200 Years of Popularity
Last Tuesday (18th July 2017) marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. In that time, she’s become a beloved figure of English literature, known not only for the beautiful romance that occurs between the pages, but for her sparkling wit and tongue-in-cheek commentary on Regency society. Her characters have become synonymous with romance and what it means to be romantic in all its forms – whether you prefer Mr Darcy, Captain Wenthworth, Mr Knightly, or Mr Tilney is still hotly debated amongst Janeites the world over. Indeed, there are no signs whatsoever of the passion for Austen’s novels abating, despite the 200 year gap since her last book was published.
So what is it that makes Jane Austen so fascinating to people, and why does she continue to be so popular?
In my opinion, it has less to do with Mr Darcy and his fellow male characters, and more to do with Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, Elinor Dashwood and Catherine Moreland (I’ll leave out Emma Woodhouse and Fanny Price here, because they’re really two of the most annoying female protagonists ever created. More on that later). Jane Austen’s female characters truly shine on the page – you feel yourself stepping into their shoes, feeling what they feel, and becoming a part of the story in a way that was very unique at the time. They aren’t just characters – they feel like real women, who very well might have existed in Regency England, with real problems faced by women of their class at that time. How glorious for women to suddenly have starring roles in their own lives, rather than playing bit parts in the lives of men. Jane Austen showed that women are capable of more than marrying well and providing children – her characters take action and have have intellectual conversations about social conventions and local politics, as well as expressing strong opinions on issues of the day like slavery. In short, Jane Austen’s women are what ensures her enduring popularity.
Austen and Me
I came late to the Austen party. Most people seem to discover her in their early teens. I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was nearly 19 and just finishing my first year of uni. The 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly and Matthew McFaddyn was due for release and I was curious. Once I grew used to the language I was hooked – Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey quickly followed. They remain among my favourite books today, and among my favourite movies and TV series. They’ve even been responsible for spawning some of my favourite books and movies – Bridget Jones’ Diary is a hilarious re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice, and Austenland plays with the idea of super fans who can’t get enough of Jane Austen’s characters. I love that J J Field (who played Henry Tilney in the ITV adaption of Northanger Abbey) plays a Darcy-like character in the film. It’s such wonderful escapism, and I think that is definitely a part of Jane Austen’s charm in the 21st century.
Just like any Austen fan, I have my obvious favourites. Emma and Mansfield Park are definitely not that. Emma as a character reads very awkwardly, almost cringeworthy – she comes across as grating, like fingernails on a blackboard, using her wit and her privilege to cower Harriet Smith into submitting to the ‘fact’ that Emma knows better. After a series of mishaps where her actions hurt the people around her, she learns her lesson in the end, but too late to save her for me. I never understood what Mr Knightly saw in her.
In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price gets the opposite treatment. She is sent away to live with wealthy relatives as a young child, who never let her forget her origins. She is cowered into submission by people who believe that their wealth somehow means they know better, and she never really stands up for herself. I have never found novels where the characters in the wrong escape any kind of consequence for their actions satisfying; Mansfield Park is definitely one of those. Edmund, the cousin Fanny grows up with and ends up falling for, is completely unsatisfying as a hero as well. He has no idea what he wants or who he is, and takes his cues from his incredibly flawed older brother and father. He shows no spine when he fails to stand up for himself or his cousin, and a lack of judgement in character when he falls for Mary Crawford. Ultimately, it feels like poor Fanny would have been much better off looking outside the family for affection; and definitely with someone who has strength of character and mind.
That novels written over 200 years ago can still inspire so much emotion and debate would surely be immensely satisfying to the author. I wonder what she’d make of all the Regency-themed balls she’s inspired, or the wonderful Jane Austen Centre in Bath?