Recently I was lucky enough to attend a two day workshop with romance author Eloisa James. She was talking about female novelists a little after Jane Austen’s time (and often inspired by Austen) who wrote “silver fork” novels and supported themselves by writing. We tend to think of Austen as being unique and alone, but it’s empowering to think that there were women writing and selling their work–even if those novels haven’t stood the test of time.
Jane Austen’s work obviously has endured, however. Austen was a great writer whose books have literary value and give us insight into the human condition, so it’s no wonder she’s consider one of the greats of English literature. But I always wonder why she attracts so much fan fiction while other literary greats are only admired from afar?
In other words, why don’t we have Charles Dickens Fan Fiction or what-if versions of Moby Dick or sequels to Hamlet or modern adaptations of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and (heaven forbid!) Pilgrim’s Progress? There is a lot of literature out there that doesn’t attract a hoard of avid fan fiction writers or readers. Why is Austen different?
Of course the answer is multi-faceted and complex, and different people find Austen appealing for different reasons. But the answer is also tied up in the question of why Jane Austen is so popular today. For the past 20 years we have experienced a stunning Austen renaissance that encompasses conferences, plays, artwork, children’s editions of her books, and a vast array of movies based on her books, her life, or Austen fandom. But, again I return to the question of “why Jane?” Why is it Austen in particular that we are so fascinated with at this moment in history? Why aren’t we treated to “David Copperfield and Zombies” or “Lost in Milton” or “ShakespeareLand” or “The James Fennimore Cooper Book Club”?
Obviously one part of the answer has to do with the popularity of romance; the marriage plots in her novels make them particularly accessible and appealing to a modern audience. Just about everyone has struggled with finding the right person to love, so we can all relate. The Regency time period is also popular in romance novels, in part because of Jane herself, but also because of Georgette Heyer and the novelists who came after her. But why aren’t we reading lots of fan fiction based on Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights? They both have romance, historical settings, and literary value.
One of the things that Eloisa James said actually gave me a clue here. She talked about how the writing style for romances had changed and how readers no longer want books with long descriptive passages. They want things to happen. They want dialogue. Shorter paragraphs. And humor.
Who does that sound like? I think one of the reasons for Austen’s popularity now is that her writing style is particularly in tune with modern sensibilities. Her humorous characters and somewhat sarcastic narrative voice can be appreciated by modern readers. Much of the action happens—and character is revealed through—dialogue, rather than in lengthy paragraphs of description. The plots move along for the most part, not getting bogged down in unnecessary digressions or minutiae. And, of course, her heroines exhibit independence that modern women find appealing.
You don’t find this combination in other writers in the past. Jane Eyre has an appealing story, but things really only start to happen once Jane meets Lord Rochester. Before that point the reader needs to slog through chapters about Jane’s miserable childhood in an orphanage. And Wuthering Heights has a plot that meanders as well as several characters of questionable morals that modern readers might not identify with. And don’t get me started on Dickens or Hardy. 🙂 By comparison, Jane Austen is short and snappy.
I also think that some of her popularity has to do with the search for role models. As a girl growing up I avidly read biographies of historical women—anything I could find in my local library. (Unfortunately they didn’t have one about Jane Austen.) I realize now I was looking for role models. When you’re a girl, it’s easy to believe that people like you got left out of history.
As a girl, reading biographies of historical women could show me that women could participate in history—that women had accomplished important things too. There aren’t a lot of women to point to who unquestionably belong in the English literary canon before 1900, but Jane Austen is one of them. And that makes me want to embrace her writing. Of course that is also probably one of the reasons her writing holds so much appeal for me.
In addition to her modern sensibility, I believe that this is one of the reasons for her success. Not as some sort of academic or popular cultural tokenism, but because English-speaking women have embraced her as theirs—as someone they can admire and use as a role model. Before 1900, female writers didn’t get a lot of turns at bat, but at least Jane hit a home run. Yes, I know Austen’s work has a lot of male admirers, which is fabulous. Great writers should be able to speak to anyone, regardless of gender. But I think the Jane Austen phenomenon – the conferences, book clubs, mugs, t-shirts, audiences for her movies, and (of course) JAFF—is driven primarily by women. And that’s something to be proud of. Look what we did! Doesn’t she deserve it?