It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when a book does well, the publishing world likes to see how far they can spin a winning formula. One of the biggest breakout trends of the last few years has been the feminist reboot; last year, publisher Usborne described sales as “booming”, while 13-way fights for feminist fiction by publishers at the 2018 London Book Fair heralded their power, as stories sold for six-figure sums.
What began with Angela Carter’s subversive fairy tales in 1979’s The Bloody Chamber has rocketed thanks to the feminist 2000s. From retakes of Greek myths (Circe by Madeline Miller and The Silence Of The Girls by Pat Barker), to fairy tales that upend patriarchal tropes (The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill and Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill) via reworkings of Shakespeare plays (by the likes of Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood and Maggie O’Farrell) and the reinvention of Moby Dick as Becoming Dinah (by Kit de Waal), reboots are everywhere.
And, despite it not being a pivotal anniversary year, 2020 is set to be all about Jane Austen. There are two new feminist books riffing on her most famous work: The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow is out this week, and Charlotte by Helen Moffett is out in May. Two novels inspired by her life and family are coming, too: literary detective story Miss Austen by Gill Hornby and YA novel The Austen Girls by Lucy Worsley. There is also a film adaptation of Emma out on Valentine’s Day scripted by the Booker-winning writer Eleanor Catton, a touring play and rumours of a TV adaptation of Pride And Prejudice from the makers of Victoria and Vanity Fair.
So how did a woman born in 1775, who started writing Pride And Prejudice at just 21, spawn such a huge entertainment industry? The daughter of a clergyman, Austen anonymously published four novels in her lifetime with modest success, but she wrote seven in total and left another two unfinished when she died at the age of 41. It wasn’t until 16 years later, when her novels were all republished, that her tales of romance, society and hard economic truths began to attract a wide audience and critical acclaim. Austen’s skewering of a polite society filled with snobby sisters, pushy mothers and annoying suitors continues to attract readers thanks to her humour, skill and insight into human foibles.
“She’s been a constant source of ideas for films, TV and fiction writers of the high-brow – there was Jo Baker’s Longbourn and PD James’s Death Comes To Pemberley – and of the easier-to-read romantic fiction,” explains Alice O’Keeffe, books editor at The Bookseller. “So many people read her books and watch the adaptations. Some have studied her at school and return to her as adults as there’s always something new to get from her novels depending on what life stage you’re at. Austen also provides some much-needed escapism compared to our tricky present. Publishers and filmmakers are aware of this and that there’s a ready-made market for her.”
But it’s not just her commercial appeal. Austen’s natural preoccupation with women’s social and economic standing chimes with the feminist times. “It remains so thoroughly relevant,” says South African writer, activist and academic Helen Moffett, whose post-feminist novel Charlotte explores the pressure on Austen women, including Elizabeth Bennet, to bear male children to protect their inheritance.
“Yes, everyone is decked out in decorous bonnets, and it’s all very charming to read or watch on screen, but the burning questions – How will I put a roof over my head? How will I employ my time? – remain relevant to everyone, but especially women,” says Moffett. “Our autonomy and equality worldwide is quite shallow. Apart from a visible, largely middle-class Western minority, many women live in circumstances very similar to those of Austen’s heroines. Even in the UK, for instance, in the case of the death of your partner you have to be legally married to them to be exempt from taxes on a property that is effectively the family home.”
Janice Hadlow, whose book The Other Bennet Sister explores the transformation of priggish Mary into an intellectually curious woman, agrees that Austen’s work is a wealth of modern feminist inspiration. “Her novels are unbelievably female-centric,” she says. “How often do we see men talking to each other in her books or appearing without a female character? And that’s the opposite of quite a lot of classic fiction. Plus, all of the great Austen heroines start with one set of ideas and end up with another; that sense of self-realisation is key to Austen’s novels.”
Even when Austen’s works are removed from their Georgian context – the film Clueless places Emma in 1990s Beverly Hills, while 2004’s Bride And Prejudice gives proceedings a neat Bollywood twist – her story, characters and plots remain distinctly Austen; no one else does satirical romantic comedy featuring preening would-be suitors or misguided heroines quite like she does. Mr Darcy alone has become one of culture’s most recognisable tropes, from Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary to fuelling an entire sub-genre of romantic fiction (type ‘Darcy’ into Amazon and there are more than 10,000 spin-offs – Mr Darcy’s Courtesan, anyone?).
“Austen explores the ultimate fantasy: that by falling in love, a man will alter and redeem his personality,” says Moffett. “It’s the most seductive grown-up fairy tale ever. Not ‘aisle, altar, hymn’ as the cynical joke goes, but the idea that someone will fall so deeply in love with us that they will strive to be a better person, regardless of whether we agree to be in a relationship with them or not.
Well, it certainly makes me weak at the knees. Plus, we’ve all met [Mansfield Park’s] Mrs Norris (shudder) or had a close brush with [Pride And Prejudice’s] Mr Wickham. Her stories are intimate and therefore universal.”
O’Keeffe agrees: “Austen’s basic plots lend themselves to so much. You could set them on a far-flung planet and they’d still be relevant. She’s unique in her longevity and popularity. She simmers underneath and every now and again there’s a surge because she’s so precious to so many writers and they’re inspired by her work.”
And maybe that’s just it. Austen created a universe that has touched so many readers’ lives that we don’t want to let her go. As Mrs Bennet sums up, “There is nothing so bad as parting with one’s friends.”
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