Jane Austen in Pop Culture

It's almost as if she never left us. Nearly 200 years after her death, Jane Austen has carved out a permanent place in our popular culture. A survey of Internet Movie Database reveals dozens of movies adapted from both her work and life. Austen was ranked number 70 on a list of the 100 greatest Britons as chosen by over 30,000 voters in a 2002 BBC poll. Pride and Prejudice was selected number one in a list of 100 novels that Britons "can't live without." She has legions of followers known as Janeites, some with blogs dedicated completely or predominantly to her works and adaptations of her works. Her stories are updated for modern audiences in the form of movies like Clueless and novels like The Three Weissmanns of Westport. Seth Grahame-Smith began a monster mash-up craze when he combined Pride and Prejudice with zombies; his book was so successful that few classic writers have been immune to a modern rewrite incorporating some kind of creature of the dark.

Why does Jane Austen have such universal appeal? Ian Freer, associate editor of the film magazine Empire, insists that Austen's novels are "beautifully constructed stories of heartbreak and happiness populated by good-looking people and adorned with period finery which is the stuff of populist movies. The fact that they also come with a set of social restrictions that can be translated into any environment—from a US high school in Clueless to an inter-racial romance in Bride And Prejudice—increases their appeal as they still feel contemporary and relevant." A parody mash-up of Jane Austen and Fight Club went viral on YouTube in 2010 and currently has over a million views:

Jane Austen: Criticism and Perception in Her Own Time

While Jane Austen seems to be everywhere today, according to contemporary critic John Lauber, "criticism of Austen in her own period is likely to disappoint in quantity and quality" (119). Austen wrote during a time in which the novel was not yet taken seriously as a literary form, but Lauber feels that the lack of criticism may also be the result of sexist notions at the time (119). He claims that most novels were written by women, who were "by definition uneducated, since no woman could attend university" (119). Lauber contends that even if novels were reviewed, women's novels were not taken as seriously as those written by men (119). The main criterion reviewers seemed to look for when judging a novel was whether or not it could be considered "improving," meaning it taught a moral lesson that might be good, especially for women, to learn (Lauber 119). While Sir Walter Scott wrote a review of Emma in Quarterly Review in 1815 declaring that Austen's subject matter was "not often elegant and never grand," (qtd. in Lauber 120), he would later revise his opinion, describing Austen as a woman who "had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with" (qtd. in Lauber 120). On the other hand, contemporary readers found Austen's novels to be entertaining and realistic portrayals of life (Lauber 120-121). Lady Gordon described Austen's novels as "exactly descriptive, so perfectly natural, that the reader can imagine that she herself has known these people, has taken part in these events" (qtd. in Lauber 121).

After the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion following Austen's death, Richard Whateley published a review of these novels as well as commentary about her works in general in Quarterly Review (Lauber 122). The next significant critical discussions of her work would not be published until 1859, almost 40 years later (Lauber 123). By this time, the reading public were more interested in modern Victorian novels, such as those of the Brontë sisters, who found much to criticize in Austen's work. Charlotte Brontë, for example, described Austen's work as "a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers" and declared that she "would hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses" (qtd. in Lauber 123-124). Henry James later reflected that Austen's writing had a limited range (Lauber 126). Virginia Woolf, too, argued that what Jane Austen did not achieve because of her short life would have surpassed what she did accomplish (Lauber 126). Serious literary criticism that acknowledged Austen's achievements and put her on the same footing as male authors did not begin to appear until the 1930's (Lauber 129). Interestingly, John Lauber concludes that Austen's work is "unlikely to influence future writers except in the most general way" and that the influence of her work had been and would continue to be confined to English-speaking countries (131-132). Of course, he could not have foreseen the way in which the BBC's 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle would change everything.

Pride and Prejudice and the Cult of Jane Austen

Colin Firth quite literally splashed on the scene as romantic lead Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Prior to playing this iconic role, arguably Firth's largest role was as Valmont in Valmont, a 1989 production of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses that was overshadowed by Dangerous Liaisons in 1988. Following his success in Pride and Prejudice, he has appeared in hit movies ranging from Love Actually and Bridget Jones's Diary to The King's Speech, for which he garnered an Oscar for Best Actor. Pride and Prejudice won many awards, including a BAFTA for Best Actress for Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Costume Design for a Miniseries or a Special. It was nominated for five other BAFTA categories and was either nominated for or won ten other awards. Interestingly, Colin Firth nearly didn't take the role that made him (and Jane Austen) famous. He said, "I couldn't see there was anything to play because the character doesn't speak most of the time. I thought this is just a guy who stands around for hours driving people to despair" ("Darcy Shock" 4). He added that "the only person on the planet who was convinced [he] could play the role" was the film's producer ("Darcy Shock" 4). This version of Pride and Prejudice is still considered by many Austen fans to be the paragon of a perfect Jane Austen film. Adaptations of Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park quickly followed, and before long, writers began penning sequels to Austen's six novels. Source Books has made a name for itself in publishing Austen sequels.  The list of Austen sequels runs into the hundreds. So much for Austen not having much of an influence.

This new film version of Pride and Prejudice inspired journalist Helen Fielding to write her Bridget Jones novels. The Jane Austen Society of North America saw its membership jump fifty percent in 1996 (Troost and Greenfield 2). Despite John Lauber's prediction that Jane Austen's influence would not likely spread into non-English speaking countries, Brazil can now boast its own Jane Austen Sociedade do Brasil (JASBRA). Jane Hearst, researcher at the University of Liverpool, named a pheromone she and her team identified in male mice that female mice were particularly attracted to "darcin" after Mr. Darcy. The name is particularly appropriate because the response female mice have to the pheromone is a learned response—Elizabeth Bennet had to learn to appreciate Mr. Darcy, too. In the age of Web 2.0, Austen-inspired blogs have popped up, inviting readers to learn more about Austen and share their love for her books with other Janeites. Surely even John Lauber would have to agree that it is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is a pop culture force to be reckoned with.

You can check out just a few of the many Jane Austen blogs to learn more about Jane Austen's impact on pop culture: