Jane Austen: A New Look at a Perennial Favorite

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Jane Austen: A New Look at a Perennial Favorite


Stern, Fred, The World and I


Is it surprising that just now--some 200 years after her first novel--we find ourselves experiencing another unprecedented celebration of the works of the 19th century English novelist Jane Austen?

Why is it that Canada just completed a marathon of Jane films? That the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) is showing six films covering the complete Jane Austen oeuvre? The PBS films feature such favorite performers as Sally Hawkins, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Ehle, Billy Piper, Kate Beckinsale and Hattie Monahan; and there will also be a special feature examining various aspects of Jane's life entitled Miss Austen Regrets. In the 2007 film Becoming Jane starring actress Ann Hathaway, Jane's early life was explored, with a story line woven around a largely unproven relationship with a young man, Thomas Langlois LeFroy. LeFroy was later to become the Chief Justice of Ireland. And then there was the Jane Austen Book Club, a movie dealing with the relationship of six members of a book club.

Should we wonder why these follow a succession of other Jane media? It started in 1940 with the ageless film classic Pride and Prejudice starring Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson. The two lent the sparring between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy unforgettable charm and elegance--quite a contrast with Clueless, the 1995 adaptation of Austen's novel Emma. Set in contemporary California, the highly successful update starred Alicia Silverstone, the clueless teenager and her college age stepbrother, Paul Rudd.

What is it about Jane Austen that still prompts her followers to join fan clubs, including the 30,000-member Jane Austen Society? "Janeites," the affectionate name given to the Society members, celebrated Jane's 232nd birthday on December 16, 2007. Their heroine, who lived only 42 years, appeals to both traditionalists and feminists, to both men and women.

The ongoing Austen appeal

Read a Jane Austen novel, and the qualities that make for such enduring popularity, become clear. Her characters and the situations in which they find themselves, are utterly believable even after an interval of two hundred years. Moreover, in today's hectic world, many people yearn for the serenity of her Hampshire village, the flow of everyday life consisting of long walks in an unpolluted countryside, visiting

one's neighbors and engaging in pleasant conversations--in other words, a simpler time, but one with its own set of complexities, as you will see.

In Jane Austen's world, routines were broken by dances and cotillions in the residences of the minor aristocracy and wealthy landowners. Passions were never deeply roused, as in the novels of the Bronte sisters, but flowed pleasantly through the glades of unblemished life. It's a soothing respite from today's literature which often assaults us by its violence, the consequences of rash actions, the overpowering desire for what we judge to be happiness at all costs. Our jazzed up world cries for Jane Austen's repose.

Janeites cherish every aspect of her milieu. They are enamored of the charmed Hampshire settings of her novels, her family home, the gardens and mansions of the minor aristocracy. It is in these locales that the dances and cotillions took place which provided the high points of the season for the eligible daughters of the provincial gentry. The dances and other socializing activities led to the great romances, which were the prime themes of Jane Austen's novels.

A troubled milieu

Hold-on a minute! All is not as it seems in Jane Austen's England.

Austen's characters, deeply immersed in family or personal matters, were safely isolated from the larger world. We are only vaguely aware of the troubled Regency Period (1811-1820), Jane Austen's era and the time during which her novels were set. King George III was unfit to rule, and his son the future George IV became the Prince Regent. We read nothing of the Napoleonic wars except for the stationing of troops in the English provinces.

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Jane Austen: A New Look at a Perennial Favorite
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