In her last completed novel, Persuasion, British author Jane Austen (1775–1817) wrote: “We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”
She couldn’t have known, of course, that in the second decade of the 21st century those words would ring eerily true, and that her name and image would spark a contentious debate in her native country.
In August 2013, the Bank of England announced its decision to put the novelist’s image on the new 10-pound note, replacing that of another prominent Brit, Charles Darwin. Among the criteria for being featured on a banknote in Britain are factors such as important but non-controversial contributions. This seems to be more in line with Austen’s work than with Darwin’s, whose theory of evolution continues to rile up creationists. But the bank’s decision stirred quite a controversy that appears to lack both sense and sensibility, as it were, especially when some of the criticism focuses on the novelist’s personality and looks.
The banknote fiasco aside, it seems that Austen—or, at least, her literary legacy—is everywhere these days. Part of the reason might be that this year marks the bicentennial of Pride and Prejudice, probably her most-read novel, spawning a series of Austen-related books and films. Among them is Austenland, a movie about a theme resort that promises to give its visitors a chance to recreate the lives of characters in Austen’s novels.
There are also two new non-fiction books. Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom by Deborah Yaffe is about the author’s enduring presence—figuratively speaking—among her devoted 21st-century fans. The second book, Jane Austen’s England by historians Roy and Lesley Adkins, depicts Regency England as a country rife with widespread poverty, social injustices, and political turmoil, far removed from the genteel and tranquil world portrayed in Austen’s six novels.
And another book takes a rather unconventional look at Austen’s powers of analytical thinking. In Jane Austen, Game Theorist, author Michael Chwe claims that her novels show signs of strategic intelligence and other mental tools used by game theorists.
Amid all the motion pictures, television shows and other adaptations of her works, it is easy to forget that during her lifetime Austen had not achieved significant fame or recognition. And even decades after her death, criticism of her novels continued, with some of the harshest words coming from across the Big Pond. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.” And Mark Twain famously stated, “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig [Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
Why, then, do Austen’s novels enjoy such huge popularity today, nearly 200 years after her death? It may be because her books’ universal themes—love, marriage, and pursuit of happiness—are timeless and still strike a chord with people all over the world.
Given Austen’s simple and laid-back life, she probably didn’t imagine that one day in the distant future she’d achieve the acclaim that eluded her in her lifetime. And what would she say if she were here to witness it? We can only speculate, but she could very well express her gratitude succinctly with this quote from Pride and Prejudice: “I will only add, God bless you.”