Legends & Legacies View More

Jane Austen in the Modern World

Published: 7/18/2014
Content Image

Jane Austen (Getty Images / Stock Montage)

Jane Austen was not revered as an author during her lifetime. Her most popular works – including Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Emma – were published anonymously. After she died 18 July 1817 at age 42, only then did her family reveal she was the writer of these critically acclaimed novels.

Now nearly 200 years after her death, Austen is more popular than ever, considered by many Britons to be one of the country's greatest writers. Legacy.com looks at 10 ways that Austen's work continues to play a role in the modern world.

1. The Patron Saint of Chick Lit. During her time, Austen's works were admired as biting bits of social commentary. In more recent years, some readers group her works in with romance novels. "The Patron Saint of Chick Lit" is how the Orlando Sentinel newspaper referred to Austen recently.

2. Source of inspiration. Austen's works have inspired other works of fiction, including Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, which even has a character named Darcy after one of Austen's complicated heroes. Her stories have also inspired movies, including the 1995 comedy Clueless, which took inspiration from Emma. Even Bollywood has jumped aboard with 2004's Bride and Prejudice.

3. A Jane Austen moment. In 2004 People magazine declared that we were living in a "Jane Austen moment." A few of the Austen-inspired books published within two years of that assessment: Searching for Jane Austen by Emily Auerbach, The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler and Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll. More recent fiction based on Austen has little to do with romance or social commentary. These include P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley and Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

4. Note-worthy controversy. In 2013 the Bank of England revealed its plan to put Austen's image on a 10-pound note beginning in 2017. The decision was largely praised, but there was dissent. As journalism professor Katie Roiphe noted at slate.com in "The Morons Who are Very, Very Angry That Jane Austen Is on the 10-Pound-Note," those anti-Austen partisans took to the Internet to denounce the decision. They referred to Austen as "a bitchy marriage broker who never married" and "the sneering chronicler of petty squabbles and small lives." Even Austen's face was analyzed, attacked for having "great gloopy eyes" and a "mean mouth."

Those who supported the bill, including a female member of Parliament and a woman activist-journalist, received threats that they'd be pistol-whipped or their homes would be bombed. "The minor and banal nature of the bank note controversy is our latest sign that anything at all can trigger the terrifying, free-floating rage adrift on the Internet. If Jane Austen makes people mad, one has to wonder, what doesn't make people mad?" Roiphe asked.

5. Janeites. The 2013 book-turned-movie Austenland focuses on "Janeites," a subculture of Austen fans. The term entered the lexicon in 1894 when literary critic George Saintsbury used it in the introduction to a new edition of Pride and Prejudice. Rudyard Kipling later used "The Janeites" as the title of a short story about World War I soldiers who were secretly Austen fans.

6. Austen in America. A 2013 BBC magazine article by Jon Kelly marvels at America's obsession with Austen, with the Jane Austen Society of North America boasting 4,500 members and more than 60 branches. "With their conventions, Regency costumes and self-written 'sequels' to their heroine's novels, Austen's most dedicated adherents display a fervency easily rivaling that of the subcultures around Star Trek or Harry Potter," he wrote.

7. Cousin Kate. In 2011 the genealogy website ancestry.com found that Austen and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge were 11th cousins, six times removed. They are linked through Henry Percy, the second Earl of Northumberland, who was born in 1392. "Finding this connection between the Duchess of Cambridge and Jane Austen is very exciting since, in many ways, Catherine is the modern Jane Austen heroine: a middle-class girl marrying the future King of England," lead historian Anastasia Harman told People magazine.

8. Unfinished business. Also in 2011 a fragment of Austen's hand-written 1804 manuscript for the never-finished novel The Watsons sold for nearly 1 million British pounds to the Bodleian library at Oxford University. The final price was three times greater than the amount originally estimated. The plot of The Watsons features the daughters of a sick clergyman who dies and leaves them penniless. "Shafts of Austen's wit can be discerned through crossings out and amendments," noted the Guardian, "including 'Female economy will do a great deal, my lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.'"

9. Scathing commentary and it's quotable. Earlier this year UK television's Drama channel asked 2,000 people to name the best literary put-downs in history. While no Austen quotes made the top 3 – the winner was Margaret Mitchell's Rhett Butler and "My dear, I don't give a damn" from Gone with the Wind – two biting comments from Pride and Prejudice made the top 10: Mr. Darcy's, "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me" and Elizabeth Bennet's "You are the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."

10. Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. In April, Austen descendent Caroline Knight announced the formation of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to fund education projects around the world. Knight is Austen's fifth grand-niece. She was born on the estate where Austen, her mother, and sister once shared a cottage and "grew up surrounded by mementos of 'Great Aunt Jane' – sitting down at the same dining table where Austen and her brother took their meals, and using the same Wedgwood dinner service," Britain's The Telegraph newspaper noted.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

comments powered by Disqus
Our Picks