There's something about Jane

By Kerrie Waterworth

Nearly 200 years after her death, Jane Austen has become one of the most widely read authors in history. Kerrie Waterworth finds out why she continues to appeal, generation after generation.

The BBC TV adaptation of Pride And Prejudice in 1995 was largely responsible for reviving the worldwide interest in Jane Austen and her world.
The BBC TV adaptation of Pride And Prejudice in 1995 was largely responsible for reviving the worldwide interest in Jane Austen and her world.

Have you ever suffered from Austenmania? Or found yourself talking to a Janeite? Or maybe you got lost in the Republic of Pemberley?

For the many fans of Jane Austen novels it's all part of a booming worldwide phenomenon surrounding the legendary 19th century author.

Jane Austen published only six novels in her lifetime and was virtually unknown in her day, but nearly 200 years after her death she is believed to be the most widely read female author ever and second only to Shakespeare. Today she'd be a celebrity, a cult figure and potentially wealthier than J.K. Rowling.

There are hundreds of thousands of "Janeites" (devotees of Jane Austen) and members of Jane Austen societies around the world, from the United States to Russia and Argentina to Australia. They meet regularly, attend conferences and re-live her world by dressing up in 19th century-style clothes.

Jane Austen novels are read and studied in China and have been translated into languages as diverse as Hungarian, Japanese, Hindu, Tamil and Farsi.

There are daily Jane Austen blog websites, online merchandising sites, and an online prototype Jane Austen game.

There is a booming tourism industry around the houses and places Austen lived and visited, the houses and places mentioned in her books, and the houses and places featured in television series and film adaptations. Meanwhile, at Stanford University, scientists are researching what happens to your brain when you read Austen novels.

So, how is it that an unmarried, country clergyman's daughter, writing about middle-class girls looking for a good husband among the landed gentry of Regency England has become a 21st century icon and phenomenon?

Austen scholar and University of Otago Emeritus Professor of English Jocelyn Harris believes it started with the 1995 BBC TV adaptation of Pride And Prejudice.

"I think Mr Darcy's wet shirt had a lot to do with the most recent phenomenon, but it shows no sign of stopping." The scene in which actor Colin Firth emerged from a pond, dripping wet, was voted the most memorable moment ever in a British TV drama by British television viewers in a survey last year.

"I hear from colleagues who teach Jane Austen that the TV series and movies do bring people back to the books, even if they didn't intend to in the first place," Harris says.

She has read all of Austen's novels more than 10 times and says, "I still read them now.

Someone once asked Gilbert Ryle, the great Oxford philosopher, if he ever read novels and he replied, 'Oh yes, all six, every year'."

Harris has just finished her fourth consecutive year teaching the hugely popular University of Otago summer school paper, "The Jane Austen Phenomenon".

"I think her appeal for a lot of people is they can tuck up with Jane Austen on the sofa and feel that they're talking with a friend. It's very hard to pin down how she does it but that's one of things we've been talking about in class, she's got a way of pulling the reader in."

Harris regularly attends and speaks at the Australian Jane Austen Society and would like to see such a society created in New Zealand.

"We're a bit strung out around the country but it just takes somebody with a lot of energy to do it and keep it rolling. There are people in Christchurch and Wellington and Auckland who are all very keen and I know when there are Austen events in Dunedin,
you can fill a hall no trouble at all - so the interest is there."

Last year marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride And Prejudice and this month the president of the Australian society, Susan Fullerton, is promoting her latest book, Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice with a host of talks in Auckland. The book is a comprehensive homage to the novel and covers everything from why Austen was read in the trenches of World War I, to whether Mr Darcy is autistic, the latest in P&P erotica and new merchandise, including temporary tattoos, confetti made out of recycled P&P books and "I'd rather be sleeping with Mr Darcy" pyjamas.

The author of earlier Austen novels A Dance With Jane Austen and Jane Austen And Crime, Fullerton believes Pride And Prejudice is arguably the world's favourite novel and Mr Darcy "the most romantic hero ever", with Firth her generation's Mr Darcy.

"Every generation wants their version of these novels and my daughter's Mr Darcy is played by Matthew Macfadyen."

Which begs the question - who will be the Gen X, Gen Y or the millennials' Mr Darcy?

Susan Fullerton's final Pride and Prejudice: Two Hundred Years and More talk is at Howick Library on March 19 at 11am. Her book, Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, is out now.

- NZ Herald

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