By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen is a hot property in today’s popular culture. To many, she and her characters are better known from film and television adaptations than from the original novels. Not long ago, some college professors and literati lamented the attention and set out to safeguard Austen’s reputation for greatness by advocating for keeping her as far away as possible from mass media of all kinds.
Jane Austen Enters Mass Media
One fear was that Austen’s place in the “Great Tradition” of literary history could be at risk, thanks to what was wrongly seen as a new tendency to popularize her stories after 1995. Another fear was that all of the enthusiasm, or souvenirs, or fun might take away from the rigor needed to study a serious author.
In both cases, the implication was that Austen’s reputation was being polluted by late 20th century pop culture. It’s actually amusingly similar to what Lady Catherine de Bourgh imagined would happen if Elizabeth Bennet were to come to Pemberley as Mrs. Darcy!
Fortunately, that contentious moment seems now to be largely in our cultural rearview mirror. Today, colleges and universities regularly offer courses on Austen and adaptation, and on Austen, material culture, and fan culture. The traffic from elite to popular Austen seems to be traveling with great vigor and speed in both directions.
Reception History of Austen
It’s now possible to study your Austen through the lens of interpretations and adaptations of all kinds without apology. This new openness to the popular has made our moment an opportune one to deepen what’s called reception history—that is, learning about how an author and her works were received across time and how small moments shaped the developing contours of an author’s larger cultural reputation.
What reception histories of Austen have shown is that pop culture versions of Austen and her stories, far from being new, have had as long and complex a history as elite Austens have had. Austen’s reputation for greatness wasn’t handed down only by her family members or by other so-called greats among authors and critics, although this used to be widely believed as recently as the early 21st century.
Pop Culture’s Role
On the contrary, pop culture makers played a profound role in shaping Austen’s afterlife from the 1820s to the present. Understanding Austen’s reception from all cultural vantage points deepens our sense of how and why she’s achieved such power and nearly global name recognition, whether highbrow, middlebrow, or lowbrow culture. That dismissive term lowbrow is more often referred to as mass or popular culture.
There are many previously overlooked ways in which Austen’s legacy has been profoundly shaped by pop culture. It seems only fair to say this much: there’s never one simple explanation for why an Austen adaptation becomes or stays popular. Anyone who tells you otherwise is spoon-feeding you a very partial, prejudiced story.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Sexual Mr. Darcy
You might be forgiven for thinking that Austen’s mass popularity began with the actor Colin Firth in a wet, white shirt. In 1995, the BBC’s six-part television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice made the fictional hero Mr. Darcy a household name and Firth a star. A famous scene has Firth’s Darcy dive, partially clothed, into a cold lake, to take a sexually frustrated swim.
The scene then cuts to Darcy walking back to his great house at Pemberley. He’s perfectly wet and impossibly appealing when he runs into Elizabeth Bennet. Sparks fly for the on-screen couple and, it seems, for millions of viewers afterward.
Of course, in Austen’s original 1813 novel, there’s no hint of a swim in the lake and no wet-shirted viewing of the hero. Firth’s scene was dreamed up by BBC screenwriter Andrew Davies. Viewers certainly went wild over Davies’s sexy rewriting of the character. It catapulted Mr. Darcy and Firth to superstardom.
Pop Culture Helped Austen’s Fame
The lake swim scene has been copied countless times and rewatched by millions of people. It may, as a result, have left some with the mistaken idea that Austen’s novels are most important as stories of pent-up sexual desire. Perhaps that’s why those Great Tradition proponents had their concerns about these adaptations.
But Firth didn’t pollute the original Austen. His performance arguably did more to expand Austen’s fan base than has any other 30 seconds of film in the past generation. His performance has brought countless readers to the original novel.
Why Mr. Darcy?
What does it all mean? Some said that the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice, unlike the safe, nostalgia-driven televised Austen adaptations that came before it, was frothy, beefcake escapism. But that doesn’t seem to capture the full scope of reasons for its popularity. One of the things it may point to is that the 1990s audiences were eager for different kinds of masculinities on small and big screens.
Mr. Darcy certainly stole the show in the BBC Pride and Prejudice. Jennifer Ehle’s performance as Elizabeth Bennet is, rightly or wrongly, much less often commented on. The features of the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice that most endured and that became most notable demonstrate that audiences must have been seeking stories of heterosexual men who were physically strong and openly desirous of smart, witty women.
These men were also polite, respectful, and sensitive, as opposed to war-mongering or gun-toting. We might remember that the year 1995 also saw the release of the films Braveheart and Die Hard with a Vengeance. The BBC Pride and Prejudice was a different kind of pop culture option in the days in which videotapes made it newly possible to watch and re-watch one’s favorite scenes.
Common Questions about Effect of Pop Culture on Jane Austen’s Works
People feared that Jane Austen’s place in literary history would be in danger if her stories were popularized. Others thought it would distract people from the rigor needed to study a serious author.
Austen’s works became more popular after viewers saw Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.
Colin Firth’s version of Jane Austen’s character was both physically strong and simultaneously respectful and polite. This keyed into the sexual desires of the time; heterosexual men pursuing smart and witty women.