Why is Jane Austen so Popular?

I was having dinner with a great buddy the other night and we of course got talking about Jane Austen, as we are wont to do….we have both been reading Austen for a good number of years, attend the annual JASNA meetings together, and discuss the latest movies, occasionally disagreeing, but have terrific conversations nonetheless.  We most often quibble over Fanny Price and Mansfield Park (she dislikes Fanny with a passion, loves Mary & Henry Crawford and hence the whole book tends to lose its bite!) … I have told her that there is now a wonderful new Blog just about Mansfield Park, but alas! she does not care….

But our discussion the other night, with my very NOT Austen-loving husband in rapt attention, tended to the very basic question of “why is Jane Austen so popular right now?”  We can say that the movies and Hollywood are driving the popular culture, that Colin Firth as Darcy has changed the face of the romantic hero for all time, that she has always been popular so what’s all the fuss, that she gives us a respite in the world of computers and television and cell phones and ipods always THERE demanding our attention, that her writing is so superb we cannot but read and re-read because there is nothing to compare, her wit and social commentary are unparalleled, etc., etc. …. there is no one answer for sure….but I thought I would put this to the blog test and see what sort of response we can get from the cyberspace world out there that is filled with Austen blogs, sites, comments, articles…and just give you all a chance to wax poetic on this very basic thought:  why IS Austen so popular now? and why are her 6 novels (plus all the other wonderful jottings) on YOUR reading pile?  Any thoughts and comments appreciated….especially from those who might be better than me at convincing my friend that Mansfield Park is quite a delightful book after all!

[there is a great article on this question at the Masterpiece Theatre site, titled Why Jane? Why Now? ]

5 thoughts on “Why is Jane Austen so Popular?

  1. Wow, what a loaded question! I have adored Jane Austen long before dishy Colin Firth opened the door to mass popularity. I will concede that the movie adaptations have made a big impact on her popularity starting with the first P&P in 1940. Silly as the movie is, it started the wave.

    Many novels have been movieized, so why did Austen standout and continue to be re-filmed? My best guess is her strong heroines, witty dialogue and happy endings.

    It seems oversimplified, but that is my bare bones analysis. The highlights of the long version would include strong character identity, humor, romance, irony, social commentary, moralty and just down right escapism.

    This is a question of great interest to me. If I ever discover my personal reason why I adore JA, for she is so many things to different people, maybe the mystery will be solved and my interest will wane. If so, I hope that I never discover an answer!

    Cheers, Laurel Ann


  2. Thanks very much for your kind comments. After a bit of a break to attend some other matters I have resumed my commentary of Mansfield Park with a couple of posts on Chapter 24 (when Mary and Henry discuss Fanny and William visits Fanny) with Is she Queer? and Happiness.

    Austen’s are those that Laurel Ann identifies for sure, but I thing there is something extra which is difficult to pin down. I think Austen successfully unites the classical values that she was rooted in with an understanding of the challenges of modernity–she wrote at that pivotal moment during the Romantic period just after the Enlightenment but before the industrial revolution. Looked at another way she has a way of offering a vision of a better, more divine world in the midst of the worldly and familiar. I think this gives her work great power that appeals to a very broad spectrum of people.


  3. This very question came up at a recent weekend outting among a group of Austen fans. We didn’t have a definitive answer either. But I wonder if new films of Austen’s books is a fair measure of popularity. What constitutes popularity anyway? Is Austen awareness enough or is more required? Have the current films actually increased the readership of her books?

    Classic literature has always been a subject for films, with authors being cycled through on a regular basis. While I love movies of classic books, I rarely go on to read the actual book, unless it’s by an author that I already read and know. Maybe I just like period films.

    But back to the question posed: I think Jane Austen’s books have always been popular, mainly because they are timeless and witty, with characters that we can admire as well as dispise. After all, her characters are so true to life. As an Austen fan who rereads her novels regularly, I feel the need to re-connect with my fictional friends after being absent for a while. I think I just miss them. I’m over-due for a visit with Anne Eliot; I’ll do so soon, very soon.


  4. Austen’s novel are most definitely timeless. The critic Celia Brayfield finds her novels claustrophobic, she doesn’t even mention the Napoleonic War that was going on around her but it is exactly that which creates her universal appeal. The drawing rooms in which the action takes place can be transported to any time, meaning that every generation of audience can relate to it in a different way.

    Also, she writes with a subtlety which allows the reader to take what they want from her novels, if you want to see undertones which question the convservatism that Austen found herself in you can, if you simply want a novel about love and romance then you can chose to ignore them.

    Austen can be, for everyone, what they want her to be.


    • Very well said Nerys, and indeed why Austen continues to have such universal appeal and why scholars continue to argue and agree to disagree over what she was saying – she does seem to speak to all of us in various ways, doesn’t she?

      Thank you for stopping by and for your thoughtful comments.


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