It is a truth universally acknowledged that a cultural consumer in possession of a good intelligence must be in want of a Jane Austen spinoff. This is nothing new of course – the Austen cottage industry has been cranking out successful adaptations for the better part of the last decade. But this year, which marks the bicentennial of Austen's first published work, Sense and Sensibility (1811), the Georgian novelist's star has never burned brighter, her wit has never captivated so completely the popular consciousness of the masses (cooped up as we all are at Christmastime, twiddling our thumbs with little more to do than poke away at our iPads, gossip and sip sherry).
While Austen's personal output was impressive (six novels in under a decade before her premature death at the age of 41), it's got nothing – at least in pure quantitative terms – on the deluge of retellings, homages and aspirational chick-lit imitators that have followed in its wake. While Pride and Prejudice remains the most successfully spun-off of the Austen oeuvre (personally, I'll take Renée Zellweger's zaftig turn on the contemporary Elizabeth Bennet in Bridget Jones's Diary over Keira Knightley's lantern-jawed period version any time) and Emma a close second (lest we forget the nubile Gwyneth Paltrow's cut-glass Regency accent and the inimitable Alicia Silverstone in Clueless), today it seems, the entire Austen brand is up for grabs. Plug "Jane Austen" into Amazon's search engine, and you will find so much commercial literary merchandise it'll make your bonnet spin. Whether it's Definitely Not Mr. Darcy (in which a divorcée Janeite participates in a Bachelor-like reality show), Persuade Me (the second in a series of modern-day Austen retellings called Darcy and Friends, this one of Persuasion), The Importance of Being Emma (a modern Emma, equipped with a Stanford MBA, sets about revitalizing the family business) or something called Mr. Darcy Goes Overboard (previously published under the title Prawn and Prejudice), there seems to be a new Austen bastard child born every minute.
But the mass, commercial appeal of Austen is, in many ways, a relatively new phenomenon. In her own time she enjoyed only modest success (local fame and a handful of favourable reviews) and in the intervening two centuries since, her work has circulated in and out of fashion – and not always of the pink paperback variety. Indeed, it is only lately that Austen's come to be associated with chick lit in all its fluffy, milk-chocolate-dipped conventions. In the Victorian era, when supernatural melodrama and morality tales ruled the bestseller lists, she was perceived as dull and devoid of sentiment as old dishwater. Charlotte Bronte herself complained in a letter to a friend that she found in Austen, "anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt is utterly out of place."
It's no surprise then that an irony-steeped age like our own should have embraced Austen so wholeheartedly. Her wry insights into human nature feel right in an age of austerity, a time when histrionics are more frightening than seductive. Austen's rational cool-headedness seems all the more relevant in a time when unleashed emotions and the panic they invite are to be distrusted. Will her current middlebrow popularity persist for the foreseeable future? My prediction is yes, in the short term at least. But once the cultural pendulum swings back (as it must), and earnest rationality once again prevails, we will inevitably tire of Austen and her tart, emotionally detached style.
My own love affair with Austen first began in high school – a society as socially stratified and code-bound as Austen's own Regency England – and continued into university, where I was taught to appreciate the nuance and restraint that characterizes her work, and finally into my 20s and 30s, a time when Austen's defining theme – the social implications of marriage for women – became the defining romantic obsession of my peers.
The questions that obsessed Jane Austen are the ones that continue to obsess my single girlfriends, namely: How best to look for a husband while pretending to be doing anything but? Is it better to settle for someone "nice" in the nick of time or keep searching in the hope of finding the One? Should one be pragmatic in matters of courtship or simply let the heart (and by extension, the libido) dictate the agenda?
No single author – apart from maybe the fictional Carrie Bradshaw – has explored these questions so completely and to such overwhelming popular response.
And this Christmas, at least there's hope for quality-starved Austen fans. P.D. James's new novel Death Comes to Pemberley, a murder-mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice, is so subtle and brilliantly funny it is sure to offer much satisfaction to even a discerning fan of the original. In the introduction, James apologizes by saying if Austen had "wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better." True enough, but in the meantime, I'll take the best Austen proxy I can get.