A literary historian argues that the author's genius lies in the way she holds up a mirror to each generation
At this year's annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, about 800 pilgrims travelled to Fort Worth, Texas, to worship the fiction. A cavalcade of readers, mainly women, mostly in full Regency costume, congregated for a joyous weekend of workshops and lectures, receptions and dinners, a costume parade (past ersatz saloons and Tex-Mex restaurants), crowned by a Regency ball. The bonnets carried all before them.
Top billing went to the screenwriter Andrew Davies, whose testosterone-fuelled Pride and Prejudice for BBC1 rebooted the franchise in 1995. The buildup to his keynote lecture, Mr Darcy's Wet Shirt and Other Embarrassments, was tremendous. Four cinema screens beamed a montage of climactic moments from his Austen back catalogue to the full-throttle accompaniment of Puccini's Nessun Dorma. Davies, a genial seventysomething, looked stunned by the fervour of his reception. "He's our rock god!" panted one fan. "Do you think he knows what he's done for us?" gasped another.
The Jane Austen brand has global reach. There are booming Austen societies in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina. Austen's novels have been re-imagined as California high school romcoms, Bollywood extravaganzas and most recently as a comedy zombie shocker. In Britain, Pride and Prejudice is one of the nation's favourite novels (second only to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in the BBC's Big Read of 2004).
Teenage readers and moviegoers might think that Austen has always been adored. In fact, although she made some money in her lifetime, her tombstone does not mention her novels. By the 1820s, with the books out of print and remaindered, it looked as if her short-lived reputation had died with her. The Victorians found her passionless and parochial. "Why do you like Jane Austen so very much?" Charlotte Brontë remonstrated with the critic George Henry Lewes. "Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place… I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses."
Only from the 1870s did Austen's critical fortunes revive, courtesy of a saccharine biography by her dull nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, and the twee chocolate-box illustrations of the Macmillan edition of her novels. But it was a pyrrhic victory. Austen was marketed as a universal Aunt Jane in a perfect Hampshire cottage – sweet, cosy, ladylike, amateur and unthreatening. Anthony Trollope found Austen's novels "full of excellent teaching, and free from any word or idea that can pollute… Throughout all her works, and they are not many, a sweet lesson of homely household virtue is ever being taught."
It was not until the 20th century that Austen would be celebrated for biting social criticism and for, in the words of the literary critic and psychologist DW Harding in 1940, "regulated hatred". In 1948, the cantankerous but influential scholar FR Leavis crowned Austen mother of his great tradition of the English novel. By the 1970s, Austen had emerged as the subversive heroine of feminist literary studies.
She is rare among writers in enjoying highbrow, middle-brow and mass appeal. Austen's long posthumous reign on the small screen – inaugurated with a television play of Emma in 1948 – ensured that drawing room romance defined Sunday teatime for the postwar generations. It is a rare adult who has not glimpsed a gent in buckskin taking an arch beauty in muslin for a stately minuet beneath a chandelier.
Why should Austen survive when so many of her bestselling contemporaries have faded into obscurity? Who reads Susan Ferrier, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Porter and Lady Morgan today, or even Walter Scott? For Austen's most ardent fans, her novels capture something universal about the human condition that resonates as easily in 21st-century Texas as in the polite drawing rooms of Regency England.