December 16 is Jane Austen’s birthday, and yet … her life and works are the gifts that keep on giving.
They have been adapted, interpreted, and expanded every which way: for stage and screen, in fiction and nonfiction, in memoir and scholarly works, through blogs, memes, and GIFs. The breadth may seem exhaustive, but Austen and her novels are classics precisely because they are inexhaustible. “A classic,” Italo Calvino tells us, “is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”
If you’ve dipped into Austen-inspired fiction, nonfiction, or memoir (or want to), let’s compare notes! Here are eight I’ve read and enjoyed in recent years:
My Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz’s memoir shares his journey from being a too-cool-for-life grad-school type to a grown-up man, achieved through reading Austen’s novels. Each chapter tackles a stage in his personal development and what he learned from reading Austen’s novels. Written with a scholar’s insights but in layman’s language, his discussion of the books is the best part.
Austenland by Shannon Hale. At a hush-hush English country getaway for women of means, the conditions of Regency England are simulated (in everything from food to dress to pastimes), and women are romanced the old fashioned way. Austen-obsessed Jane Hayes is bequeathed a three-week trip to Austenland to cure her of her preoccupation with Colin Firth-as-Darcy.
Get over this? Oooh, that’s a tall
glass of water order – via GIPHY
Compulsively readable, funny, and sweetly charming, it has been adapted for film starring Keri Russell, Jane Seymour, and Jennifer Coolidge.
Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom by Deborah Yaffe. “Janeites” is the term coined for the hardcore Austen fan, and Yaffee counts herself among them. The journalist immersed herself in everything Austen and shares her experience traveling the world to visit Austen landmarks in England, speaking to Austen bloggers (a passionate group, for serious), and being fitted for a Regency ball gown (corset included). It’s a fun, if at times bizarre, romp through the Austen fandom subculture and may (full disclosure) leave you hankering for a trip across the pond.
Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins. The husband and wife team, both archeologists and historians, present a comprehensive social history of Austen’s England. Drawn from primary texts (diaries, letters, trial records, newspaper reports), they craft a portrait of everyday life among all classes during a time of uncertainty, war, and dramatic change. The history buff will love this deep look at a Austen’s age.
Longbourn by Jo Baker. Baker’s novel follows the servants to the Bennett family in Pride and Prejudice. We get a few peeks at the familiar characters here and there, including a major revelation about one of them, but the story truly belongs to the cook, butler, housemaids, and footman, their trials and joys, and to revealing the realities of life for the servant class.
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. James knew her way around a murder mystery, and in this one, she picks up the story of Darcy and Elizabeth from “Pride and Prejudice” five years and two children into their marriage. When a man turns up dead, the investigation invades the halls of their vaunted estate. James offers a lovely homage to the original text and does an impressive job replicating the rhythms of Austen’s classic.
Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris. This mystery picks up the story of Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice on the day of their wedding. The big news is that snooty Caroline Bingley has announced her engagement to an American. Strange doings are underfoot (perhaps the strangest of them being how earnest and friendly Caroline becomes after her marriage), and paranormal elements may well be responsible.
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. A modern riff on Pride and Prejudice, this novel presents the diary of the eponymous 30-something, unlucky-in-love singleton, in which she keeps track of her weight, her calories, her alcohol intake, and her misadventures in work and relationships. These include dating her boss (Daniel Cleaver), getting dumped by her boss, and changing jobs, which lead to both disasters and successes. The best part is Colin Firth in the role of Bridget’s modern-day Mr. Darcy.
This may be my favorite comedic scene in cinema history – via GIPHY
What Austen novel or Austen-inspired books have you enjoyed?