Iconography: Jane Austen, a Contemporary Kind of Lady
Jane Austen has quite the hold over the contemporary imagination. Not only are her books still bestsellers almost 200 years after her death, but there’s a veritable industry around adapting and appropriating her work. From The Jane Austen Book Club to Jane Austen’s Fight Club, Miss Austen’s influence reaches more widely than ever. So how did these books about young women searching for eligible gentlemen in the English countryside get to be so popular?
Jane Austen (1775-1817) was a keen observer of her world, and a writer of witty social commentary. Her completed full-length novels were Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Northanger Abbey (1818), and Persuasion (1818). She wrote about women trying to ensure their own security in a context in which marriage was key, but Austen never married herself. Not much is known about her, particularly as Austen's family destroyed a good portion of her correspondence after her death. Publication was a little slow to start, but Austen’s status steadily grew to what is now a substantial academic and fan following.
That is not to mention Austen’s place in popular culture! Not only have Austen novels been adapted into plays, films and television series, they have been used as source material in some rather unorthodox ways. Emma is, tied with Sense and Sensibility, my favourite Austen, so we must talk about Clueless. Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film is both a goofy teen comedy and an exceptionally clever transplant of the Emma story into 1990s Beverly Hills. Like Emma, Cher Horowitz is a rich, beautiful, carefree young woman who is all about setting up matches. The class structure of Emma’s day is turned into the cliques of a Los Angeles high school, and there’s a nuanced acknowledgement of the increased fluidity of class status and gender relations. Cher is gloriously adorable, and the perfect voice for Heckerling’s splicing of Austen love and the 90s American teen experience.
Then there’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding, which is based on Pride and Prejudice. Bridget is a contemporary London woman in the publishing industry, busy smoking too many cigarettes, trying to lose weight and searching for the perfect man. It’s pretty emblematic of the postfeminist sensibility that became so prevalent in the 1990s (women are empowered… to find the perfect man!), which is a pity as a lot of the social concern in Austen’s novel is therefore lost to a straightforward romance. Regardless, it’s quite something that Austen’s tale of Elizabeth and Darcy overcoming their prejudices against each other and falling in love keeps being recycled so, notably also in Bollywood film Bride and Prejudice (2004). The concerns Austen taps into in Pride and Prejudice aren’t temporally or culturally bound.
There are the mashup versions of Austen’s novels, like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Ben H. Winters’ Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. These only started appearing in 2009—another Austen-based phenomenon achieving quick fame!—and their aim is just plain silliness. And there are those responses that are very much about the love of Austen herself. Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club (2004) is really beautiful, not least for its charming nods to Fowler’s other love, feminist science fiction. It’s about the members of a California book club whose lives imitate Austen’s novels in some original and delightful ways. A recent favorite of mine is Lost in Austen (2008), in which one Amanda Price swaps places with Elizabeth and horribly interferes with the plot of Pride and Prejudice. There are some cool nods to women’s sexual agency beyond what we see in Austen’s novel, and one of my favorite television scenes ever is when Caroline Bingley tells Amanda that she has a crush on her. As Fowler’s book club discusses with regard to Charlotte Lucas’ sexuality, it’s lovely to think that there might be parts of characters’ lives that even the author didn’t know about.
That’s what these responses are really about, relating a great deal to these books from another time, and jumping off into new works on the creators’ own terms. Austen is just that versatile: her books are so popular because they have elements one can translate into anywhen and anywhere. That’s an extraordinary and almost singular power, and I can’t wait to see what new works Austen might prompt from beyond the veil in the future.
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