Jane Austen’s place in the galaxy of literary stars has always been secure and her popularity has increased in recent years with the production of hundreds of film and TV adaptations, spin-offs and reworkings of her novels. Some of these adaptations are excellent and offer lively and accessible approaches to the original texts.
Austen has become part of English heritage, to be treasured and exploited, and she is both criticised and admired. Her critics complain her books are narrow, that they lack depth and scope, that they have no feeling or passion. Those are the very attributes which some of her admirers like. They enjoy what they see as genteel depictions of English country life, all bonnets and frocks and people speaking politely to each other. It must be these latter aspects which caused Jane Austen to be the prescribed reading for victims of shell shock in the First World War.
Perhaps one of the reasons for Austen’s enduring popularity is we can interpret her work in ways which suit our personal preferences and reflect our particular view of the world. Romcom fans can enjoy the delicious build-up to the final union of the main characters.
Social historians can have a field day with the information to be gleaned about 18th-century mores in the circles she describes. Lovers of social satire and comedy can relish the mockery of pomposity, stupidity, greed.
We can respond to the novels’ presentation of the rigid class structure with impatience or with pleasurable nostalgia for a time in which everyone knew their place. A bit like watching Downton Abbey, only more demanding.
The novels teem with characters and situations which are familiar from movies and television dramas. Posh boys and feisty girls, engagements, quarrels, elopements. Mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters. Anxiety about money and debts. Gold-diggers and fortune hunters. Sluts and prudes. Naïve romantics and hard-headed women of the world. Snobs and hypocrites. Misunderstandings and deception. If Jane Austen were writing today, would it be for TV soaps?
Possibly. But then we would miss what is to my mind her greatest attribute. Her literary style is a joy, polished, controlled, balanced prose whose ironical tone never falters and is never misplaced. A series of subordinate clauses leads up to a killer conclusion. A few words skewer a character’s faults and bathe him in humiliation. Her pen is like a scalpel. Look at her description of Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.” Ouch. Get out of that, Mrs B.
You wouldn’t want good old Jane nailing your weaknesses for posterity, would you? And when you consider that the description of Mrs Bennet nails her in 140 characters or fewer, perhaps it is just as well that Jane Austen is not writing in today’ mode, delivering cutting sound bites and sharp-tongued tweets to expose the follies of the 21st century.