As we grow and change, so does appeal of Austen

The Baltimore Sun

The woman wrote only six novels. But, though the most current has been around for 190 years, we can't get enough of them.

One version or another of the stories by the 19th-century British spinster, which initially were published between 1811 and 1818, appears on an almost yearly basis on the large or small screen.

A cursory check of the most popular film titles based on Jane Austen's novels, characters or life turns up releases from 1995, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2007 - and some years produced more than one Austen film.

Some are straightforward adaptations, such as 2005's gritty Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley. Some are clever updatings bordering on spoofs, such as 1995's Clueless (a remake of Emma) or Bridget Jones' Diary in 2001, with its cheekily named hero, Mark Darcy. And some, such as Becoming Jane, which hit Baltimore theaters last summer, contained speculations about the author's own romantic history.

Last Sunday, The Complete Jane Austen ended its 10-week run on PBS' Masterpiece. By the next day, orders for the print version of the novels were stacking up at online retailers and Barnes & Noble.

The boxed set of all six of Austen's paperback novels ranked at No. 461 in sales of all books by midday Monday - easily placing it in the top one-tenth of one percent of the book-selling giant's most popular titles for that hour on April 7.

At Barnes & Noble, the six special editions of the titles issued by the Penguin Publishing Group in conjunction with the series ranked somewhere between 444th (Mansfield Park) and 921st (Emma) among the millions of titles published by the mammoth online merchandiser - also qualifying the books, however momentarily, as runaway best-sellers.

What is it about Jane Austen that we find so compelling? Other great Victorian writers provide fodder for colorful costume dramas (Charles Dickens), others are steeped in romance (the Bronte sisters) while others skewer courtship rituals insightfully and with humor (Edith Wharton and Anthony Trollope).

All these writers remain popular today, and most were far more prolific than Austen - which would seem to confer a considerable advantage on enterprising producers searching for neglected gems.

But for none of these brilliant stylists do we demonstrate the same, seemingly insatiable appetite. Observing that the novels' appeal crosses gender and class lines is a statement in the obvious.

This winter, I was rereading Sense and Sensibility at a restaurant in downtown Chicago while waiting for my lunch date. Our waiter commented approvingly on my taste, and regaled me with a funny story about the day a shady character sidled up, opened the trunk of his car and offered to sell him a hot boxed set of the six Austen novels for $10. He protested that he couldn't possibly pay one penny less than $20.

A more traditional, and legal, encounter recently occurred at Greetings and Readings in Hunt Valley. Dee Peeler, the independent store's head book buyer, was heartened by snatches of a conversation she overheard earlier this month while strolling through the fiction aisles.

"Two women were talking," she said. "One was thumbing through a Jane Austen novel that she hadn't read, but had decided to buy after seeing it on Masterpiece."

Peeler thinks that the books' enduring appeal is partly based on the ease with which they are consumed. Nothing about Austen is intimidating. The novels are comparatively short for the era, and the language is simple and clear.

Persuasion, for instance, has about 272 pages of relatively large type. In comparison, Trollope's more streamlined books are easily twice that length, and require a running start of about 50 pages before they really get going.

Helen Blumberg notes with some bemusement that the PBS series has sparked an increase primarily in Austen-related DVD rentals through the Enoch Pratt Free Library system.

"Forty-five percent of our available multimedia titles are checked out systemwide, which is considerable," says Blumberg, who manages the fiction department of the Central branch.

You might think that, having just sat through 10 weeks of Austen adaptations, viewers might want to wait before renting an earlier version of Mansfield Park. Apparently not.

Blumberg's daughter is named Elizabeth Bennett, so her name contains exactly one "t" more than that of the Pride and Prejudice heroine. It's a coincidence, Blumberg says. Still, she rereads Austen periodically.

"Depending on when you read these books in your own life, you see different things in them, and you change the way you feel about the characters," she says.

As we grow and change, Austen's books begin to unfold in our minds in new and unexpected ways. If we read Pride and Prejudice 10 times in our lives, it's like reading 10 distinct novels. Despite similar plots and characters, each version has different things to teach us.

No wonder we can't get enough of them.

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