Reception history of Jane Austen

Reception history of Jane Austen

The reception history of Jane Austen's works follows a path from modest fame to wild popularity. Jane Austen, an early nineteenth-century British novelist, authored works such as "Pride and Prejudice" (1813) and "Emma" (1815). Her novels have become some of the best-known and widely-read in the English language. [Clark, Robert. " [ Jane Austen] ". "The Literary Encyclopedia" (subscription only). 8 January 2001. Retrieved 24 August 2008.]

During her lifetime, Austen's novels brought her little personal fame, because she chose to publish anonymously. Her works received only a few positive reviews, although they were popular with fashionable people. By the mid-nineteenth century, her novels were admired by members of the literary elite who viewed their appreciation of her works as a mark of cultivation. The publication in 1870 of her nephew's "Memoir of Jane Austen" introduced her to a wider public as an appealing personality—"dear quiet aunt Jane"—and her works were republished in popular editions. By the turn of the twentieth century, competing Janeite cults had sprung up: some to worship her and some to defend her from the adoring masses. Early in the twentieth century, scholars produced a carefully edited collection of her works—the first for any British novelist.

By the 1940s, Austen was firmly ensconced in academia as a "great English novelist". The second half of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of Austen scholarship, which explored every aspect of her works: artistic, ideological, and historical. With the increasing professionalisation of university English departments in the first half of the mid-twentieth century, criticism of Austen became an increasingly esoteric function and appreciation of Austen branched into several directions. Fans founded Jane Austen societies and clubs to celebrate Austen, her time, and her works. Austen fandom supports an industry of printed sequels and prequels as well as adaptations for television and film, starting with the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice" and evolving to include the 2004 Bollywood production "Bride and Prejudice".


Austen lived her entire life as part of a large and close-knit family located on the lower fringes of English gentry. [Lascelles, 2.] The steadfast support of her family was critical to Austen's development as a professional writer. [Lascelles, 4-5; MacDonagh, 110-28; Honan, "Jane Austen", 79, 183-85; Tomalin, 66-68.] Austen's artistic apprenticeship lasted from her teenage years until she was about thirty-five years old. During this period, she wrote three major novels and began a fourth. From 1811 until 1815, with the release of "Sense and Sensibility" (1811), "Pride and Prejudice" (1813), "Mansfield Park" (1814) and "Emma" (1815), she achieved success as a published writer. She wrote two additional novels, "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion", both published after her death in 1817, and began a third, eventually titled "Sanditon", but died before completing it.

Austen's works are noted for their realism, biting social commentary, and masterful use of free indirect speech, burlesque and irony. [Southam, "Criticism, 1870-1940", 102.] They critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the eighteenth century and are part of the transition to nineteenth-century realism. [Litz, "Jane Austen", 3-14; Grundy, 192-93; Waldron, 83, 89-90; Duffy, 93-94.] Austen's plots, though fundamentally comic, [Litz, "Jane Austen", 142.] highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. [MacDonagh, 66-75.] Like those of Samuel Johnson, one of the strongest influences on her writing, her works are concerned with moral issues. [Honan, 124-27; Trott, 92.]

1812–1821: Individual reactions and contemporary reviews

Austen's novels quickly became fashionable among opinion-makers. Lady Bessborough wrote of "Sense and Sensibility" that "it is a clever novel. They were full of it at Althrop, and tho' it ends stupidly, I was much amused by it." [Qtd. in Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 1, 7.] Princess Charlotte Augusta, daughter of the Prince Regent and then fifteen, compared herself to one of its heroines, Marianne: "I think Marianne & me are very like in "disposition", that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &tc". [Emphasis in original; qtd. in Honan, "Jane Austen", 289–90.] After reading "Pride and Prejudice", playwright Richard Sheridan advised a friend to " [b] uy it immediately" for it "was one of the cleverest things" he had ever read. [Qtd. in Honan, "Jane Austen", 318.] Anne Milbanke, future wife of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, wrote that "I have finished the Novel called Pride and Prejudice, which I think a very superior work." She commented that the novel "is the most "probable" fiction I have ever read" and had become "at present the fashionable novel". [Emphasis in original; qtd. in Honan, "Jane Austen", 318–19.] The Dowager Lady Vernon told a friend that "Mansfield Park" was " [n] ot much of a novel, more the history of a family party in the country, very natural" as if, comments Honan, "Lady Vernon's parties mostly featured adultery." [Qtd. in Honan, "Jane Austen", 347.] Lady Anne Romilly told her friend, the novelist Maria Edgeworth, that " [i] t ["Mansfield Park"] has been pretty generally admired here" and Edgeworth commented later that "we have been much entertained with Mansfield Park". [Qtd. in Honan, "Jane Austen", 347.]

Despite these positive reactions from the elite, Austen's novels received relatively few reviews during her lifetime: two for "Sense and Sensibility", three for "Pride and Prejudice", none for "Mansfield Park", and seven for "Emma". Most of the reviews were short and on balance favourable, although superficial and cautious. [Fergus, 18–19; Honan, "Jane Austen", 287–89, 316–17, 372–73; Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 1, 1.] They most often focused on the moral lessons of the novels. [Waldron, 83–91.] Asked by publisher John Murray to review "Emma", famed historical novelist Walter Scott wrote the longest and most thoughtful of these reviews, which was published anonymously in the March 1816 issue of the "Quarterly Review". Using the review as a platform from which to defend the then disreputable genre of the novel, Scott praised Austen's works, celebrating her ability to copy "from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader ... a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him". [Southam, "Scott in the "Quarterly Review", Vol. 1, 58; see Litz, "Criticism, 1939–1983", 110; Waldron, 85–86; Duffy, 94–96.] Modern Austen scholar William Galperin has noted that "unlike some of Austen's lay readers, who recognized her divergence from realistic practice as it had been prescribed and defined at the time, Walter Scott may well have been the first to install Austen as the realist par excellence". [Galperin, 96.] Scott wrote in his private journal in 1826, in what later became a widely quoted comparison:

Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen's very finely written novel of "Pride and Prejudice". That young lady 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. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early! [Southam, "Scott on Jane Austen", Vol. 1, 106.]

"Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion", published together posthumously in December 1817, were reviewed in the "British Critic" in March 1818 and in the "Edinburgh Review and Literary Miscellany" in May 1818. The reviewer for the "British Critic" felt that Austen's exclusive dependence on experience ("i.e.", her realism) was evidence of a deficient imagination. The reviewer for the "Edinburgh Review" disagreed, praising Austen for her "exhaustless invention" and the combination of the familiar and the surprising in her plots. [Waldron, 89.] Overall, these early reviewers did not know what to make of Austen's novels—they missed her use of irony, for example. [Waldron, 84–85, 87–88.]

In the "Quarterly Review" in 1821, Richard Whately published the most serious and enthusiastic early posthumous review of Austen's work. Whately drew favourable comparisons between Austen and such acknowledged greats as Homer and Shakespeare, praising the dramatic qualities of her narrative. He also affirmed the seriousness and legitimacy of the novel as a genre, arguing that imaginative literature, especially narrative, was more valuable than history or biography. When it was properly done, Whately said, imaginative literature concerned itself with generalised human experience from which the reader could gain important insights into human nature; in other words, it was moral. [Waldron, 89–90; Duffy, 97; Watt, 4–5.] Whately also addressed Austen's position as a female writer, writing that: "we suspect one of Miss Austin's ["sic"] great merits in our eyes to be, the insight she gives us into the peculiarities of female characters. ... Her heroines are what one knows women must be, though one never can get them to acknowledge it." [Southam, "Whately on Jane Austen", Vol. 1, 100–101.] No more serious Austen criticism was published until the late 19th century: Whately and Scott had set the tone for the Victorian era's view of Austen. [Waldron, 89–90; Duffy, 97; Watt, 4–5.]

1821–1870: Discriminating readers

Austen had many admiring readers in the nineteenth century, who, according to critic Ian Watt, appreciated her "scrupulous and initiated fidelity to ordinary social experience". [Watt, 2.] However, Austen's novels failed to conform to certain strong Romantic and Victorian British preferences, which required that "powerful emotion [be] authenticated by an egregious display of sound and color in the writing". [Duffy, 98–99; MacDonagh, 146; Watt, 3–4.] Victorian critics and audiences preferred the works of Charles Dickens and George Eliot, next to which Austen's novels looked provincial and quiet. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 1, 2; Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 1.] Although Austen's novels were republished beginning in late 1832 or early 1833 by Richard Bentley in the "Standard Novels" series and remained in print continuously thereafter, they were not bestsellers. [Johnson, 211.] Brian Southam, who has made a study of the reception of Austen's novels, describes her "reading public between 1821 and 1870" as "minute beside the known audience for Dickens and his contemporaries". [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 1, 20.]

Those who did read Austen saw themselves as discriminating readers—they were a cultured few. This became a common theme of literary criticism of Austen's works during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [Duffy, 98–99.] Philosopher and literary critic George Henry Lewes carried this theme forward in a series of enthusiastic articles in the 1840s and 1850s. In "The Novels of Jane Austen", published anonymously in "Blackwood's Magazine" in 1859, Lewes praised Austen's novels for "the economy of art ... the easy adaptation of means to ends, with no aid from superfluous elements" and compared her to Shakespeare. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 1, 152; Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 20–21.] Arguing that Austen lacked the ability to construct a plot, he celebrated her dramatisations: "The reader's pulse never throbs, his curiosity is never intense; but his interest never wanes for a moment. The action begins; the people speak, feel, and act; everything that is said, felt, or done tends towards the entanglement or disentanglement of the plot; and we are almost made actors as well as spectators of the little drama." [Southam, "Lewes: The great appraisal", Vol. 1, 158.]

Reacting against Lewes's essays and his personal communications with her, novelist Charlotte Brontë admired Austen's fidelity to everyday life but described her as "only shrewd and observant" and criticised the absence of visible passion in her work. [Southam, "Charlotte Brontë on Jane Austen", Vol. 1, 128.] To Brontë, Austen's work appeared formal and constrained, "a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck". [Southam, "Charlotte Brontë on Jane Austen", Vol. 1, 126.]

Nineteenth-century European translations

Austen's novels appeared in some countries in Europe soon after their publication in Britain, beginning in 1813 with a French translation of "Pride and Prejudice", quickly followed by German, Danish, and Swedish editions. [Cossy and Saglia, 169.] Their availability in Europe was not universal, however. Austen was not well known in Russia and the first version of an Austen novel in Russian did not appear until 1967. [Cossy and Saglia, 169.] Despite the fact that Austen’s novels were translated into many European languages, Europeans did not recognise her as part of the English novel tradition. While the translations of her works, which often significantly altered them by injecting sentimentalism and eliminating Austen’s humour and irony, contributed to this, so too did the "marginalization of women writers" and the dominant association between Walter Scott and the "English novel" in European readers' minds. [Cossy and Saglia, 170.] As Valérie Cossy and Diego Saglia write in their essay on translations of Austen’s novels, " [i] n Europe Jane Austen was simply one of the many writers whose works satisfied continental readers’ demand for prose fiction." [Cossy and Saglia, 170.] Because of the significant changes made to Austen’s works by her translators, she was received as a very different novelist on the Continent than in Britain. For example, the French novelist Isabelle de Montolieu translated several of Austen's novels into a genre Montolieu herself wrote in: the French sentimental novel. In Montolieu's "Pride and Prejudice", for example, vivacious conversations between Elizabeth and Darcy were replaced by decorous ones. [Cossy and Saglia, 171.] Because Austen’s works were therefore seen in France as part of a sentimental tradition, they were overshadowed by the works of realist French writers such as Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert. [Cossy and Saglia, 174.] German translations and reviews of those translations also placed Austen in a line of sentimental writers, particularly late Romantic women writers. [Cossy and Saglia, 178.]

1870–1930: Janeites and Anti-Janeites

Family biographies

Until the appearance of the first significant biography of Austen in 1870, James Edward Austen-Leigh's "A Memoir of Jane Austen", Scott's and Whately's reviews were the primary received opinions on Austen and few read her novels. However, with the publication of the biography, Austen's popularity and her critical standing increased dramatically. [The "Memoir" was written by Austen-Leigh with the assistance and cooperation of his older sister, Anna, and his younger sister, Caroline, both of whom had known Austen and contributed written reminiscences. Le Fay, 52–54; Southam, “Introduction”, Vol. 2, 1–2.] Readers of the "Memoir" were presented with the myth of the amateur novelist who wrote masterpieces: the "Memoir" fixed in the public mind a sentimental picture of Austen as a quiet, middle-aged maiden aunt and reassured the public that her work was suitable for a respectable Victorian family. Yet, contemporary critics continued to assert that her works were sophisticated and only appropriate for those who could truly plumb their depths. [Southam, "Criticism, 1870–1940", 102–03; see also Watt, 6; Johnson, 211; Trott, 92–94.] After the publication of the "Memoir", more criticism was published on Austen's novels in two years than had appeared in the previous fifty. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 1, 1.] The publication of the "Memoir" also spurred a major reissue of Austen's novels. The first popular editions were released in 1883—a sixpenny series by Routledge. This was followed by a proliferation of elaborate illustrated editions, collectors' sets, and scholarly editions. [Southam, “Introduction”, Vol. 2, 58–62.]

William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, descendants of Austen, published the definitive family biography, "Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters—A Family Record", in 1913. Based primarily on family papers and letters, it is described by Austen biographer Park Honan as "accurate, staid, reliable, and at times vivid and suggestive". [Honan, "Biographies", 19.] Although the authors moved away from the sentimental tone of the "Memoir", they made little effort to go beyond the family records and traditions immediately available to them. Their book therefore offers bare facts and little in the way of interpretation. [; Southam, "Criticism, 1870–1940", 106; Le Fay, 55; Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 82. For an updated and revised version of this biography, see Deirdre Le Faye, "Jane Austen: A Family Record", 2nd ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2003.]


During the last quarter of the 19th century, the first books of criticism on Austen's works were published. Initiating a "fresh phase in the critical heritage" in which Austen reviewers became critics, Godwin Smith published the "Life of Jane Austen" in 1890, launching the beginning of "formal criticism". [Southam, “Introduction”, Vol. 2, 34, 45.] According to Southam, while Austen criticism increased in amount and, to some degree, in quality after 1870, "a certain uniformity" pervaded it:

We see the novels praised for their elegance of form and their surface 'finish'; for the realism of their fictional world, the variety and vitality of their characters; for their pervasive humour; and for their gentle and undogmatic morality and its unsermonising delivery. The novels are prized for their 'perfection'. Yet it is seen to be a narrow perfection, achieved within the bounds of domestic comedy. [Southam, “Introduction”, Vol. 2, 13–14.]
Among the most astute of these critics were Richard Simpson, Margaret Oliphant, and Leslie Stephen. In a review of the "Memoir", Simpson described Austen as a serious yet ironic critic of English society. He introduced two interpretative themes which later became the basis for modern literary criticism of Austen's works: humour as social critique and irony as a means of moral evaluation. Continuing Lewes's comparison to Shakespeare, Simpson wrote that Austen:
began by being an ironical critic; she manifested her judgment ... not by direct censure, but by the indirect method of imitating and exaggerating the faults of her models. ... Criticism, humor, irony, the judgment not of one that gives sentence but of the mimic who quizzes while he mocks, are her characteristics. [Qtd. in Watt, 5–6.]
However, Simpson's essay was not well-known and did not become influential until Lionel Trilling quoted it in 1957. [Southam, “Introduction”, Vol. 2, 17.] Another well-known writer but ignored Austen critic of the period, novelist Margaret Oliphant, described Austen in almost proto-feminist terms, as "armed with a 'fine vein of feminine cynicism,' 'full of subtle power, keenness, finesse, and self-restraint,' blessed with an 'exquisite sense' of the 'ridiculous,' 'a fine stinging yet soft-voiced contempt,' whose novels are 'so calm and cold and keen'". [Qtd. in Southam, "Criticism, 1870–1940", 102–03.] This line of criticism would not be fully explored until the 1970s.

Although Austen's novels had been published in the United States since 1832, often in bowdlerized editions, it was not until after 1870 that there was a distinctive American response to Austen. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 49–50.] As Southam explains, "for American literary nationalists Jane Austen's cultivated scene was too pallid, too constrained, too refined, too downright unheroic". [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 52.] Austen was not democratic enough for American tastes and her canvas did not explore the frontier themes that had come to define American literature. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 52.] By the turn of the century, the American response was represented by the debate between the American novelist and critic William Dean Howells and the writer and humourist Mark Twain. In a series of essays, Howells helped make Austen into a canonical figure for the populace whereas Twain used Austen to argue against the Angophile tradition in America. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 74.] In his book "Following the Equator", Twain described the library on his ship: "Jane Austen's books ... are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it." [Southam, "Mark Twain on Jane Austen", Vol. 2, 232.]


The "Encyclopedia Britannica's" changing entries on Austen illustrate her increasing popularity and status. The eighth edition (1854) described her as “an elegant novelist” while the ninth edition (1875) described her as “one of the most distinguished modern British novelists”. [Southam, “Introduction”, Vol. 2, 33.] Around the turn of the century, Austen novels began to be studied at universities and appear in histories of the English novel. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 69–70.] However, the image of her that dominated the popular imagination was that first presented in the "Memoir" and made famous by Howells in his series of essays in "Harper's Magazine", that of "dear aunt Jane". [Southam, “Introduction”, Vol. 2, 25–30, 72; Fergus, 13.] Author and critic Leslie Stephen described a mania that started to develop for Austen in the 1880s as "Austenolatry". [Southam, “Introduction”, Vol. 2, 47.] It was only after the publication of the "Memoir" that readers developed a personal connection with Austen; some scholars have called it a "cult". [Lynch, “Cult of Jane Austen”, 112.] However, about 1900, members of the literary elite, who had claimed an appreciation of Austen as a mark of culture, reacted against this popularisation of Austen. They referred to themselves as "Janeites" in order to distinguish themselves from the masses who in their view did not properly understand Austen. [Trott, 94; Southam, “Introduction”, Vol. 2, 46; Johnson, 213.]

American novelist Henry James, one member of this literary elite, referred to Austen several times with approval and on one occasion ranked her with Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Henry Fielding as among "the fine painters of life". But, James thought Austen an "unconscious" artist whom he described as "instinctive and charming". In 1905, James responded negatively to what he described as "a beguiled infatuation" with Austen, a rising tide of public interest that exceeded Austen's "intrinsic merit and interest". James attributed this rise principally to "the stiff breeze of the commercial, ... the special bookselling spirits. ... the body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of the pleasant twaddle of magazines; who have found their 'dear,' our dear, everybody's dear, Jane so infinitely to their material purpose, so amenable to pretty reproduction in every variety of what is called tasteful, and in what seemingly proves to be salable, form." [Watt, 7–8; Southam, "Janeites and Anti-Janeites", 240; Southam, "Criticism, 1870–1940", 108.]

In an effort to avoid the sentimental image of the "Aunt Jane" tradition and approach Austen's fiction from a fresh perspective, in 1917 British intellectual and travel writer Reginald Farrer published a lengthy essay in the "Quarterly Review" which Austen scholar A. Walton Litz called the best single introduction to her fiction. [Litz, "Jane Austen", 39.] Southam described it as a "Janeite" piece without the worship. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 92–93.] Farrer denied that Austen's artistry was unconscious (contradicting James) and described her as a writer of intense concentration and a severe critic of her society, "radiant and remorseless", "dispassionate yet pitiless", with "the steely quality, the incurable rigor of her judgment". Farrer was one of the first critics who viewed Austen as a subversive writer. [Southam, "Criticism 1870–1940", 106–07; Litz, "Criticism, 1939–1983", 112.]

1930–2000: Modern scholarship

While there were glimmers of brilliant Austen scholarship early in the twentieth century, it was not until the 1930s that Austen became solidly entrenched within academia. Several important early works paved the way. The first was R. W. Chapman's magisterial edition of Austen's collected works, which was the first scholarly edition of the works of any English novelist. The Chapman texts have remained the basis for all subsequent editions of Austen's works. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 99–100; see also Watt, 10–11; Gilson, 149–50; Johnson, 218.] The second was Oxford Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley's 1911 essay, "generally regarded as the starting-point for the serious academic approach to Jane Austen". [Brian Southam, quoted in Trott, 92; Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 79.] Bradley emphasised Austen's ties to eighteenth-century critic and writer Samuel Johnson, arguing that she was a moralist as well as humourist; in this he was "totally original", according to Southam. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 79; see also Watt, 10; Trott, 93.] Bradley divided Austen's works into "early" and "late" novels, categories which are still used by scholars today. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 79.]

The 1920s saw a boom in Austen scholarship. British novelist E. M. Forster primarily illustrated his concept of the "round" character by citing Austen's works. But it was not until the 1939 publication of Mary Lascelles' "Jane Austen and Her Art"—"the first full-scale historical and scholarly study" of Austen—that the academic study of Austen matured. [Trott, 93; Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 107–109, 124.] Lascelles included a short biographical essay, an innovative analysis of the books Jane Austen read and the effect of her reading on her own writing, and an extended analysis of Austen's style and her "narrative art". Lascelles felt that prior critics had all worked on a scale "so small that the reader does not see how they have reached their conclusions until he has patiently found his own way to them". [Lascelles, vii.] She wished to examine all of Austen's works together and to subject her style and techniques to methodical analysis. Subsequent critics agree that she succeeded. Like Bradley earlier, she emphasised Austen's connection to Samuel Johnson and her desire to discuss morality through fiction. However, at the time concern arose over the fact that academics were taking over Austen criticism and it was becoming increasingly esoteric—a debate that has continued to the beginning of the twenty-first century. [Southam, "Criticism 1870–1940", 108; Watt, 10–11; Stovel, 233; Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 127; Todd, 20.]

In an outpouring of mid-century revisionist views, scholars approached Austen more sceptically. D. W. Harding, following and expanding upon Farrer, argued in his essay "Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen" that Austen's attitudes were not supportive of the status quo but rather subversive. Her irony was not humorous but caustic and intended to undermine the assumptions of the society she portrayed. Through her use of irony, Austen attempted to protect her integrity as an artist and a person in the face of attitudes and practices she rejected. [Litz, "Criticism, 1939–1983", 112; Stovel, 233.] Almost simultaneously, Q. D. Leavis argued in "Critical Theory of Jane Austen's Writing", published in "Scrutiny" in the early 1940s, that Austen was a professional, not an amateur, writer. [Southam, "Introduction", Vol. 2, 129–31.] Harding's and Leavis's articles were followed by another revisionist treatment by Marvin Mudrick in "Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery" (1952). Mudrick portrayed Austen as isolated, defensive, and critical of her society, and described in detail the relationship he saw between Austen's attitude toward contemporary literature and her use of irony as a technique to contrast the realities of her society with what she felt they should be. [Litz, "Criticism, 1939–1983", 112; Stovel, 233.] These revisionist views together with F. R. Leavis's pronouncement in "The Great Tradition" (1948) that Austen was one of the great writers of English fiction, a view shared by Ian Watt, did much to cement Austen's reputation amongst academics. [Johnson, 219; Todd. 20.] They agreed that she "combined [Henry Fielding's and Samuel Richardson's] qualities of interiority and irony, realism and satire to form an author superior to both". [Todd, 20.]

The period since the Second World War saw a flowering of scholarship on Austen as well as a diversity of critical approaches. One of the most fruitful and contentious has been the consideration of Austen as a political writer. As critic Gary Kelly explains, "Some see her as a political 'conservative' because she seems to defend the established social order. Others see her as sympathetic to 'radical' politics that challenged the established order, especially in the form of patriarchy ... some critics see Austen's novels as neither conservative nor subversive, but complex, criticizing aspects of the social order but supporting stability and an open class hierarchy." [Kelly, 156.] In "Jane Austen and the War of Ideas" (1975), perhaps the most important of these works, Marilyn Butler argued that Austen was steeped in, and not insulated from, the principal moral and political controversies of her time and espoused a partisan, fundamentally conservative and Christian position in these controversies. In a similar vein, Alistair M. Duckworth in "The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels" (1971) argued that Austen used the concept of the "estate" to symbolise all that was important about contemporary English society, which should be conserved, improved, and passed down to future generations. [Todd, 34.] However, as Rajeswari Rajan explains, "the idea of a political Austen is no longer seriously challenged". The questions investigated now involve: "the Revolution, war, nationalism, empire, class, 'improvement' [of the estate] , the clergy, town versus country, abolition, the professions, female emancipation; whether her politics were Tory, Whig, or radical; whether she was a conservative or a revolutionary, or occupied a reformist position between these extremes". [Rajan, 101.]

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist criticism of Austen was influenced by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's seminal "The Madwoman in the Attic" (1979), Margaret Kirkham's "Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction" (1983), and Claudia L. Johnson's "Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel" (1988). Johnson argued that in the face of the threat from revolutionary France, the English novel became politicised, with the representation of the well-ordered English family standing for a rejection of revolutionary ideology. [Todd, 33; Rajan, 102–03.]

In the late-1980s, 1990s, and 2000s ideological, postcolonial, and Marxist criticism dominated Austen studies. [Todd, 34–35.] Edward Said devoted a chapter of his book "Culture and Imperialism" (1993) to "Mansfield Park", arguing that the peripheral position of "Antigua" and the issue of slavery demonstrated that colonial oppression was an unspoken assumption of English society during the early nineteenth century. In "Jane Austen and the Body: 'The Picture of Health'," (1992) John Wiltshire explored the preoccupation with illness and health of Austen's characters. Wiltshire addressed current theories of "the body as sexuality", and more broadly how culture is "inscribed" on the representation of the body. The historian Irene Collins addressed some of the religious issues in Austen's works in "Jane Austen and the Clergy" (1994). [Litz, "Criticism, 1939–1983", 113–17; Stovel, 234–38; Rajan, 101–09.] There has also been a return to considerations of aesthetics with D. A. Miller's "Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style" which connects artistic concerns with issues of queer theory.

Austen in the modern imagination

Modern Janeites

According to Claudia Johnson, Janeitism is "the self-consciously idolatrous enthusiasm for 'Jane' and every detail relative to her". [Johnson, 211.] She describes the "the ludic enthusiasm of ... amateur reading clubs, whose 'performances' include teas, costume balls, games, readings, and dramatic representations, staged with a campy anglophilia in North America, and a brisker antiquarian meticulousness in England, and whose interests range from Austenian dramatizations, to fabrics, to genealogies, and to weekend study trips". [Johnson, 223.] Austen scholar Deidre Lynch has commented that "cult" is an apt term for committed Janeites. She compares the practices of religious pilgrims with those of Janeites, who travel to Austen's birthplace or locations associated with her novels and the filmic adaptations of them. She speculates that this is "a kind of time-travel to the past, because they preserve an all but vanished Englishness or set of 'traditional' values. ... This may demonstrate the influence of a sentimental account of Austen's novels that presents them as means by which readers might go home again — to a comfortable, soothingly normal world." [Lynch, “Cult of Jane Austen”, 113–117.] The disconnect between the popular appreciation of Austen and the academic appreciation of Austen that began with Lascelles has widened considerably. Johnson explains that "the process by which academic critics deprecate Austenian admirers outside the academy is very similar to the way ... trekkies, fans, and mass media enthusiasts are derided and marginalized by dominant cultural institutions bent on legitimizing their own objects and protocols of expertise." [Johnson, 224.] However, the fact that scholars such as Johnson and Lynch are taking an active and serious interest in these activities suggests that such attitudes may be changing.


Sequels, prequels, and adaptations based on the novels of Jane Austen range from the soft-core pornographic novel "Virtues and Vices" (1981) by Grania Beckford to S. N. Dyer's fantasy novel "Resolve and Resistance" (1996). [Lynch, "Sequels", 160.] Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, Austen family members published conclusions to her incomplete novels. By 2000, there were over one hundred printed adaptations of Austen's novels. [Lynch, "Sequels", 160.] According to Lynch, "her works appear to have proven more hospitable to sequelisation than those of almost any other novelist". [Lynch, "Sequels", 162.] Relying on the categories laid out by Betty A. Schellenberg and Paul Budra, Lynch describes two different kinds of Austen sequels: those that continue the story and those that return to "the world of Jane Austen". [Lynch, "Sequels", 163.] The texts that continue the story are "generally regarded as dubious enterprises, as reviews attest" and "often feel like throwbacks to the Gothic and sentimental novels that Austen loved to burlesque". [Lynch, "Sequels", 164–65.] Those that emphasise nostalgia are "defined not only by retrograde longing but also by a kind of postmodern playfulness and predilection for insider joking", relying on the reader to see the web of Austenian allusions. [Lynch, "Sequels", 166.] Interest in Austen and adaptations of her novels has been common throughout the 20th century; between 1900 and 1975, there were more than sixty radio, television, film, and stage productions of Austen's various works.Troost and Greenfield, "Introduction", 2.]

The first film adaptation of Austen's work was the 1940 MGM production of "Pride and Prejudice" starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard and written in collaboration with English novelist Aldous Huxley and American screenwriter Jane Murfin, the film was critically well-received although the plot and characterisations notably strayed from Austen's original. [Brownstein, 13.] Filmed in a studio in black and white, the story's setting was relocated to the 1830s with opulent costume designs.Troost, "The Nineteenth-Century Novel on Film", 76.]

In direct opposition to the Hollywood adaptations of Austen's novels, BBC dramatisations, which were first produced in the 1970s, attempted to adhere meticulously to Austen's plots, characterisations, and settings. [Troost, "The Nineteenth-Century Novel on Film", 79.] The 1972 adaptation of "Emma" was the first to be produced by BBC Television, and although great care was taken to be historically accurate, its slow pacing and long takes were in direct opposition to the pace of commercial films. BBC's 1980 adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" adopted many filmic techniques that gave the production a greater visual sophistication. Often seen as the start of the "heritage drama" movement, this production was the first to be filmed largely on location. [Troost, "The Nineteenth-Century Novel on Film", 80.] A large push for "fusion" adaptations, or films that combined Hollywood style and British heritage style, began in the mid-1980s. BBC's first fusion adaptation was the 1986 production of "Northanger Abbey", which combined authentic style and 1980s punk, with characters often veering into the surreal.Troost, "The Nineteenth-Century Novel on Film", 82.]

A great wave of Austen adaptations began to appear around 1995, starting with Emma Thompson's 1995 adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility" for Columbia Pictures, a fusion production directed by Ang Lee. This star-studded film departed from the novel in many ways, but it quickly became a commercial and critical success. It was nominated for numerous awards, including seven Oscars. The BBC produced two adaptations in 1995: the traditional telefilm "Persuasion" and Andrew Davies's immensely popular "Pride and Prejudice". Starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, Davies's film outshone the small-scale "Persuasion" and became a runaway success, igniting "Darcymania" in Britain and launching the stars' careers.Troost, "The Nineteenth-Century Novel on Film", 84.] Its smart departures from the novel as well as its sensual costuming, fast-paced editing, and original yet appropriate dialogue were central to the serial's appeal. Not only did this BBC production spark an explosion in the publication of printed Austen adaptations, but 200,000 video copies of the serial were sold within a year of its airing; 50,000 were sold within the first week alone.

Books and scripts that use the general storyline of Austen's novels but change or otherwise modernise the story also became popular at the end of the 20th century. "Clueless" (1995), Amy Heckerling's updated version of "Emma" that takes place in Beverly Hills, became a cultural phenomenon and spawned its own television series. [Pucci and Thompson, 1.] "Bridget Jones's Diary" (2001), based on the successful 1996 book of the same name by Helen Fielding, was inspired by "Pride and Prejudice" as well as the 1995 BBC adaptation. The Bollywood production "Bride and Prejudice" premiered in 2004. Yet another adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" was released the following year. Starring Keira Knightley, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet, Joe Wright's film marked the first feature adaptation of the novel since 1940. [Troost, "The Nineteenth-Century Novel on Film", 86.]



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