Long before women were debating whether they were a Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha or Miranda, they were contemplating whether they were more an Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Anne Eliot or Emma Woodhouse. Since the publication of Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Jane Austen’s characters and heroines have captured the imaginations of readers—and those readers have related to them in their realness.
This has made Austen a rich source for film and television adaptation from traditional iterations like the Laurence Olivier Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility (1995) to modern retellings like Clueless (1995) and Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) to the newest take on her work, Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship.
Since the mid-1990s and Colin Firth’s decidedly non-canon jump in a lake, Austen has spawned a lucrative cottage industry, inspiring everything from a publishing sub-genre to web series to travel itineraries to merchandise littered with her quotations, silhouette, and characters. Being an Austen fan has become such a distinctive obsession, that the original Queen of Satire has inspired another layer of skewering in films like Austenland (2013) that lovingly mock women obsessed with finding their Mr. Darcy.
What then, besides Colin Firth’s dripping wet shirt, has inspired droves of readers over the ages to return to Austen time and time again? Many modern readers admit to discovering Austen through her film adaptations—being taken in by Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth and Keira Knightley and discovering entirely new delights in the original source material. While many of the films emphasize and amplify the romance of Austen’s plots—a fact that frustrates many Austen purists—the novels introduce readers to a refreshing dose of irony and wit, perhaps missing from some of the lusher adaptations. Heroines that are spunky and relatable onscreen only become more so through their complexity on the page.
Some scoff at Austen’s tales that tend to focus more on character development and every-day happenings than epic drama, but it is this very lens that makes her work so engaging. “There are people who say that nothing happens in Jane Austen,” actor Nikki Massoud, 26, says. “And you could make that argument, but nothing happens in Jane Austen in the way that nothing happens in real life. Everything happens within the nothing.”
Austen wrote what she knew—the villages, communities and economic realities—of her own life, and it is this incisive view that allows her writing to resonate down the centuries.
Christina Boyd, 48, is an editor for Meryton Press, an independent publisher who specializes in the booming sub-genre of what is known as Jane Austen Fan-Fiction (JAFF)—books that retell, continue, and expand the world of Jane Austen’s characters. Boyd avoided Austen for years, assuming she was just a chronicler of happy endings, but was delighted to discover that Austen “wrote the little nuances of families and relationships and her community and her little world around her… and that’s just a timeless thing—how people can pick apart a family or relationships and relate it to their own lives through the years.”
“Austen did such a marvelous job of writing severely complex personalities,” filmmaker and writer Uttara Valluri, 26, explains, “that there’s a little portion of most of them in her readers; not by her design, but because anthropologically speaking, human behavior of that sort doesn’t change.”
Similarly, Claire Bellanti, 67-year-old President of the Jane Austen Society of North America, cites Austen’s “knowledge of human nature and ability to describe real human beings” as the primary reason for her enduring appeal.
Often, much of this realism and ironic wit is subsumed by romance and sweeping shots of English landscapes in film adaptation. Whit Stillman’s new film Love and Friendship finally closes this gap, presenting Austen fans with a film nearer the author’s own intentions with its wry sense of humor that packs a satirical punch.
The film is based on a lesser known novella, Lady Susan, and follows the exploits of widow Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) as she attempts to attain financial security and sexual satisfaction. The novella had never been adapted—perhaps because of its epistolary, un-cinematic nature—but it is a natural fit for the screen. While most Austen adaptations must either shave off subplots and secondary characters or expand to mini-series length, the novella format allows all of the intricacies and diversions to come to life in a brisk 90 minutes.
The film, with its direct allusions to promiscuity and Susan’s duplicitous nature, is perhaps truest to Austen’s spirit as a writer, yet also decidedly unlike any adaptations to come before it. Lady Susan is vain, selfish and immoral, more akin to many of Austen’s villains than her heroines; she’s also an older woman, a stark contrast with teenagers like Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) and Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility). Her age and status as a widow enable Lady Susan to exercise more control over her own life than many of Austen’s heroines. Yet, Lady Susan is also not ignorant or pompous, but succeeds because of her own manipulation of human nature. She is more like Scarlett O’Hara than Elizabeth Bennet, deliciously unlikable, funny and irresistible to root for, all at the same time.
Star Kate Beckinsale—no stranger to Austen, having played Emma Woodhouse in a 1996 TV movie—was taken aback by Lady Susan’s frank characterization. In an interview with the Telegraph, Beckinsale said:
I’m fairly familiar with Jane Austen and I think she’s so incredibly insightful and funny, but I didn’t realize she had such a naughty streak. I hadn’t seen such a broad kind of feminist-y heroine who is terrible and diabolical and cruel. Yet she’s also functioning within the constraints that existed at that time for women. Her big concern is her future security.
This allows the greatest hallmarks of Austen’s work to rise to the forefront—the cattiness and intelligence of the women and the subterfuge they must rely on to survive in a world not designed for them. Many of the women I interviewed for this piece described first discovering Austen’s works in middle school or high school. It is natural that these stories of sisterhood and competition would capture the imagination of so many young women.
Reading the books in middle school is actually a great time to read them because you’re watching girls behave in certain ways that women do in Jane Austen. There’s a certain level of you’re learning how to appear attractive to the opposite sex, according to what society tells you… you’re learning about fake friendships. Just the concept of ‘Frenemies,’ which is something you see all over Jane Austen, is something you see a lot in the average American middle school.
The appeal of Austen’s heroines is that, whether through patience, wit, endurance, or in Lady Susan’s case, duplicity and scheming, they achieve happily-ever-afters on their own terms. Their happy endings are not without caveats, but the women negotiate the best lives for themselves in a world where choice is minimal. Austen’s devotees are primarily female, which is expected for an author who writes exclusively about the lives and concerns of women.
Austen was ahead of her time in ability to write from a woman’s perspective and her desire to skewer those who underestimated the fairer sex. “Jane Austen was a feminist before the term was even coined,” Austenprose blog editor Laurel Ann Nattress says in an email. “Writing novels from a women’s perspective about female issues of love, marriage, money and social power is why we can relate so well to her today.”
“I don’t think that Jane Austen was a feminist in the guise that we might call feminism today,” Bellanti notes. “She was a person who read Mary Wollstonecraft, and I think she had a good understanding of the situation of women in her time and what that meant to them… She’s presenting women as real people, rather than as caricatures and stereotypes, which so much literature of her time did.”
Austen was groundbreaking simply in her desire and ability to portray women as dynamic, realistic human beings with vibrant inner lives and sharp senses of humor. While those of us in the Western world may delight in Austen’s biting wit, we find ourselves slightly distanced from the notion of disenfranchised women who must scheme to marry for love, security or both. We can identify with the search for mutual respect in a partner, but are able to find it on far more equal terms.
Austen hits home more profoundly for those outside the Western world. Massoud, who is Iranian-American, notes how similar much of Austen’s world is to contemporary Middle Eastern society. “I have a lot of friends and family members who find Jane Austen directly relatable because they’re girls,” she says, “and they have to deal with legal and financial disadvantages because they’re not from a white, Anglo culture.”
Whether in her description of women’s choices or her use of satire to pull apart societal expectations and female behavior, Austen speaks to women on a personal level. When discussing her enduring appeal, women continually refer back to an intimate connection with Austen’s work that keeps them coming back for more.
“Something about reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time just gave me such a sense of belonging,” Bellanti explains. “I felt like Jane Austen knew who I was—that she was writing just for me.”
Many women have found enrichment in Jane Austen through the community she provides among fellow readers and fans. Boyd came to Austen later in life and has found an unexpected home in the JAFF community. “It sounds so trite to say, but she really changed my life,” Boyd says. “I really do believe that just because of the love of her words, her stories, they’ve made me look at my own little world in detail and the people that I meet in detail. She just changed my life in making it richer.”
By holding a critical mirror up to her society, Austen also pushes us to examine our own lives. “You don’t just read Austen’s work,” Valluri says, “you’re immersed. It changes you for a brief moment of time, and somehow I think it makes us slightly better people… She makes you more accepting of flaws and the reality of imperfection.”
Author Beau North, 39, describes Austen as the “big sister [she] never had,” speaking to Austen’s ability to help you realize flaws in yourself and others across the span of 200 years. “There might be certain areas of life you see with rose-colored glasses,” she says, “and then you read a Jane Austen novel, and she makes you laugh at yourself. For me, personally, she makes me know myself better than I ever did before.”
With new and delightfully surprising film adaptations like Love and Friendship and the unwavering idiosyncrasies of human nature, Austen shows no sign of slowing down in popularity or reach. The women in her novels (and their accompanying films) may wear ornate bonnets and silk chemise, but they are wholly modern in their desires, sparkling wit and all-too-human faults. Austen writes of women who struggle to achieve happiness in a world bound by societal expectation, morality and a race for limited resources –whether that be financial security or eligible bachelors.
As long as the pursuit of love and happiness on your own terms remains a challenge, it appears to be “a truth universally acknowledged” that Jane Austen will remain relevant.
Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress and freelance journalist who has written for Turner Classic Movies, Ms. in the Biz, @ This Stage, LA Weekly and more. She is working towards an M.A. in Arts Journalism at USC, reporting on arts, theatre and entertainment. Her Jane Austen inspired short story, “The Food of Love,” can be found in Meryton Press’ Then Comes Winter anthology.