WINCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM — Two hundred years after Jane Austen’s death, Britain is celebrating one of its best-loved authors, who combined romance with biting social commentary that still speaks to fans around the world.
The author of classic novels Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility had only just become known when she died on July 18, 1817, aged 41.
But her six novels, dissecting the lives of 19th century rural aristocracy, have since sold millions of copies, led to film adaptations, and even spawned a zombie spin-off.
She has inspired countless other authors, from Virginia Woolf, who praised her “genius,” to Helen Fielding of the best-selling Bridget Jones series.
This week the Bank of England will issue a new £10 note bearing Austen’s image, during this year of special events including walks through her native Hampshire in southern England and exhibitions about her life.
Part of Austen’s appeal rests on her depiction of a romanticized England with love affairs, tea and parties in the glorious surroundings of sprawling stately homes.
Some have even compared her to Barbara Cartland, the late English romantic novelist.
But Austen’s novels have long been studied for their critique of a world of rigid class structure that was nevertheless in flux thanks to the Napoleonic wars.
“One of the things she is concerned with as a moral writer is social responsibility,” said Professor Kathryn Sutherland of the University of Oxford, co-curator of a new exhibition in Winchester.
Austen also shone a harsh light on the status of women, for whom a good match in marriage was considered the only goal.
“She was very conscious of the plight of women, of women’s dependence on men and she found that frustrating,” Sutherland said, calling her a feminist.
The daughter of a clergyman, Austen herself remained unmarried despite a proposal, and spent most of her life with very little money.
“She always had to hide it, to give the appearance of wealth that she didn’t have,” said Catherine Rihoit, a French author writing a biography of Austen.
Austen sought to earn money by getting her work published. The manuscript of Sense and Sensibility was finally accepted in 1811, after several attempts.
“Sadly, the success and the money only began coming in when she died,” Rihoit told AFP.
Austen is buried in the cathedral in Winchester, the Hampshire town where she died and where Sutherland and Louise West are staging their exhibition, The Mysterious Miss Austen.
Surprisingly little is known about the author, after her sister Cassandra destroyed almost all her letters.
There are even doubts about how she looked, and the exhibition brings together six portraits for the first time.
Among recent visitors to the exhibit was 70-year-old Bridget, who said she has read all of Austen’s books five or six times since being introduced to them at the age of 12.
“You think it’s all romantic love stories, but it isn’t. She was very acerbic, witty. The language is brilliant,” she told AFP.
And Austen’s appeal goes well beyond England.
“She speaks to people in far-flung countries, to other cultures. It’s really very clever, “ said Rihoit. — AFP