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Last Updated: Friday, 9 March 2007, 11:34 GMT
Jane Austen - why the fuss?
Anne Hathaway

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

With newspapers giving away her novels, Pride and Prejudice being voted the nation's top book and a new biopic in the cinemas, Jane Austen is riding the crest of a revival. But for those who've never picked up one of her books, what's the big deal?

For many women Jane Austen's appeal is encapsulated in two words: Mr Darcy.

It might not have been faithful to the book, but when Colin Firth, as Fitzwilliam Darcy, strode out of a lake in a wet shirt and breeches, in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, you could hear half the population applauding artistic licence.

After that now infamous scene, women across the land - single or not - said goodbye to waiting for their Prince Charming to come along and sweep them off their feet. They wanted a Mr Darcy.

Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth
Recruiting Austen fans by the truck load - Colin Firth, right
It seems we just can't get enough of Austen. On Friday a film about her life - Becoming Jane - opens nationwide. Four adaptations of her novels are due on ITV this year alone and the man who gave us "that" Darcy moment - writer Andrew Davies - is adapting Sense and Sensibility for the BBC.

Last week Pride and Prejudice topped a poll of the books "we cannot live without" and Penguin is preparing to re-issue all of Austen's novels to meet the predicted rush for copies after Becoming Jane's release.

But not everyone is a fully conscripted member of her fan club. Indeed, Austen has a habit of dividing opinion, often down gender-specific lines. So what is it about Austen?


It's her creation of characters, the clever dialogue and the irony with which she writes that makes her stand out from other writers, say experts.

"They are easy to read and have a simplicity that is hard to get as a writer, which Austen worked hard to achieve," says Professor Janet Todd, the general editor of the nine-volume Cambridge edition of the Works of Jane Austen.

"But it's a surface simplicity, there is a lot more going on. It combines wish fulfilment with a sense of the unlikelihood of it happening. There is always a modification to the romantic ending which points us back to real life."

Emma Thompson
Austen won Thompson an Oscar
Making her novel work on different levels means people can take what they need from them, say critics. You can choose to see the politics and feminism in them, but if you don't want to take on those issue you can "turn a blind eye".

Yet it's not all one big love-in. They might be in the minority, but Austen has her detractors. And despite the stereotypes, they're not all men.

"I think she betrays her time and I'm always gob smacked by what she ignored," says Celia Brayfield, author and lecturer at Brunel University. "She focused on such a narrow strain of human reality. Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't the Napoleonic War going on at the time when she was writing, she doesn't mention it.

'Enemy territory'

"There is no poverty in her novels, no corruption, ambition, wickedness or war. Yes her wit is enchanting and her human observations enduringly accurate, but the world she writes about is so tiny. I find it claustrophobic."

It's all too graceful and lacks guts, says writer Zoe Williams, who prefers those other 19th Century romantic writers - the Bronte sisters.

"I'm not crazy for Austen. The Brontes' novels are so overheated, so female, you have to look them in the eye when you read them.

"Austen's popular because everyone likes a good costume drama and with Austen you know what you're getting. You're guaranteed a manor house, daughters, dresses and weddings. You're not with authors like Gaskell and Dickens, their stories are not so pretty."

Jane Austen
Born in 1775 in Hampshire
Died in 1817
Sense and Sensibility was her first novel and published in 1811 at her own expense
Pride and Prejudice published in 1813
Too "nice" or not, the characterisation and dialogue of her novels have made them ripe for TV and film adaptation. According to some it's talented film makers, casting directors and actors who are keeping Austen's stock so high.

"In recent years the one person who has done the most for Austen's popularity is Emma Thompson," says Williams. "She wrote the screen play for the film Sense and Sensibility and won an Oscar for it. It is the definitive Austen film and that's largely down to her."

She may have a point: when we think of Darcy do we envisage the novel or Colin Firth? If he hadn't been cast to play the part - and he very nearly turned it down because he didn't think he had the sex appeal the role required - would the book be topping the "nation's favourite" list?

Some purists argue that the "sexing up" Austen's novels for a modern audience has resulted in the more complex social and political commentary being lost. But is the hunt for ratings necessarily a bad thing?


"Those films have made Jane Austen into a brand," says Brayfield. "I hate them with a passion but you have to admit they do a great job of selling 19th Century literature.

"Often my students are only inspired to grapple with Austen after seeing a film of one of her novels with Keira Knightley in it, but at least it's a way in for them."

Knightley might also draw in another audience that has issues with Austen - men. It's by no means a rule, but they don't usually find period drama an appealing combination of words. While Austen's wit and irony might appeal, the romance usually does not.

Keira Knightley
Keira attracted a new audience
There's always the exception of course - and, on paper at least, Phil Hilton, ex-editor of lads' magazine Nuts, couldn't be more distanced from the stereotypical Austen fan. But Hilton freely confesses his love of her work and says Austen has a false reputation simply as "posh, romantic fiction".

"She is fun, dry, ironic - as funny as any male writer out there," he says.

"She is about more than romance, that's just the engine that drives the plot along. Unfortunately when adapted for film and TV the good stuff often ends up on the cutting room floor in favour of a handsome actor walking out of a lake.

"The challenge is to get men to read one of her books, most would like it if they did. I was forced to read Austen at school and discovered her that way, but males usually considered her novels 'owned' by women and enemy territory."

Critics tend to see this "romantic image" as a failing of the ironic Austen, says Professor Todd. But saying her books are just about women and marriage is a very "unsophisticated reading" of her novels, says Williams.

Maybe Austen was simply very shrewd in her choice of subject, says Gill Hornby, author of Jane Austen: The Girl with the Magic Pen.

"Her novels are only about romantic love and family life and they are two of the few things that haven't change in the world since she was alive. Both things still absorb us and annoy us in equal measure. If she'd written about the Napoleonic Wars no one would have read her books."

Here is a selection of your comments.

I wonder which books people are reading when they think Austen writes about love and romance? She writes about money and its role in conferring social status, and what it means to be on either side of the money divide.
Fiona, Dorset

Read Jane Austen and the War of Ideas by Marilyn Butler. The novels are hard-headed fables striking a blow for conservative values; Jane Austen thought families were the building blocks of society and that is why she took family life as her subject matter. Objectivity, duty and self-knowledge are at a premium; characters who surrender to their emotions or their purely romantic feelings tend to come a-cropper. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic France are the background to her novels just as much as in Vanity Fair.
Clive, Tunbridge Wells

It is a truth universally acknowledged that relationship books are for girls. Pride & Prejudice was chosen by my English teacher to be the O level text to study 20 years ago. I struggled through the first chapter before burning it. Didn't even take the exam, which was a shame as I was a straight A student.
Mark Bell, Guildford

Are we going to get to the level of hysteria about Jane Austen where people change their names by deed pole a la the Jasper Fforde novels? He has seen the future.
Pamela, Reading

I have never been able to read a Jane Austin novel and I only sat through Sense and Sensibility because Emma Thompson made such a good job of it. I just can't keep my teeth gritted long enough to read through the bits where people are sitting round a table banging on about how poor they are while being waited on by servants.
Tina Rowe, London

No poverty, no ambition? Utter nonsense. Mrs Bennett is consumed with ambition for her daughters, and the fear of destitution if they don't make good marriages. And my husband absolutely loves the tremendous wit and examples of men to be admired and emulated, like Colonel Brandon. The world is bigger and more interesting than whatever wars might be raging when we live.
Libbie Stokes, Redditch

Her books are bad because she didn't write about the Napoleonic war? Interesting, under that logic, all contemporary books that do not revolve around the wars going on at the moment, all books that do not include a political message, must be bad. It is true, Jane Austen's novels revolve around a "tiny world" and she disregards many other social issues of her time, but she does a brilliant job of portraying that small world, her own environment, the role of women in it and the superficial discourse of her society. She picked out a part of the world, and she depicted it well. Any higher demands of portraying the whole world and all its social problems of the time are simply unrealistic. If read correctly, her novels are full of depth and a witty and ironic insight into human nature. Seen in the context of her time, she was very forward with the themes she brought up.
Bettina Boehm, Germany/Scotland

It does not do Jane Austen or Andrew Davies justice to pin all the credit of Pride and Prejudice's success to that Colin Firth scene. People tend to have a narrow minded view when it comes to Jane Austen's novels. Yes, it does focus on a small section of society, this was life as Jane Austen knew it. But if you read her novels properly you say her view was not so confined. Yes, there is reference to the Napoleonic war, Yes, you do get an idea of how the rest of society lived. As Oscar Wilde once said "diversity of opinion of a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital".
Catherine A, Shropshire, UK

Has Ms Brayfield not read Persuasion? That book alone dealt with poverty, the war which England was engaged in, and had several characters who were in active service in the Navy. Since Jane Austen came from a close-knit family, and had several brothers attain high positions within the Navy, I doubt that the author would not have taken the opportunity to highlight the service being done by naval officers in her books.
Miss Masood, London, England

The novels were the early 19th century equivalent of a Mills and Boon novel, and have about as much literary merit. However, enough people have said that they're great works of literature for long enough that people believe the hype. Let's be honest; there are only two reasons why Jane Austen novels aren't seen as romantic mush a) they're about posh people and b) they're about the 19th century. The test of a good work of literature is whether you can transpose it to another time and place and find that, although it's essentially the same work, it is still memorable and worthwhile. Shakespeare, for instance, translates very well into modern adaptations. Austen does not.
Jacob, London

Jacob - Austen has transferred very successfully to other contexts. Bride and Prejudice relocated the whole thing to modern India, and worked very well indeed.
Chris Saunders, London, UK

I read P+P, for the first time, 20 years ago, pre-Colin Firth. And I found Darcy attractive then, just as I do now. And as for Elizabeth, what a great female character - witty, strong, not willing to accept second best (Mr Collins), but not drop-dead gorgeous (contrary to her portrayal by Keira Knightley). Anyone who has read the book will tell you that Jane was the good-looking one from the Bennett family. Elizabeth was merely handsome.
Suzanne, Paris, France

Celia Brayfield is right on the money - narrow, claustrophobic and tedious; a reflection of Jane Austen's own social life. Talking of money - British costume dramas - what an "artistic" gravy train...
Johnnie, Walton Surrey


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