Happy birthday, Jane Austen

Guest post by Janine Barchas

Has Jane Austen jumped the shark? Or is she giving Will Shakespeare a run for his money?

Jane takes on Will

This December 16th marks the 237th anniversary of the birthday of Jane Austen, born in the sleepy village of Steventon in 1775—the seventh child of a country rector.

Austen quietly published four novels during her lifetime—all of them anonymously. She died in relative obscurity in 1817 at the age of 41. It is only because her family pulled some strings with their clerical connections that she was genteelly buried in Hampshire’s Winchester Cathedral (not Westminster, with its Poet’s Corner).

Today, however, Jane Austen is one of the world’s most celebrated authors. And in the last few decades, Hollywood has helped to propel her further upwards to a unique level of superstar status. New editions of her novels, varying in degrees of scholarly apparatus, cover art, and production values, are everywhere—in bricks-and-mortar bookstores as well as e-formats. Although we have only six full-length novels by Austen (two of these were published posthumously), she nonetheless warrants her own classes in English departments worldwide. In fact, at my own university we cannot seem to supersaturate the demand for courses on Austen. Is the new Cult of Jane challenging the iconic status that The Bard has long held in our culture?

With only six novels to enjoy, Austen fans have built a fan-fiction industry that extends her corpus. Her characters and stories have been enthusiastically reworked into everything from Christian dating manuals to slash fiction. Her fictional creations are enjoying enviable literary half-lives in other people’s novels, adaptations, films, and even stage productions. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether aggressive merchandizing celebrates or cannibalizes Austen’s significance. Do “I [heart] Darcy” undergarments, mash-ups such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Jane Austen action figures confirm her place in the literary canon or undermine her status as a serious writer? Can an author experience too much hype—even 200 years in?

Last year marked the 200th anniversary of Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811), while next year celebrates 200 years of Pride and Prejudice (1813). Soon there will be landmark anniversaries for Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), as well as Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (published together in December 1817).

There may be something special about a historical distance of 200-odd years. William Shakespeare, whose First Folio was published in 1623, experienced a similar frenzy of fandom in the mid-eighteenth century, when the celebrity of actors such as David Garrick fanned the flames of his revived fame (of course, Shakespeare had achieved recognition during his lifetime, unlike Austen). In the mid-eighteenth century, the long-lived mulberry tree that Shakespeare supposedly planted was generating an impossibly large number of relics claiming to be made from its wood. When the tree was cut down in 1759—by an exasperated owner, tired of tourists invading his Stratford garden—its demise incited nationwide lament.

Only two authors in the literary canon are routinely discussed on a first-name basis: Jane and Will. We don’t speak about John (Milton), Herman (Mellville), or Aphra (Behn). Nor Geoffrey, Charles, Emily, Virginia, Ernest, or Toni. The informality of first names may reflect a strong desire for intimacy and personal connection. The seemingly jovial irreverence of referring to “Jane” or “Will” neatly urges an implied kinship with these authors. This first-name-only status is a relatively new phenomenon for Jane, who was marketed as “Miss Austen” well into the 20th century. When does familiarity risk affectation or, still worse, begin to breed a proverbial contempt?

While hers is the big name now, Austen seems to have been an avid celebrity-watcher during her own lifetime. My own research focuses, in particular, on her consistent habit of slyly alluding to famous people and places through the leading names and settings of her stories. For example, many of the surnames given to her protagonists, including Darcy, Wentworth, Woodhouse, Vernon, Watson, and Fitzwilliam, seem as if plucked from the family tree of England’s most prominent political clan: the Wentworths of Yorkshire. During Austen’s day, these same names appeared regularly in newspaper reports about life at the grand family estates of Wentworth Woodhouse and Wentworth Castle. The significance of the glittering Wentworth clan on the social and political scenes in Austen’s era is matched in our time only by the renown of the Kennedy family. Imagine a novelist today writing about a handsome, fictional, young man whose last name just happens to be Kennedy.

Today, Austen’s own unique celebrity offers up a final and delicious historical irony. Her invented characters have utterly eclipsed their historical namesakes in the zeitgeist. Many of the names in her novels have, in 200 years, become so famous in their own right as to shine from within, casting a Janeite shadow over the genuine personages and celebrities (such as the real John, Fanny, and Marianne Dashwood, or the genuine Frederick Wentworth) who held these same names during Austen’s lifetime.

You’ve come a long way, Jane! Happy birthday.

barchasJanine Barchas is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, and the author of two books, Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel and the recently published Matters of Fact in Jane Austen.