She first wrote under the pseudonym “A Lady” to protect her gentry family from the scandal of a working daughter—but now, the name Jane Austen is known throughout the world as belonging to the author of six of the greatest novels in the English language. With her biting social commentary on Georgian-era customs and her penchant for nobly-phrased but thinly-veiled irony, Austen was a woman—and a writer—ahead of her time. But aside from the whip marks left by her wit and the standards she set for intelligently-written comedy, this famously reclusive novelist from jolly old England left the most lasting impression with her page-turning, heart-stirring stories of love.
Any Austen plotline is the epitome of romance: an attachment develops between two people, but circumstances created by society (or sometimes by the couple themselves) occur so that they cannot be together—yet. Although she herself never married, Austen’s heroines ultimately meet their match—after a series of foibles have come between them, of course. The romantic formulas so overused in modern-day media are nothing to the novels of Austen; hers are the originals from which clichés draw power. And it seems that people just can’t get enough! In the ‘90s, following the release of BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice and Ang Lee’s feature film Sense and Sensibility, a “Janeite” fan culture devoted to the writer, her works, and their subsequent adaptations emerged, and has thrived ever since.
Curious about the Austen craze? Read on for a crash course in Miss Jane’s amorous oeuvre.
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
When a certain Mr. Dashwood dies, his estate must pass to his son John—leaving his second wife and their three daughters with no property and virtually no money. John’s greedy wife Fanny wishes to be sole mistress of the estate, so the Dashwood women are forced to move into a small country cottage far away. The two eldest daughters, on whom the story centers, experience romance and heartache in their makeshift home. Sensible Elinor is stirred by the attentions of Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s gentle younger brother, but is disappointed when he doesn’t come to visit their new quarters; ever reserved, however, she reveals her feelings to no one. Romantic Marianne, on the other hand, is courted by two men at once: the gentlemanly Colonel Brandon, whom she deems too old, and the dashing John Willoughby, whom she favors (quite vocally). Will the Dashwood sisters end up with the men of their dreams, or will an excess of passion—or propriety—get the better of them?
Popular adaptations: Two BBC TV serials, in 1981 and in 2008; a 1995 British film starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet; Kandukondain Kandukondain, a 2000 film in the Tamil dialect of India; Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, a 2009 parody novel by Ben H. Winters
Trivia: When publisher Thomas Egerton agreed to print Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Austen actually paid for the publishing costs and even awarded Egerton with a commission on sale—quite the opposite practice from modern publication.
(Photo c/o Columbia Pictures)
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
The five Bennet sisters—including the strong-willed heroine Elizabeth—have all been raised with one goal in life: to find a husband. Their father belongs to the lower fringes of nobility, but since he is neither rich nor fond of high society, the task of marrying them off to eligible bachelors falls to their ridiculous mother. Two such men come into town one day: the handsome, wealthy, and agreeable Mr. Bingley, and the very handsome, very wealthy, and very disagreeable Mr. Darcy. Bingley immediately falls for Jane, the eldest and most beautiful Bennet girl; while Darcy unwittingly insults Elizabeth, who grows increasingly convinced of his pride and arrogance. Things get complicated when Bingley unexpectedly leaves town—and Darcy confesses his ardent admiration for Elizabeth, who considers him her worst enemy. With all the intricacies of social class and mistaken character keeping these potential lovers apart, Pride and Prejudice ultimately makes the case that, yes, opposites do attract.
Popular adaptations: A 1995 BBC serial starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; Bride and Prejudice, a 2004 Bollywood film starring Aishwarya Rai; a 2005 film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen; Lost in Austen, a 2008 ITV miniseries; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a 2009 mash-up novel by Seth Grahame-Greene; Marvel’s Pride and Prejudice, a 2009 true-to-storyline comic by Nancy Hajeski
Trivia: Still considered one of the best books ever written—and certainly the most beloved among Austen fans—Pride and Prejudice serves as the inspiration and thematic background for several successful film and television franchises, including British novel turned movie Bridget Jones’ Diary (starring Renée Zellweger and Colin Firth)and Japanese comic turned internationally replicated TV series Hana Yori Dango (which spurred the likes of the Taiwanese Meteor Garden and the Korean Boys Over Flowers)
(Photo c/o BBC)
Mansfield Park (1814)
Poor girl Fanny Price is raised by her rich relatives, the Bertrams. Growing up, she is treated as a foundling by all but one of her four cousins. Edmund, the second son, is her only friend and protector; and over time, Fanny’s childhood gratitude towards him transforms into a secret love. But her hopes are dashed when the fashionable Crawford siblings Henry and Mary are introduced into the Bertram household. Her dear Edmund forms an attachment to the manipulative Mary, while her cousin Maria (who is engaged to be married) is seduced by Henry. The latter, however, is endeared by Fanny’s kindness and simplicity; he develops real feelings for her, although she thinks him too much of a scoundrel to reciprocate them. Scandal unexpectedly befalls the family, forcing both Fanny and Edmund to re-evaluate the objects of their affection.
Popular adaptations: Two TV serials, for the BBC in 1983 and for ITV in 2007; a 1999 British film starring Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller, notorious for showing the first breast in an Austen screen adaptation
Trivia: Mansfield Park is considered the most controversial and probably the least popular of Austen’s novels because of its heroine, Fanny Price, whom many readers hold wildly-split opinions on (either she is “utterly delightful,” or “insipid” and “prudish”). This has even sparked “Fanny Price wars” among the most loyal of Janeites.
(Photo c/o MGM)
Emma Woodhouse is privileged and clever, and believes she has a knack for matchmaking. Her father dotes on her every wish; but her long-time neighbor, friend, and as it happens, brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley, is wise enough to critique Emma on the folly of her ways. Our heroine is a little spoiled, however, so she does what she likes—beginning with the love life of her naive young protégé Harriet Smith. But Emma’s attempt to disentangle her friend from an existing attachment and match her with a more “suitable” candidate proves disastrous—and places her in the middle of an unforeseen love triangle. Faced with Harriet’s heartache, Mr. Knightley’s growing disapproval, and the arrival of a handsome, enigmatic stranger into their circle, Emma learns that even pretty, witty girls like herself are far from perfect.
Popular adaptations: Clueless, a 1995 modern-day film interpretation starring Alicia Silverstone; two 1996 films, starring Kate Beckinsale in the television version and Gwyneth Paltrow in the big screen version; a 2009 BBC TV serial starring Romola Garai
Trivia: Emma Woodhouse has long been considered Austen’s favorite heroine from all her novels—Austen even calls her “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”
(Photo c/o Miramax Films)
Northanger Abbey (1817, posthumous)
The young and impressionable Catherine Morland spends most of her days buried in Gothic novels, so when she is brought to visit the trendy vacation district of Bath for the first time, she is excited to experience a world beyond her own. At a ball, she is befriended by the striking coquette Isabella Thorpe, and becomes an object of romantic interest for Isabella’s unpleasant brother John. But Catherine’s own interests lie elsewhere. She is captivated by the well-read nobleman Henry Tilney, as well as by his charming sister—and soon finds herself invited to their estate, Northanger Abbey. Thrilled at the prospect of staying at an actual Gothic site, Catherine lets her imagination run wild as to the horrors and mysteries entombed in the abbey—compromising her relationship with Henry in the process.
Adaptations: Two TV serials, for the BBC in 1986 and for ITV in 2007
Trivia: Northanger Abbey is considered the least “Austen-like” of all the author’s novels, because of its horror-story elements that are a satire on the Gothic style. It is also believed to be her funniest work.
(Photo c/o ITV)
Persuasion (1817, posthumous)
In her youth, Anne Elliot had been in love with a young naval officer named Frederick Wentworth. Captain Wentworth was everything a young man ought to be—good-looking, well-bred, ambitious—except he had no fortune. Because of this, and the fact that he was not a nobleman, Anne’s high society guardians persuaded her to reject Wentworth’s proposal of marriage, causing a rift between the two lovers that never truly healed. Seven years later, Anne’s family find themselves in reduced circumstances, and are forced to rent out their lordly estate—to Wentworth’s sister and brother-in-law. Thus, Anne and her childhood sweetheart meet again: she, looking for reconciliation, and he, still spiteful over her rejection. When Wentworth persists in his attentions to one of her younger relatives, Anne is downcast but resigned. Still, hope for an autumn romance is rekindled with the appearance of an estranged cousin, who is smitten with Anne, despite her faded bloom. The manifold entanglements woven into the story make you wonder if Wentworth will ever relent—and if Anne will finally get a second chance at love.
Adaptations: A 1995 British television film; Persuading Annie, a 2000 novel by Melissa Nathan; Persuasion, a 2007 ITV teleplay starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones
Trivia: Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last novel, completed a year before her death and published a year after it. It is her only work that features a heroine who is past her prime—a detail probably inspired by the author herself, who wrote the manuscript at age 40.
(Photo c/o ITV)