Austen boom after two centuries | Sunday Observer

Austen boom after two centuries

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

Jane Austen, whose 201st death anniversary fell on July 18 is a great English novelist who marks the transition in English literature from the 18th century neoclassicism to the 19th century romanticism. She was educated at home and started writing novels as a child of 12 years. Her adult novels were written between 1796 and 1798, but she could not find a publisher for 15 years. It was during this time that she wrote her major novels such as, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

Sense and Sensibility is about two sisters and their love affairs. Pride and Prejudice is about the five Bennett sisters and their search for suitable husbands. Northanger Abbey (1818) is a satire on the highly popular Gothic romances of the late 18th century. The works of Jane Austen did not become popular until the 20th century but they were different in style.

Pride and Prejudice was completed in August 1797. Two months later, she began to write Sense and Sensibility. The two novels are sometimes regarded as a pair of novels. However, they have nothing in common except that in both, the author used a device of the time: the leading figures of a story should exemplify a ruling passion or principle.

Pride and prejudice are only elements in Darcy and Elizabeth. In the other novel, sense and sensibility are contrasted using two characters – Elinor Dashwood and Marianne.

When the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) adapted Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1995, the series was sold to 18 countries including Singapore and Hong Kong. In Taiwan, Ang Lee directed the film version of the novel.

This was followed by Austen Fan Clubs on the Internet. Such an invasive response would have amazed Jane Austen who had never travelled abroad. When she died a spinster only four of her six novels had been published anonymously. However, sales of the novels were poor.

Surprise

It is a surprise that after 200 years people are interested in reading her novels and some of them even visit her house at Chawton in Hampshire.

They spend time viewing her little round writing table and her dining room, trying to recall the clergyman’s daughter with auburn hair and hazel eyes.

After the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice and the Oscar winning screenplay of Sense and Sensibility, the popular magazine Vanity Fair called Jane Austen “The hottest property in town.”

Nigel Nicolson in The World of Jane Austen said, “Her novels are love stories, always ending with a wedding. They show a wonderful understanding of the little moves that young people made then and still do make towards and away from each other. They are also very funny.”

The novels are partly based on her own experiences and her observations. As a 12-year-old child she started writing parodies of the Gothic novels. Her favourite pastime was dancing. As she says in Pride and Prejudice “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love. One of her neighbours said, Austen was “the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly”.

Genius

A unique feature in her novels is that all of them have the same plot. A woman is searching for a suitable partner and finds the right mate. The well-known author P.D. James says, “They are written by a genius.” Did Jane Austen find her soul-mate? When she met Irish law student Tom Lefroy in 1795, she described their romance in an extravagant tone. However, when Tom returned to Ireland in the following year, Jane wrote, “My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.”

There is another important factor that runs through all her novels. That is the need to balance the romance of love with the practical aspect of financial stability.

This is clearly explained in the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Emma Thompson who adapted Sense and Sensibility for the big screen focused on the real issues in money and marriage.

In simple terms, if you have no money, you won’t get married. If you get married, you will never have money. After writing and rewriting her screenplay Thompson said Jane Austen’s novels were not satirical.

Although Austen wrote about romance and marriage in her novels, she was not fortunate enough to find a suitable husband. She fell in love with handsome young men more than once. Her love affair with Tom Lafroy lasted barely a year. She had a momentary madness to accept a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither who was six years her junior. After a night of agonized discussion with Cassandra she declined to marry him.

Tragedy struck her in 1805 when her father died leaving his widow, Jane and Cassandra who were unmarried. Fortunately, the four Austen sons came to their rescue. However, the three women moved from house to house. Finally, her brother Edward gave them a big house to occupy. They spent eight miserable years during which she wrote nothing.

Then she realized that all of them were depending on others’ charity. However, Jane Austen did not lose her sense of comedy. One of her characters, Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice says, “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me. I own and I laugh at them whenever I can.”

In 1816, Jane Austen fell seriously ill. She died on July 18, 1817 in Cassandra’s arms. To die at the age of 41 was something shocking for a celebrated novelist. Today, however, there is a revived interest in her novels.

A stream of visitors visit her grave from around the world. The membership of the Jane Austen Society of North America has increased to 5,000. Nobody knows why she gained popularity long after her death on the other side of the Atlantic.

The world is a strange place where writers become immortalized after 200 years. The Austen boom is quite evident with more people reading her novels.

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