people only know the stories through film and tv but the books are just wonderful. I adore her writing.