Since publishing Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage, my memoir about growing up at Chawton in the shadow of great-aunt Jane, I have been asked by many journalists and interviewers why Jane Austen is so extraordinarily popular today.
My father, Jeremy Knight (Edward Austen's great great great grandson), and I have discussed the topic at length and have our theories, but would to know what you think.
Jane Austen has been popular with readers of classic English literature for generations, thousands of whom came to Chawton when I was a child to visit Jane Austen’s House Museum and retrace Jane’s steps by taking the short stroll through the village to the Great House (our house), which was owned by her brother, Edward Austen Knight, for tea. My grandmother ran a tea room from the Great Hall at the front of the house and I earned my pocket money serving Jane Austen devotees that had made the pilgrimage to Chawton. Visitors were typically lovers of classical literature and scholars with a keen appreciation of her writing. Occasionally, the joy of meeting Jane’s family would evoke a dramatic and unexpected reaction from her ‘most ardent’ fans….you can read more about that in Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage.
Fast forward twenty five years and great-aunt Jane has become a global mega-star. If she were alive today, she would no doubt stand side by side with today’s Hollywood and literary royalty. Lunch with J. K. Rowling, perhaps, followed by an evening at the Oscars.
But Jane enjoyed none of this fame or recognition, she published anonymously and only her closest family and friends knew she was the author of the nationally acclaimed Pride & Prejudice.
The modern-day ‘fandom’ of Jane Austen arguably started with the BBC TV mini-series Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth in 1995. The now infamous lake scene captured the romantic imagination of women across the globe, and visitor numbers to Chawton doubled the following year. This may have been the catalyst, but there is much more to it than that.
Is it simply the genius of Jane Austen’s writing, her wit and the confidence with which she crafts her stories? Is it the deep connection readers feel with her characters, her novels and Jane herself? Is it that she has become the ‘poster girl’ of an era of big country houses owned for centuries and that so many find intoxicating (the success of Downton Abbey, by way of another example). Or is it the power of Hollywood and the many adaptations that have been made since 1995?
As the world marked the bi-centenary of Jane Austen’s death in July this year, we have seen many articles written by journalists and scholars, attempting to explain the Jane Austen phenomenon, or ‘Austenmania’ as some have called it.
I have given my views in the many interviews in which I have been asked to explain Jane’s modern-day appeal (posted on the Austen Heritage Facebook page). But perhaps the most qualified to answer this question is you, the Austen community.
Please tell us in the comments below why you think Jane Austen is so popular today? What is it about Jane and her work that has captured your imagination and heart?
Caroline Jane Knight is the last Austen to grow up at Chawton House on the ancestral estate where Jane herself lived and wrote.