Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, at the age of 41. We don’t know why she died so young, although theories include Addison’s disease, lymphoma, even accidental arsenic poisoning. We don’t know much about Austen’s love life, or her time in Bath, or just what she looked like. It’s not for lack of trying. A search for “Jane Austen” in the Penn Libraries’ catalog shows 1,314 books and 178,919 articles.
“I would say that of dead authors, she may very well be the most popular out there,” says English professor Michael Gamer. “Perhaps second to Shakespeare, but arguably with a greater fan base.”
Austen’s novels have always been popular, though she was not known during her lifetime. Due to the reputation of novels as a somewhat frivolous form of entertainment—which was only then beginning to change—and her father’s position as a clergyman, she published anonymously. Her first published book, Sense and Sensibility, listed its author simply as A Lady.
In literary circles, however, Austen was known. Her final publisher was John Murray, who also handled Sir Walter Scott, the most popular poet and novelist of his time. The librarian for Prince Regent, the future George the IV, approached her about dedicating Emma to His Royal Highness. After her death, Austen’s brother, Henry, published her novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey and revealed her as the author.
But her iconic status today is thanks to movies and TV, says Gamer. Until the mid-1990s, only one major film had been made based on her works: 1940’s Pride and Prejudice, starring Laurence Olivier. The screenplay was by Aldous Huxley, and the film was largely a bid to get Americans interested in helping Great Britain in its war with the Axis powers.
Then in 1995 and ’96, five major Austen adaptations hit at once: Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Nick Dear’s Persuasion, the BBC Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, and Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. “Their success put Austen into another orbit,” says Gamer. “They’ve allowed us to visualize the culture, see the characters come to life, and hear their voices.”
Why then? “I'd say it really was just planets lining up—pure synergy, pure luck, perhaps the right author for the post-Bush era,” says Gamer. “There is something about her ability to show smart women spitting tacks at the folly and entitlement of men that, especially today, feels modern.”
There’s also escapism. Gamer says that even Austen’s most desperate characters are upper-class or nearly so, giving them a kind of safety. “So there is a kind of uniformity—or bleakness, depending on your politics—in the world presented.”
In his contemporary review of Emma, Walter Scott highlighted Austen’s affection for daily life: her willingness to write about everyday people (albeit of a certain class) doing everyday things: reading, eating, shopping. Her focus on day-to-day life demonstrated the literary value of the domestic.
Beyond that, Gamer says, “I know of no other writer of this time whose characters spend so much energy thinking about missed opportunities: what might happen, what could have happened, what should have happened.” Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film of Mansfield Park includes this aspect at its end, when we hear the ultimate fates of the characters, and each segment ends with the line, “It could have all ended differently, I suppose … but it didn’t.” That wistful sentiment is typical of Austen’s characters. She created rich, internal lives for them that remain relevant and relatable.
Professor Gamer recommends these books on Jane Austen and her writing:
• Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel by Claudia Johnson – “The best book with which to begin.”
• Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin – “Short and smart.”
• The Making of Jane Austen by Devaney Looser – “To understand how Austen became Austen.”
• Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity by Janine Barchas – “Good on the way Regency life is shown in her writing”
• The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne – “Brilliant on Austen’s fondness for material things.”
• The Historical Austen by William Galperin – “The best on her use of free indirect discourse and her relation to other novelists.”
• Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History by Jill Heydt-Stevenson – “To understand her fondness for the coarse and indecorous.”