Portrait of Jane Austen.
The three volumes of the first edition of Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811.
Jane Austen didn’t intend to be famous. During her lifetime, she only published anonymously, as “A Lady” and few people outside of her family knew that she wrote novels. Despite the large parts that romance and courting play in her books, she never married. When she died in 1817 at age 41, her gravestone only cited that she was the daughter of a local Reverend George Austen. (In an essay about Austen, W. Somerset Maugham commented, “It just shows that you may make a great stir in the world and yet sadly fail to impress the members of your own family.”) It wasn’t until 1872 that Winchester Cathedral added the note to her memorial that she was “known to many by her writings.”
So how did Austen’s work soar to the ubiquitous level of popularity it currently enjoys? Her four novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma grew in popularity and made a modest sum while Jane was still alive—around 600 pounds in six years, which is roughly equivalent to $60,000 today. At the time, novels were not considered great literature; they were seen more like pulp fiction. Poets were the real celebrities. For comparison, Byron’s book of poems, The Corsair, sold 10,000 copies on the day it was published in 1814.
Likewise, Emma was also published in 1814, but it took six months to sell 1,250 copies. Austen’s modest reputation naturally ebbed until about 50 years after her death, when her niece, J.E. Austen-Leigh, published A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. The memoir was wildly popular and renewed interest in Austen’s novels at a time when the genre of the novel had gained new levels of respectability and popularity. The term “Janeites” was coined in a preface to an 1894 edition of Pride and Prejudice to describe Austen admirers.
In the early 20th century, references to Austen and her novels began cropping up in other texts. Mark Twain expressed distaste for Austen’s writing in 1897’s Following the Equator, insisting that an ideal library would not have her books in it. As Mark Twain aimed verbal slings at other classic authors, this may have merely signaled Austen’s transition to “serious literature.” In 1913, Virginia Woolf compared Jane Austen to Shakespeare. In 1926, Rudyard Kipling published a short story called “The Janeites,” about a soldier recalling how he was forced to join a secret society of devoted Austen fans. Through the 1930s and ’40s, Austen’s books were increasingly included in classrooms and academia.
Of course, it may be the numerous dramatizations of her stories that solidified Austen’s superstar status. Starting in 1940, with Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, popular film culture began mining Austen for inspiration and churning out three to seven film versions of Austen novels per decade. Do you remember the Sense and Sensibility film version with Emma Thompson (who adapted the story for the film) and Kate Winslet, which came out in 1995? The BBC produced multiple versions of Austen's stories in 1971, 1980 and 2008. If you include the category of work “based on” or “inspired by” and the list grows, such as two different films from 2011 featuring a modern spin on the story, From Prada to Nada and Scents and Sensibility.
This chronology merely traces how Austen and her works exploded in popularity in the more than 200 years since her death, but not why. Bestselling author and journalist Anna Quindlen wrote: “serious literary discussions of [an Austen novel] threaten to obscure the most important thing about it: it is a pure joy to read.”
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