It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a reader of Jane Austen's novels will either love the author passionately or despise her with equal force. How did six little novels written by a middle-class woman in early nineteenth-century England came to have such worldwide popularity, their author becoming the subject of cult-like devotion among her fans and shuddering dislike among her detractors? Why is Jane Austen such a big deal? And why are all of her characters so obsessed with marriage?
Let's start with that last one first. Jane Austen's characters are obsessed with marriage because everybody in Regency England was obsessed with marriage. For virtually all of English history, marriage had been an economic transaction, one arranged for the financial benefit for the families involved without much regard to the couple's feelings (or lack thereof) for one another. Suddenly, during the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century period in which Austen lived, people began wondering if it might be okay to factor love into the equation as well, making matters all the more complicated.
Jane Austen knew all too well how marriage defined a woman's life. She never married, and as a result was dependent most of her life on the charity of her brothers. She fit her writing into the otherwise dull daily routine of chores, visits, and "respectable activities" expected of a middle-class lady. She didn't even get to put her own name on her books—the four novels she published during her lifetime were described only as being written "By a Lady." Still, from this perch of relative obscurity she managed to make some of her era's sharpest (and funniest) observations on human behavior, most of which still apply today.
One thing is certain: Jane Austen fans love their Jane. Film and television adaptations of her books proliferate like rabbits, and self-professed Janeites (the official term for diehard fans) are scattered across the world. Why the adoration for this author whose entire body of work can fit neatly in a backpack? It might be because her characters are so charming. It might be because she's so funny. And it might be because the books really are just that good.
Austen's novels were the first literary works to acknowledge this complex dance of gender and social convention, in a way that was funny, perceptive, and realistic. With her elegantly crafted plots and characters, Jane Austen pretty much single-handedly rescued the novel from the trash heap of the literary world. Before Austen, all novels were regarded with the same kind of respect we now give to cheap supermarket romance novels; thanks to Austen, it is now possible to gain a "serious" literary reputation on the backs of novels alone.
The use of the term "Janeites" to describe Austen's fans dates from at least the early twentieth century. While most Austen fans today are women, early Janeites were often men. Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story called "The Janeites" about a group of World War I soldiers who were closet Austen fanatics. A 2008 survey of Austen fans found that Janeites included roofers, bartenders, Dominican friars, truckers, zookeepers, and farmers.
The copyright has expired on Jane Austen's books, which means that anyone can parody them without threat of a lawsuit. Hence the 2009 New York Times bestseller that Austen posthumously "co-wrote" with Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
James Edward Austen-Leigh's 1869 memoir of his aunt sanitized Austen's sauciness. Austen-Leigh changed the wording of some of her letters to protect her image and his audience's sensibilities, as in "I was as civil to them as circumstances would allow," instead of the original (and much funnier) "I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow."
A man named Harris Bigg-Wither has the somewhat unfortunate distinction of being remembered by history as the man Jane Austen dumped. Bigg-Wither, an Oxford grad who is generally described in all historical accounts as an unattractive stammerer, proposed to Austen while she was visiting his sisters in 1802. She initially said yes, then changed her mind the next morning. Her niece later wrote: "Mr Wither was very plain in person—awkward, and even uncouth in manner—nothing but his size to recommend him." Ouch.
The Prince Regent (the man who would later become King George IV) was a big fan of Austen's work. In 1815, shortly before the publication of Emma, the Prince's personal librarian invited her to his London residence and suggested that she dedicate her next book to the prince. Austen really didn't care for the shallow, superficial Prince Regent, but what was she supposed to do? Emma appeared with the dedication.
The first known appearance of the word "baseball" is in Northanger Abbey. It is named as one of Catherine Morland's favorite pastimes.
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1811)
This was the first novel Austen published. Like all her novels published while she was alive, the cover of the first edition stated only "BY A LADY," since apparently a book written by a woman was so unheard of that it didn't matter which particular woman wrote it. Austen labored over the story of the Dashwood sisters for more than fifteen years.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
For many people, this is the favorite of Austen's works. The electric exchanges between fiery Elizabeth Bennett and smoldering Mr. Darcy make for some of the best flirting in literature.
Jane Austen, Emma (1815)
The title character brilliantly illustrates one of Austen's favorite themes: how damaging a lack of self-awareness can be. Emma Woodhouse's blundering, unsuccessful attempts to make matches for others while bungling her own love life can teach a lesson to all of us who have been "clueless" at one time or another.
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817)
This was actually the first book Austen ever sold, though it wasn't published in its final form until after her death. Originally entitled Susan, this satire of Gothic fiction was purchased by a London publisher in 1803 for £10. It was never published, and Austen angrily demanded to buy it back.
Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (1999)
This is often cited as the best biography out there on Austen. Tomalin is a great writer who brings the details of Austen's biography to life. Her pointed notes on the cultural differences between eighteenth-century Regency England and our modern era help place Austen's books in context.
James Edward Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869)
This memoir by Austen's nephew launched the phenomenon of Austenmania that we know today. This was the first biography written of the novelist, and it reignited interest in her works. Austen-Leigh's depiction of his aunt leaves out some of the sharper (and funnier) aspects of her personality, but it is a kind and interesting portrait of a woman he admired very much.
Piano Classics from the World of Jane Austen
The piano was a popular form of entertainment in the eighteenth century. Like many ladies of the era, Austen knew how to play. In this album, pianist Karlyn Bond performs songs from Austen's times that the writer certainly would have been familiar with.
Jane Austen Entertains
This is as close as you'll get to a private concert by Jane Austen. These songs are performed from the original copies of sheet music that Austen wrote by hand, in the room at Chawton Cottage where she used to play piano, on a piano similar to the one she owned.
The Jane Austen Companion
Music was an important part of the Regency period, and this album is a collection of songs that evoke the era. Yes, it is all classical music, but it wasn't called classical then. Rock, pop, jazz, and R&B hadn't been invented yet, so "classical music" was just "music." Most of it was intended to be listened to it at home, in the drawing room, while a young woman in the house played on the piano.
The Jane Austen Book Club Soundtrack
This is the music written for the film. Judging from the comments on Amazon, many a buyer of this soundtrack has been sorely disappointed to learn that their favorite song from the movie isn't on it. Read the song list first!
Sense and Sensibility Soundtrack
Have you ever wanted to stand on an English moor in soaking rain, dying of heartbreak and pneumonia à la Marianne Dashwood? Here's your soundtrack! This is the original score for Emma Thompson's adaptation of the Dashwood sisters' drama.
If you can't stand one more piano sonata, here's something to perk up your playlist. Okay, so maybe Coolio's "Rollin' With My Homies" wasn't exactly a Regency parlor favorite, but this soundtrack still evokes the Austen-inspired movie.
An 1810 portrait of Austen by her sister Cassandra.
A woodcut portrait of the writer made after her death.
Young Jane (maybe)
A painting supposedly made of Austen when she was about 14. Scholars debate whether or not this is in fact Jane.
This image was printed in an early edition of Mansfield Park.
The church Austen's family attended in her youth.
The house where Austen lived from 1809 to 1817.
Jane Austen's grave at Winchester Cathedral.
Coat of Arms
Austen family crest.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Jane Austen's novels have been adapted into so many films and TV miniseries that it's hard to keep them all straight. This one, however, stands out as one of the best. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay and stars as staid sister Elinor, while Kate Winslet plays her sensitive sister Marianne. Thompson's blubbering, snorty explosion of emotion in the pivotal final scene with Edward Ferrars is one of the most endearing freak-outs in cinema.
Jane Austen's takedowns of silly social rituals and the dangers of self-delusion translate across cultures and time. Perhaps the best example of this is Clueless, which moves Austen's Emma to a suburban California high school. Emma Woodhouse may not have used the same language as Alicia Silverstone's Cher, but she would have recognized her superficial naiveté ("He does dress better than I do, what would I bring to the relationship?") and her pickiness about relationships ("You see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet.").
Gwyneth Paltrow stars as the bumbling matchmaker Emma Woodhouse in this adaptation of Austen's novel. It's a good movie, but truly our favorite thing about it is the woman who posted to the IMDB message board to ask, "Has anyone noticed how similar this movie is to 'Clueless'?"
Bride and Prejudice (2004)
This movie is an example of how well Austen's themes translate across cultures. It's a modern-day version of Pride and Prejudice set in India and the United States. What takes this movie from good to awesome? The music. Personally, we would prefer it if all Jane Austen remakes from now on included Bollywood-style dance numbers.
Becoming Jane (2007)
Janeites are UP IN ARMS about the historical accuracy of this movie, which imagines Austen's romance with Tom LeFroy, the young Irishman with whom she enjoyed a brief flirtation. The movie suggests that LeFroy is the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy; history suggests that their real relationship probably less intense. In either case, the movie is a good example of Regency-period dress and mannerisms, and nicely illustrates Jane Austen's world.
The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
Based on the novel by Karen Fowler, this movie is about a book club of six people who meet to talk about Austen's six novels. Soon, it becomes clear that their lives are similar to the books' plots—and that each book club member resembles a different Austen character.
The Republic of Pemberley
The Republic of Pemberley is a volunteer-run discussion site dedicated to all things Austen. There are discussions on everyconceivable Austen topic, Jane Austen fan fiction, and an incredible Jane Austen Info Page with e-texts, criticism and her entire biography. There is even an advice column called Lady Catherine & Co., where members answer questions in the character of Austen's Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
This site is the home of the Derbyshire Writers' Guild, an organization dedicated to Austen fan fiction. If you've read all of Austen's stories and can't get enough, look here for stories, sequels, and spin-offs written in Austen style by some of the most devoted Janeites (yes, that's what they call themselves) out there.
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature
Fortunately for you, the 18 volumes of the Cambridge History are all archived online. Even more fortunately, their entry on Jane Austen is great. This is a great scholarly introduction to Austen and her most significant works.
This site, named after a candy shop in Bath, England that appears in Persuasion, is an online gathering place for Austen fans. It has e-texts illustrated with beautiful period images. You can even send an Austen-themed e-card to a fellow Austen fan.
The Jane Austen Centre
This is the official homepage for the center (excuse us, centre) dedicated to the memory of Bath's most famous resident. This fun site has information about the annual Austen Festival as well as interesting information about the Regency time period (how about cooking a Regency-era recipe for a class project?). It also has an Austen quiz and an online store—buy earrings shaped like Jane Austen's profile!
Jane Austen Places
Virtually visit the places relevant to Austen's life and works. This is a great way to get a mental picture of the places she writes about—many of the buildings haven't changed much since the eighteenth century.
The Real Jane Austen
A 2002 BBC documentary about the writer.
The Men and Women of Jane Austen
A PBS documentary about adapting Austen's work to film.
A short video on Anne Hathaway's lessons in becoming Jane Austen.
Jane Austen's Ghost!
Does the spirit of Jane Austen still haunt her Chawton home? This short, fun documentary explains.
Mr. Darcy swims
A scene from the BBC film Pride and Prejudice featuring a hunky Colin Firth.
Hugh Laurie's best moments as Sense and Sensibility's beleaguered Mr. Palmer illustrate Austen's gift for comedy.
Pride and Prejudice
A hypertext e-version of the novel.
Sense and Sensibility
E-text and notes on the novel.
E-text and notes on the novel.
E-text and notes on the novel.
E-text and notes on the novel.
E-text and notes on the novel.
E-text of Austen's first, unpublished novella.
E-text of Jane Austen's personal letters.
"Henry and Eliza"
A short story written in Austen's youth—part of the "Juvenilia" collection of her early writings.
A Memoir of Jane Austen by Her Nephew
James Edward Austen-Leigh's 1870 biography of his aunt.
The online journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Eat like Jane! These are recipes from the Regency era.