Jane Austen died a virgin in 1817, aged 41, with just six completed novels to her name. Her funeral in Winchester Cathedral was discreet and sparsely attended. Her tombstone makes no mention of her fiction.
Today, Austen is a cultural industry with global reach. The Austen brand has outstripped the Brontës, Dickens and Hardy – Austen Inc. may even be more lucrative than Shakespeare.
How have six courtship novels established such a hold? Austen’s terrain was famously modest: “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on”, and on the face of it her ambitions were narrow: “the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush”. Admire my miniatures, she seems to laugh.
But that Hampshire country village is now familiar worldwide. Austen has been adapted from Hollywood to Bollywood. A film of a recent pastiche novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is in production, for, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
Two hundred years on from the publication in 1811 of her first book, Sense and Sensibility, Jane is all the rage. How did it happen? I went back to her readers over the past 200 years to find out.
Her recent world domination owes everything to screenwriter Andrew Davies, who wrote Mr Darcy as a Byronic hero in wet linen, with more than a touch of Brontë’s Mr Rochester. BBC1’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice was one of the channel’s greatest popular successes.
After it was broadcast, visitors to Jane Austen’s House museum in Chawton, Hampshire, more than doubled almost overnight, from 24,000 to 58,000. The updraft of tourist interest inspired the establishment of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, which gets 42,000 visitors every year, 90 per cent of them women. As befits the queen of social chatter, the web, Twitter and Facebook are alive with nuggets of news about the life and times of “Dear Jane”. Societies abound.
It’s a confident scholar who addresses the annual conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). Professor John Mullan of University College London, who describes himself as “an academic Jane Austen enthusiast”, admitted to nerves when speaking at the Philadelphia meeting in 2009: “It is the most welcoming but most daunting of audiences. You only have to say something like, ‘Take Elinor’s conversation with Miss Steele in Kensington Gardens’ to generate a ripple of anticipation such as is unknown in university lecture rooms.”
I filmed myself at this year’s JASNA conference at Fort Worth in Texas, where the bonnets outnumbered the stetsons. Some 800 Austenites, most in costume, had taken over a downtown hotel for an unforgettable Regency jamboree of dinners, minuets, promenades, music, workshops and lectures. Hilariously, one of the event’s sponsors was the knicker giant Victoria’s Secret, so each of us received a complimentary saucy black lace thong (“one size fits all”) with love from Sense and Sensibility’s seductive cad John Willoughby.
The affable Andrew Davies was the headline act – “our rock star” in the words of one dazzled fan – flown over first class to address his followers. His keynote lecture, “Mr Darcy’s Wet Shirt and Other Embarrassments”, was preceded by a montage of his greatest Austen hits (set to Puccini’s Nessun Dorma) blazing on four cinema screens.
“Costume drama had a careful Sunday night feel,” he reflected, “but these are books about young people with hormones. I wanted to emphasise the physicality.” Cue vigorous gallop- ing, fencing, bathing and log-chopping – Regency romcom laced with shameless bodice-ripper.
If you came of age in the 21st century, you might think that Austen has always been beloved. Quite wrong. Her current popularity has shallow roots. Her readership collapsed after her death, her books remaindered and out of print. In the Victorian period her star was eclipsed by the medievalism of Walter Scott and the social panoramas of Dickens, Thackeray and Gaskell.
Those raised on Romantic Sturm und Drang wanted stronger meat. Charlotte Brontë found Austen too bloodless and prim, damning her novels as “an accurate, daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face”. In the 1860s, a clueless sexton in Winchester Cathedral asked a visitor whether there was “anything particular” about “that lady”, since he was so often asked to point out her grave.
It was not until the late 19th century that Austen’s popularity began to revive. An authorised biography by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, appeared in 1870, offering a domesticated Aunt Jane tailored to Victorian taste.
As Professor Kathryn Sutherland has written: “The biography excluded details like the handicapped brother and the aunt who was arrested for shop-lifting, out of Victorian probity. The family even doctored the only known portrait to make it sweeter looking.”
Meanwhile, the chocolate-box illustrations by Hugh Thomson in the Macmillan edition of her novels repackaged Austen’s fiction as nostalgic tales of ye olden times – soothing when the second industrial revolution was in full swing, and the economic rivalry of Germany and America an ominous drum beat.
Austen’s novels proved vital solace to traumatised readers on the Western Front: as intelligence officer Reginald Farrer recorded in 1917, “In water-logged trench, in dullness, tribulation and fatigue, an ever-increasing crowd of worshippers flies insatiably for comfort and company to Hartfield and Randalls, Longbourn, Northanger, Sotherton and Uppercross.”
The 20th century saw a revolution in Austen’s status, her writing celebrated for stylistic precision and controlled anger, not sweetness. The Cambridge don FR Leavis placed Austen at the head of his Great Tradition of English Literature, and she became a fixture on the school syllabus. Her reputation as safe Sunday tea-time TV fare was finally exploded in 1995, when Andrew Davies and Colin Firth pumped steamy romance back into the parlour, and testosterone into the Austen brand.
One hundred years ago, Austen was read mostly by men. Now she is the queen of chick lit. How Austen would stare. It seems that women today still seek their Mr Darcy and, in Pride and Prejudice at least, they will always find him.
Amanda Vickery is professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London.
She presents The Many Lovers of Jane Austen at 9:00pm on Friday 23 December on BBC2
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times that was published on 7 December 2011