If Jane Austen were alive today, would she provide husband-hunting tips on Good Morning America? Perform a Stupid Human Trick for Letterman? Or remain discreetly at home, surrounded by a small gossipy circle, sipping—as her heroines sometimes do—a soothing glass of Madeira wine?
Dearest Jane, make it a double. Austen, a literary favorite for almost 200 years, got Hollywood-hot in 1995, racking up enough screen adaptations to rival John Grisham. There was Clueless, the hit comedy based on Emma, then the British Persuasion and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. Emma itself, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, just finished filming, and a recent BBC production of Pride and Prejudice will be coming to the U.S. this winter. There’s even a new Jane Austen cookbook.
Why should Austen’s gently satiric tales of bright women landing suitable spouses suddenly be deemed just the ticket for the viewing masses? Perhaps Jade-ed filmmakers wised up to what Austen’s brother Henry described as her “keenest relish for wit.” Then, too, “the essential stability of her world is very appealing in an unstable decade,” says Walton Litz, Princeton professor emeritus and Austen scholar. Clueless director Amy Heckerling credits the craze to Austen’s sunny endings, in which everyone pairs off “in a 1940s Hollywood way.” Or maybe, suggests Stephanie Barron, whose Jane-as-sleuth series of books appears next spring, even action-happy movie moguls have caught on to the appeal of Austen’s women. “They take the world by storm,” says Barron, “because of their intelligence.”
Austen herself was no thunderer. She was born in 1775 in Hampshire, the seventh of a rector’s eight children. So Jane, who never married, knew firsthand the predicament of her heroines—nice disposition, nice looks, no fortune. Her six novels were published anonymously and, recalled a nephew, she lived “in entire seclusion from the literary world.” In 1817, as she lay dying of Addison’s disease at 41, a relative asked if she wanted anything. “Nothing but death,” she replied. Instead, she got immortality—and, now, her name above the title.