Jane Austen: entertaining and still relevant 200 years on

17 July 2017

As the world marks the 200th anniversary of the death of English author Jane Austen, a leading expert in her works at ANU said her books continue to attract new readers and be read with pleasure.

Austen died 200 years ago this Tuesday, on 18 July 1817, aged 41. Most famous for her works Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma and Sense and Sensibility, Austen wrote with cutting wit, irony and humour in novels which were seen as commentaries on society and its rules and conventions of the time.

Jane Austen expert and fan Professor Will Christie from the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences said Austen's novels remained relevant and popular with both the public and academics.

"The reason Jane Austen remains relevant and popular is because she is endlessly engaging and entertaining, a controlled comic and satiric genius, balanced and blended with a genuine pathos and irrepressible romanticism," said Professor Christie, Head of the ANU Humanities Research Centre.

"Her six complete novels add up to a manageable corpus and each is a perfect length, which recognises the limits of readerly patience and is a tribute to her artistry - to the clarity and concision with which she writes.

"Like all good novelists she can be read aloud or silently and the explosion of critical attention over the last 30-odd years tells us she is saying things that mattered about women - and therefore men - in the early 19th century, and that still resonate today."

To mark the anniversary, the ANU Humanities Research Centre has brought Austen Scholar and Professor of English at Arizona State University, Devoney Looser, to the National Library where she will give a special lecture on the anniversary on 18 July.

Professor Looser's talk, The Making of Jane Austen, will examine how Austen, who enjoyed modest literary success in her lifetime, was elevated to an international literary icon.

Around the world, Austen societies have a program of events to commemorate the bicentenary of her death. In the UK, her face will appear on a new 10 pound note and two pound coin.

Loved throughout history, Jane Austen's fans have included George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill and former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Professor Christie said Austen's characters, often described as heroines, were locked into conflicts where they insist that marriage for true love should buck the convention of marrying for wealth and advantage.

Professor Christie said the latest resurgence in Austen's popularity, even in China, had been helped by the movie adaptations of her novels.

"Since her death, Jane Austen has seen a steady and gradually rising popularity, reaching a climax of sorts around the turn of the 20th century (1870-1930) and then again from 1940, partly because of the 1940 film of Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier," Professor Christie said.