When Jane Austen died, aged 41, in July of 1817, the Regency Period of England was in full swing, the first English railroad line was under construction, the generation long war with France had finally concluded, and she was buried with no mention of her work as a novelist on her tombstone.
This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of her beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice. This week the Lewis University Celebration of Humanities is dedicated to Jane Austen presentations. When many of Regency England’s celebrities have become obscure (the Corinthian, the Buck, the Dandies, Beau Brummel and Mrs. Fitzherbert), Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy still tell us a familiar tale.
Why has Austen flourished? Well, her books are funny. Hilarious, actually. Her tales deal with families, recognizable families, and with the fundamental issue of marriage. She saw clearly and wrote superbly. Her dialogues are so life like, they transfer easily to the screen. Why is a conversation written two hundred years ago still so accessible, so “modern?”
Jane Austen has flourished and is still being read and lauded today because she was there at the beginning. She ushered in the modernity in which we still reside. She never mentions the term “French Revolution,” never alludes to the “Corsican Monster,” however, she is part of the new age and has left the Ancien Regime of hooped dresses, bewigged men, and stultifying artificiality behind.
There is no exorbitant wealth in the Bennet family. Elizabeth and her sisters live anxiously trying to find their way into an uncertain future. The Bennet family women still see the only future through alliances with men, but Jane Austen never did. She was a published author. She did it on her own.
The Greater Chicago Region Jane Austen Society of North America (www.jasnachicago.org) is the local manifestation of an international fascination with Jane Austen and her works. The characters in Pride and Prejudice have spawned an entire category of novels ranging from mysteries (P.D. James) to zombies (Seth Grahame-Smith). The films keep coming. We keep reading and watching.
Fundamentally, we love her. Jane Austen’s work is fascinating in period films and translates seamlessly into contemporary stories (Bridget Jones’ Diary). We see wisdom, wryness, sarcasm, humor, a bit of pathos, a glimpse of bleak and then we see a happy ending! The final distinction between tragedy and comedy is that resolution: we can slam that book shut with a shout of glee. They lived happily ever after! There is hope.