More than 200 years after their publication, the works of Jane Austen continue to captivate both old fans and new audiences in the 21st century.
Austen’s works have provided endless material for pop cultural reinvention, having spawned everything from a 90’s rom-com to a Bollywood musical.
On the bicentennial anniversary of the author’s death, we speak to fans and experts about why people across the globe are still obsessed with Austen, and whether modern adaptations ever stack up to the original.
Why Austen’s legacy endures
Without official figures, Pride and Prejudice is cited by academics and booklovers as the bestselling novel of all time and it has never been out of print.
Jane Austen Society of Australia president Suzannah Fullerton says Austen’s novels continue to be popular because she had a “wonderful” understanding of human nature.
“Obviously the novels are set in a different era but what Jane Austen is writing about is still so relevant today,” Ms Fullerton said.
“When you read her novels, you learn about yourself and you learn about other people. She writes about things that really haven’t changed in 200 years.
“Many of us have to cope with difficult parents, we have to work out whether friends are true friends or false friends … still, today, people want to fall in love and find a good partner in their lives.”
Literature professor and Jane Austen expert Dr Judith Seaboyer from the University of Queensland agreed, saying readers are captivated by Austen’s timeless and epic romances.
“Part of it is absolutely the love story, there is no question about that, her love stories are lovely,” Dr Seaboyer said.
“You become invested and you want Lizzie to marry Mr Darcy and you want Jane to marry Mr Bingley [in Pride and Prejudice].
“You really want those women to be happy and you want the smouldering Mr Darcy … to turn into this really lovely, charming, kind, generous and amiable man.”
Literature student and Austen fan Siobhan O’Brien said her love of the author has grown from a sense of childhood nostalgia and relatability to the novels’ characters.
“I was always interested in reading Jane Austen’s books because I loved the portrayal of family dynamics and the sister relationships,” she said.
“The characters are just universal, you can recognise them in the people around you.”
From Emma to Clueless: The evolution of Austen
From recreations faithful to the original, to contemporary takes featuring new characters, perspectives and settings, almost everyone is familiar with Austen’s work, even if they haven’t opened a Penguin classic.
She is the most adapted writer in the English canon, second only to Shakespeare – and for good reason.
“There are sequels, prequels, adaptations, zombies have been added, pornographic versions, graphic versions, religious versions, there are children’s picture stories featuring Jane Austen and her characters… it really is quite extraordinary,” Ms Fullerton said.
But Ms Fullerton concedes some [adaptations] “are dreadful beyond belief”, and is a fan of adaptations that remain loyal to the original Regency period.
“Film versions, sequels, continuations, they’ll come and go but the novels are the ones that have lasted 200 years.”
Dr Yvonne Griggs, an adaptation and screenwriting expert from The University of New England disagrees.
According to Dr Griggs, new adaptations have the same lasting impact as Austen’s original paperback novels and are important cultural products in their own right.
“We tend to think period drama when we consider Austen and adaptation but the most interesting adaptations do much more than a period realisation of Austen’s stories.
For Dr Griggs, contemporary takes that build upon the original texts and take advantage of new technology are the epitome of what makes “good” and entertaining adaptations.
“We’re in an age where visual storytelling dominates, so the capacity to engage audiences via screen media, telling stories through image and sound, offers fresh possibilities and fresh ways of engaging with much-loved narratives,” Dr Griggs said.
“Good adaptations have a currency that’s all their own. The less dynamic ones never quite a achieve any kind of independent status.
“For me, something like Clueless is so much better than a period remake like the 1996 Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow which is more pretty heritage cinema than an update that has anything new to say.
“[Adaptations] are a means of keeping her stories and her observations alive and current for future generations.”
Austen’s texts have become so “current” Lizzie Bennet now has a Youtube channel and Twitter feed, while Mr Darcy has joined the world of online dating in Darcy Swipes Left, by Cortney Carbone.
But Dr Griggs and Ms Fullerton both find some common ground when it comes to the 1995 BBC Production of Pride and Prejudice.
“Some period drama treatments of Austen’s work do manage to be both faithful and dynamic,” Dr Griggs said.
“Andrew Davies’ 1995 Pride and Prejudice was a game changer and the subtle shifts employed by Davies in his script are now as well known if not more so than some scenes from the Austen novel.
“Who doesn’t think of Colin Firth and the Mr Darcy wet shirt moment now when thinking of Pride and Prejudice?”
Whether audiences imagine her characters in Regency regalia or in contemporary dress, most just want more Austen in any format.
Ultimately, it’s the quality of Austen’s storytelling, wry humour and ongoing relevance that makes her appealing to audiences, old and new.
Our selection of films inspired by Jane Austen:
Scan through our list of some of the most popular and a few lesser-known adaptations worth watching to mark 200 years of Jane Austen.
Pride and Prejudice (BBC Production, 1995)
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Bride and Prejudice (2004)
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
Lost in Austen (2008)
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012)
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)