“I just straightforwardly stole the plot,” laughs Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones’s Diary, the 1990s rom-com of courting and calorie-counting that – sort of – mirrored the story arc of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In front of an audience at Sotheby’s London, Fielding joined Kate Mosse, author of the gothic classic Labyrinth, and Gill Hornby, whose novel Miss Austen focused on Jane’s sister Charlotte, to discuss how this Regency maven of amorous and economic maneuvering changed their literary lives.
For Fielding, Austen was a trailblazer, delivering shoot-from-the-hip heroines like Elizabeth Bennett. “When I first read Pride and Prejudice, apart from Maria in The Sound of Music, it was the first time that I’d come across a woman who was independent and funny and irreverent,” she notes as we all sit down ahead of the event. “She felt quite able to stand up to bossy men.”
“It’s the wit, the cleverness and the slyness. It’s the observation.”
Jane Austen was born in 1775 in Hampshire in southern England, where her father was the rector of a small country parish. In her short life, she completed six novels (Sanditon remained unfinished when she died, aged just 41, in 1817). The novels have been adapted for stage and screen and inspired countless authors. Today, homages to, and imitations of, her rich tangle of humor, romance and social critique fill our bookshelves and streaming services. Without Austen we wouldn’t have Bridgerton (or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).
Kalika Sands, Sotheby’s international books specialist – another member of Team Austen – joined the authors in London to talk about a remarkable group of Austen first editions, in their original boards, being offered at auction in New York this winter. In addition, the sale includes the author’s own copy of Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature. “Signed by Austen on the title-page, it’s an incredible rarity,” says Sands.
Is there a collector type for the author? “No, it’s one of the best things about Austen: her appeal is absolutely universal, which makes her body of work so well-suited to adaptation and reinvention,” Sands explains. Although an iconic literary figure today, Austen’s place in the canon was not always secure. By 1820, her novels had fallen out of fashion in most circles. “It wasn’t until 1869, when James Edward Leigh, Austen’s nephew, published a memoir of his aunt, that her popularity began to rise once again,” Sands continues. “A perhaps little-known fact is that her works were prescribed to soldiers suffering from shell shock in the trenches during World War One.”
Austen’s fame surged in the 1990s. The BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice caused ripples as Colin Firth’s Darcy emerged – brooding and dripping – from the lake at Lyme Park, and Emma Thompson won an Oscar for her screenplay of Sense and Sensibility. Meanwhile, Clueless, a whip-smart high-school reboot of Emma, added to the Austen brand. “Her titles climbed bestseller lists nearly two centuries after they were penned.” For Sands, Austen’s novels “feel like such good friends. And I have been known to argue, in pubs no less, that Emma is one of the most masterful novels ever produced.”
Fielding argues that there is a “lot of snobbery about the romantic plot. But it’s a plot like a thriller is a plot. Another means of constructing the story, to hang things on.” Mosse adds that it isn’t the romance that makes the novels special: “It’s the wit, the cleverness and the slyness. It’s the observation.”
“‘Pride and Prejudice’ … was the first time that I’d come across a woman who was independent and funny and irreverent.”
By contemporary standards, Austen’s private life might seem narrow. She never married nor had children, and it is assumed that she remained a virgin. But does that hamper her ability to capture the complexities of a love story? “No,” states Mosse. “This is one of the big debates in fiction, isn’t it? If you write from personal experience, there is no fiction; there’s just autobiography. I mean, my books have a very high body count. I’ve never killed anybody. It’s about the skill of the writer for all of us.”
Hornby goes further, saying that if Austen had married then the novels would not exist. Motherhood – and the considerable hazards of childbirth – would have taken her away from writing. And her fiction followed internal rules to convey the limits of her experience, she explains. “She didn’t take her heroines beyond the altar because she didn’t know what that was like.”
Following Jane’s death – in an act of “legacy management” – her sister destroyed a cache of the novelist’s letters. Posthumous privacy was a familial imperative. “Jane was a woman who didn’t even tell her next-door neighbor, when they were sitting there reading Pride and Prejudice, that she was the author,” says Hornby, who explored the letter-burning events in Miss Austen.
The writer’s influence has continued to undulate through literature. “I’m not sure Miss Marple would exist in the way that she does without Jane Austen,” says Mosse. “That is another unmarried woman who is therefore free, who is an observer, who is overlooked. She doesn’t matter because she’s not married. She has a very strong moral code but is also very wry and quite sharp.”
Agatha Christie loved Austen.
And Austen remains relevant for Gen Z readers. “When you look at the books that are so popular on TikTok, there is a great deal about ‘girl meets boy,’ or ‘boy meets boy’ or ‘girl meets girl,’” notes Mosse. “‘Romantasy’ is the phrase.”
So what would they ask Jane if she were with us? “I don’t know if I’d know how to start or stop,” states Hornby. “We’d talk forever.” Mosse would like to know if the bonneted genius would be thrilled – or not – that they were sitting there talking about her. And Fielding? “I’d ask if Darcy was real,” she smiles. “Was there a Mr. Darcy?”