Austen’s Appeal

With the upcoming release of Northanger Abbey, the last of Jane Austen’s six major novels to be filmed in the past few years, there is much questioning as to why Jane Austen, long the staple of high school English Literature classes, has become so wildly popular. In a world filled with rudeness and disrespect, she has gained not only a loyal following (though there has always been a faithful remnant), but worldwide media acclaim such as she did not experience even during her lifetime!

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Many people claim that it is the movies made in the last five years that have caused this meteoric rise in popularity, making Jane Austen a household name and her works blockbuster successes. However, twenty years ago the same books were transferred to film without the same results. Better actors you say? Well, there is something to be said for that, as well as the fact that these new movies have larger budgets. I think, though, that the real answer lies in a changing mindset of today’s women. Without interest in these stories, the movies would never have been made.

A recent article (in Cosmopolitan magazine, no less) stated that the authors were shocked to find many of today’s young career women who would like to scrap climbing the corporate ladder in exchange for marrying and settling down to be “housewives”. For the last twenty years we have been told that women can be anything and do anything. We have had female Astronauts, Generals, CEO’s, Presidents and Prime Ministers. Careers that were once unlikely even for men have now become everyday jobs for women. We don’t have to go to work just to prove that we can. We have a choice. We have shown that a woman’s place does not necessarily have to be in the home, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be. With the many new work at home policies and internet businesses springing up, many women have found that they can have the best of both worlds. Jane Austen discovered this 200 years ago.

Jane Austen was one of the first female authors to actually invent a genre (the novel of manners), but her popularity rests in the fact that she wrote about the things that matter to everyone. Family, homelife, happily-ever-afters…..these are the things we dream about, and for two or twelve hours (whether watching a film or reading one of her books), we can be separated from the craziness of this world and taken to a place where everything really does work out in the end. Where nice guys do finish first, insufferable people DO get their comeuppance and the heroine really does live happily ever after.

We are very lucky to have such a banquet of her films from which to feast. At last count, there were 15 different versions of her work available on film, as well as countless knock-offs. With two more movies in the works (Northanger Abbey and Sanditon) we can surmise that Jane Austen will continue to be popular for a long time, introducing people who might not otherwise even pick up a book of “Classic Literature” to one of the finest writers of any age. No, the films don’t take the place of the novels, but they do bring her wonderful cast of characters to younger and younger audiences, creating in them a desire to not just to read books, but to read great books.

Laura Sauer is a Children’s Librarian Assistant.
She also runs Austentation, a company which specializes in custom-made regency accessories.

This is the first in a series of articles concerning the filmed works of Jane Austen. The next article will focus on Pride and Prejudice.

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