Today we celebrate the 235th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth in 1775.
To show they care, Amazon is making all her books available for free on Kindle. Of course, all her books are already available for free on any number of web sites, including Project Gutenberg.
Or you can learn to talk like Jane. dance like Jane, dress like Jane and visit her home. Last year, Jane aficionados met in Bath to see if they could get into the Guinness Book with the largest number of people in Regency dress parading through the streets. Oh, yes – you can also make a Jane Austen high tea.
Movies and television feed at the Austen trough non-stop. If you haven’t seen Hollywood’s first stab at Austen, you are fortunate indeed. Do not make the effort. Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet is almost but not quite bad enough to be funny – it’s just painful.
What has brought on this Janemania? What is it about her books and her life that so fascinates 21st century readers? The Regency, after all, was one of the briefest periods in English history, lasting a mere 8 years technically (1811-1820) or about 40 years, if you measure from late George III (1797) to the accession of Victoria (1837).
It was a period of royally-sanctioned loose morals, excessive displays of wealth and a shocking disparity between rich and poor.
But it was also a time of great creativity, an enthusiastic appreciation of the arts and a sense of cultural refinement. Best of all, fashions were highly flattering for women and much less cumbersome than in the previous century. All of this seems very appealing to modern fans.
And of course Austen’s books – rightly called literature due to their language and structure – are all really just about getting a husband. This is a topic that apparently never palls.
Victorian writers were interested in the same topic, though, but haven’t achieved any of the status of Austen. Anthony Trollope is the quintessential writer of the genre and Hollywood has yet to come calling. Why?
Having encountered Austen long after a thorough study of Trollope, I see a modern streak in her work that the Victorians could never claim. In both Trollope and Austen, the beautiful, biddable girl with the sweet temper gets the really rich husband, while the bluestocking gets the interesting one. For both, the ultimate state of happiness is marriage, the plot is all about overcoming obstacles to get to it.
But in Trollope, the main obstacle is invariably money, the great concern of the middle class. That’s who his readers were. There are innumerable – and lengthy – forays into property, wills, income and economic class-consciousness. In Austen, the obstacles are more likely to be on a personal level, having to do with temperament, sensitivity, even ethics.
That alone frees Jane Austen from her time, keeps her fresh and relevant for us. Now, here’s the Bath Parade: