Thursday, January 21, 2010

The battle for Jane Austen Great novelist, chick-lit pioneer, vampire. Will the real Miss Austen please stand up?

From Salon Magazine

Salon"The novels of Jane Austen/Are the ones to get lost in," wrote G.K. Chesterton, and millions of readers have done just that. Since 1995 in particular, when the BBC adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" starring Colin Firth conquered untold numbers of female hearts, Austen and her (now) most celebrated creation, Mr. Darcy, have become touchstones for a certain strain of contemporary feminine longing. That the following year brought Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones's Diary," which borrows its plot and hero's last name from "Pride and Prejudice," only cemented this idea in the public mind: Jane Austen is the grandmother of chick lit.

While she didn't quite invent the romantic comedy (Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," a clear inspiration for "Pride and Prejudice," can probably claim that honor), Austen surely conceived and perfected it in its modern form; no one has ever surpassed "Pride and Prejudice," and not due to any lack of trying. Still, literary achievement can hardly explain the Austen craze. Many books labeled "classics" can also be fairly called "beloved," but Austen is canonical in two senses of the word at once. Who else among the acknowledged greatest novelists of all time has inspired such an abundant and robust body of fan fiction? What other author's fan fiction gets published so extensively?

The Austenphile Web site the Republic of Pemberley lists 60 published "sequels and continuations" of "Pride and Prejudice" alone. Austen's five other major novels have their spinoffs, as well, though none so many as "Pride and Prejudice." That count doesn't even include "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," a surprise bestseller last year and the first in a seemingly endless proliferation of classics mashups. It also doesn't factor in all the fiction in which Austen herself is a character, such as Stephanie Barron's mystery series in which the novelist plays detective. Or the newly published "Jane Bites Back," in which multiple publishing trends converge to make Austen a vampire who survives to this day in the guise of a lonely middle-aged bookseller in upstate New York, miffed by her posthumous transformation into a global brand. And then there's the subgenre of chick lit about contemporary women struggling to resign themselves to a dearth of Darcyesque beaux ("Austenland," "Me and Mr. Darcy"). We may love to get lost in Jane Austen's novels, but it's worth wondering if, by this point, they haven't gotten a bit lost in us.

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