‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ that Jane Austen’s novels – and Pride and Prejudice in particular – are enduringly popular, alive in cultural imagination for more than 200 years. Readers have been enthralled by the story of Elizabeth and Darcy since Pride and Prejudice’s publication in 1813, and through current multi-media adaptations, fan-created sequels, web communities, and the emergence of various ‘Austenian subcultures’, we see this enthusiasm continuing in the 21st century (O’Farrell, 480). But what is it that makes Austen so relevant throughout the centuries, despite shifting cultural values, social modes, and literary tastes? Created by English graduate students at the University of Windsor (Fall 2013), The Leddy Library Jane Austen Exhibit traces the reception and impact of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through the last 200 years.
Pride and Prejudice, a “light & bright & sparkling” novel according to Austen herself, has been subjected to many modern adaptations, with multiple reincarnations of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s romance of misconception and self-transformation. As Todd notes, “Darcy has become a popular cultural icon” through various film portrayals (73). Colin Firth’s famous wet shirt scene in the 1995 BBC production has even inspired “a new 12-foot tall statue of Mr. Darcy” in Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake (Locker, n.p.). Austen herself “has become a cultural icon” (Simons, 476), with her face to be on the next 10 pound note of the Bank of England (Jane Austen to be face of the Bank of England £10 note). Numerous adaptations and creative interpretations of Austen’s fiction have made her a part of our popular culture. Her works remain some of the most beloved of English literature, “achieving both academic and popular status: the object of scholarly analysis and cult enthusiasm” (Todd, 1).
In addition to the more mainstream culture of cinema and popular iconography, experts and fans of Austen have developed their own unique cultures. One critic, Mary Ann O’Farrell, examines these “Austenian subcultures,” including international Austen societies such as JASNA (the Jane Austen Society of North America) that undertake “public missions of education, preservation, archival development, and scholarship” (O’Farrell, 481). O’Farrell also describes the less professional, but more wildly enthusiastic fans of Austen, such as the ‘Janeites’ (484). These fans purchase “commodities” (481), create YouTube videos (484), and form “exclusive” online communities such as “The Republic of Pemberley” (483), where the “discussion boards, … shopping…, advice center, and…for-the-nonce book clubs” provide a “haven” for “Austen Addicts” (483). Why does Austen inspire such passionate interest among academics and average readers?
Austen’s life has not been sensationalized in the manner of other Romantic period authors, though films such as Becoming Jane (2007) have sought to fictionalize the famous author’s life. Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 in the village of Steventon in southern England (Todd, 2). Her father was rector of the Steventon parish, and Austen grew up there with six brothers and one sister, Cassandra (2-3). Jane and her sister both remained unmarried, and had to rely on their relations for support. As a single woman on “the edge of the gentry” (2), Austen’s financial and social standing was often precarious; but her wit, self-education and talent for writing soon translated into a career, as she began “writing for money” (9). In addition to her juvenilia, Austen completed six novels before she died in 1817 (13).
Though Austen’s novels were published during the Regency period, a time between the French and Industrial Revolutions when England was largely at war (Todd, 13), they possess a “universal popularity” that transcends time (ix). Austen’s “ability to create the illusion of psychologically believable and self-reflecting characters” (ix), and her exploration of “the constant negotiation between desire and society” (ix) resonates with readers of all periods. (15). Austen’s novels are “experimental” in style (17), giving an “impression of fluidity[:]…there is no single secure moral or socio-political vision that cannot be investigated, a little ironized, or a little mocked” (17). Austen’s experimental style invites the reader to participate in the text, creating his or her own meaning; “No other English writer inspires the same intellectual rigor and irreverence as Austen” (Simons, 476), and the creative legacy of her writing has not yet been exhausted.
The exhibit will be located inside the Leddy Library’s main entranceway in December 2013.. Alternatively, the collection, along with more information, can be viewed online via Pinterest.
“Jane Austen to be face of the Bank of England £10 note.” BBC News: Business. BBC, 24 July 2013. Web. Nov. 26 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23424289 >
Locker, Melissa. “Finally: Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy Immortalized as a Statue.” Time: Entertainment. Time, July 10 2013. Web. Nov. 26, 2013. < http://entertainment.time.com/2013/07/10/colin-firths-wet-mr-darcy-finally-immortalized/ >
O’Farrell, Mary Ann. “Austenian Subcultures.” A Companion to Jane Austen. Eds. Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 478-87.
Simons, Judy. “Jane Austen and Popular Culture.” A Companion to Jane Austen. Eds. Claudia
L. Johnson and Clara Tuite. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 467-77.
Todd, Janet. The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.