What do regency romances and horror movies have in common? More then you might think, judging by the latest bizarre development in the cult of Austenby Claire Harman / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Just when you thought that Austen-mania might have run its course—when the poster of Colin Firth was starting to look a little curled and faded—along comes a new incarnation for the brand. Time-travelling in and out of Austen was last year’s hit (there were several novels as well the television drama Lost in Austen); but the oddest manifestation is Austen horror, in the form of two forthcoming books, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Jane Bites Back (in which Austen becomes a vampire); there is also a film in development at Elton John’s Rocket Pictures called Pride and Predator, in which the 1987 cult monster guns for the Bennets of Meryton.
If, as promised in Jane Bites Back, the author “sets out to avenge herself on everyone who has exploited her name and books,” she will have her work cut out. Known as much today through film and television adaptations as through the novels themselves, Austen is one of the most used and abused signifiers in our culture, turning up almost randomly across the media. Witness, for example, one PR’s description of the television show Survivor as “Jane Austen with monitor lizards.”
This global recognition is especially surprising given the slow and uncertain beginnings of her fame. For most of her lifetime, Austen was merely an aspiring novelist; her books stacked up on the shelf in manuscript and only began to be published—anonymously—in the last six years of her life. On publication, they found a small audience, but their success faded so quickly after her death in 1817 that all her titles were eventually remaindered or pulped. Her work had reappeared by the mid-19th century, but it was only with the publication in 1870 of her nephew’s Memoir of Jane Austen that she gained anything like mass recognition.
By the early 20th century, Austen’s status as a popular classic was secure. What is far harder to account for, however, is the second—and much more powerful—wave of Austenolatry of the past 15 years. Since the mid-1990s, and especially since the BBC’s mega-hit adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995, we have been exposed to a blitz of films and spin-off books, of websites and blogs. Part of this can be explained by Austen’s work being so much in the public eye at a significant moment technologically. But part of it reflects social changes—and, in particular, changes in that very Austenian…