IMG_0136The Passive Voice links to a Wall Street Journal story about Jane Austen’s popularity. Is it over the top to claim that she is the most popular author since her lifetime (who before was more popular for that matter)? In fact her popularity only really got going in the years following World War II. Alexander McCall Smith writes “What explains the continued popularity of Jane Austen and the handful of novels she wrote? It is, after all, rather remarkable that a woman who spent her life in quiet provincial circumstances in early 19th-century England should become, posthumously, a literary celebrity outshining every author since then, bar none. Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust are all remembered, and still read, but they do not have countless fans throughout the world who reread their books each year, who eagerly await the latest television or movie adaptation, who attend conventions in period costume, and who no doubt dream about the heroes and heroines of their novels.” Of course Mr McCall Smith has a climate of opinion all of his own to create: he’s just written “Emma: A Modern Retelling” (Pantheon), published on April 7.

I guess Mr McCall Smith does have a point — Jane Austen does appear to have attracted more fan fiction than Dickens and Tolstoy. Here is a link to BookBub Blog‘s round-up of 10 modern versions of Jane Austen’s works, including his. I suppose you could write a raunchy version of War and Peace or David Copperfield, and for all I know fans are busily engaged on just this sort of thing. The site FanFiction.net may or may not be comprehensive (how on earth could one know?) but it does show Jane outpacing most other “serious” writers. The count of fan fiction books based on her works is: Pride and Prejudice 3,600+, Emma 333, Sense and Sensibility 166, Persuasion 128, Mansfield Park 58, Northanger Abbey 36, for a total of more than 4,300. Dickens comes in at 579, with Tolstoy trailing at 53 books taking off from War and Peace. Of course the Austen numbers are eclipsed by Harry Potter fan fictions: 712,000, and the Twilight series: 218,000. J. R. R. Tolkein (63,000) is also popular. Les misérables clocks in at 4,400 on its own!

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We just visited Bath — just look at those Austenesque chimneys above — a city which doesn’t beat you over the head with Jane Austen, though Waterstones did have a little window display capitalizing on the connection which comes via Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

What can it be that causes this phenomenon? Of course her books are good, but they are perhaps good in a decorous way. Their focus on money as a marriage motive, and the elegant dance involved in achieving a life of security for a young lady, do treat the subject with a light, glancing touch, refusing to spell out “the facts” — unsurprisingly of course given the time at which they were written. I suppose it’s not too amazing that fans might think that dotting the i-s and crossing the t-s might be a fun exercise. Dickens’ effects are rather more direct. His humor is out there, in your face. His female characters tend to peek out from behind a heavily sentimental curtain, so I think this means that the “provocation” to embroider on their relationships with their male counterparts is less of a titillation. IMG_1861The Economist’s Intelligent Life says “Readers of Austen share an impulse for self-identification that few other authors enjoy.” The Assembly Rooms make you see Catherine Moreland looking out for Henry Tilney. In the end, you can imagine a Jane Austen heroine in bed with her lover, but not, I think, a Dickens lady. Am I saying that she’s the better writer? I don’t mean to: better at creating “live” characters perhaps. Dickens does always seem to be teetering on the edge of the cliff of pastiche: but the supreme trickster always manages to keep his footing. Of course none of the foregoing should be taken as implying that all fan fictions are bodice-rippers — I have not read any of them, and have no plans to do so.

The Wikipedia article on “The reception history of Jane Austen” is impressively thorough. The text of her books is subject to some academic dispute. It always seemed wrong to me that R. W. Chapman should have used the techniques of classical textual criticism to create the Oxford University Press Austen text. We are hardly recreating an ur-text from fragmentary remains, although it is true that no final manuscripts exist. Austen died before Northanger Abbey and Persuasion came off the press, but can we not assume that the text of the earlier published books represented something like her final intentions? The Cambridge edition presents a less-comma-laden text than Chapman gave us.

I wish we could know how many copies of her books are sold every year. Lots, I expect, despite the fact that they are all available as free e-books.

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