Zombie-filled adaptations, erotic fan-fiction, silly sequels, treacly films--Jane Austen's novels have inspired them all. Why? Elizabeth Gumport has an answer ...


In 1869, James Edward Austen-Leigh published a biography of his “dear aunt Jane,” an affable spinster who chanced to write in her spare time. This placid authoress–in many ways as fictional as Elizabeth Bennet–was, in fact, Jane Austen. Whitewashing aside, Austen-Leigh’s biography generated public interest in the largely unknown author, and Austen's novels were swiftly reissued. Routledge published the first popular editions in 1883; illustrated and collected versions followed.

Austen’s new-found popularity infuriated her original fan-base. George Saintsbury, in his introduction to the 1894 edition of "Pride and Prejudice", identified these select readers ("a fairly large and yet unusually choice" group, himself included), as “Janeites”. The implication was that only the true Janeite understood the author. Everyone else was merely seduced by her celebrity.

Today's Austen industry is an unwieldy behemoth, encompassing sequels, spin-offs, and adaptations. This year alone will see the release of at least two more published follow-ups to "Pride and Prejudice"; a 500-piece Jane Austen puzzle; a journal, desk diary and pocket diary emblazoned with Austen quotations and illustrations; the book "Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict" (the follow-up to "Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict"), in which a “modern Los Angeles girl” finds herself in Regency England; another journal; another time-travel romance; and a note pad. "Jane Bites Back", a trilogy of novels starring Austen herself as a vampire, will be released in 2010.

The latest Austen adaptation to enrage Janeites is Seth Grahame-Smith’s "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", published this month ("The Classic Regency Romance—Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!"). "It's almost as if Jane Austen was subconsciously setting this up for us," Grahame-Smith said in this amusing interview with Lev Grossman in Time. The book is already a best-seller on Amazon, perhaps for such gripping moments as the following:

From a corner of the room, Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went. He knew of only one other woman in all of Great Britain who wielded a dagger with such skill, such grace, and deadly accuracy.

Jason Rekulak, Grahame-Smith’s editor at Quirk, has said he came up with the concept by lining up a list of classic novels with a list of popular fantasy creatures. Although monkeys and pirates were contenders, merging "Pride and Prejudice" with zombies seemed a sure-fire hit. ("There’s definitely a school of thought that says anything is better with zombies,” observed Jenny Davidson, an Austen scholar and Columbia professor, to the Daily Beast.) In these rocky times, why not hitch oneself to Austen's most reliable workhorse? The Penguin edition of "Pride and Prejudice" has sold over 100,000 copies since its release in 2002, not counting academic sales. Still, Alison Flood lamented in the Guardian, "How low can you go?" 

Readers of Austen share an impulse for self-identification that few other authors enjoy. (Where is "The William Shakespeare Book Club"?)  Over a thousand Austen-inspired stories can be found on fanfiction.net, a popular clearinghouse of tribute fiction that attracts more than 300,000 page-views per day. With few exceptions (see the smattering of Faulkner tributes), Austen is the lone classic author represented.

Hundreds of other sites publish Austen-inspired work as well. Some of the stories are good, most are bad and a few are nearly incomprehensible. The difference between “gentile” and “genteel” is apparently a source of great confusion, and while lines like “‘Oh, hello’, cheerfully said a stranger and smiled broadly. ‘A nice weather, isn’t it?’” are not the rule, they are not the exception, either. Happy endings are ubiquitous.

In 2007, Salon’s Rebecca Traister noted that contemporary adaptations of Austen's books tend to replace the “satiric acid” of her novels with “100-proof, widely accessible romance”. Austen's online devotees perform similar surgeries. As one fanfiction.net user posted:

Jane Austen was the queen of 19th century fluff. ;-) Her books are entertaining, witty, suspenseful (if your biggest concern in life is making a good marriage, then this is nail-biting drama!).

Regardless of the liberties Austen's fans take with her novels, tribute work invariably involves a conventional happy ending. Steamydarcy.com, which receives tens of thousands of visitors each month, is one of several sites that specialise in Austen erotica. Most pieces employ standard soft-porn terms--“creamy mounds” is popular--though several, including one in which Mr Darcy penetrates Elizabeth Bennett with a banana, are more specific. Yet even the dirtiest stories tend to end in marriage, or take place on the honeymoon. The sexual details needn't elide the traditional marriage plot–instead, they function as titillating ornaments, explicit elaborations of what Austen left implicit.

A popular genre of Austen fanfic is the modern-day retelling: Lizzy and Darcy meet-cute on a plane; Lizzy and Darcy go to prom; Lizzy gets a text from Darcy. These stories, which apply Austen archetypes to our own lives, render explicit the appeal of reading and writing fan-fiction, and fiction in general. If all stories enable both escapism and empathy, Austen's novels are especially good at inspiring self-reflection. Her stories are studies in the effects of silence–that is, what we will not say to others, and what we cannot admit to ourselves. It is these elisions that enable readers to imagine themselves into the novels, and to transform fiction into autobiography.

"Seldom," Austen wrote, "very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure." Her novels capture our inability to say what we mean, and into these silent spaces readers rush. Janeites may still wish to beat the narcissistic masses away from Austen's prose, but here they misunderstand the author. When we read Austen, the page becomes as blank and reflective as a pool of water in which we see only ourselves. All anybody wants is a mirror.

(Elizabeth Gumport is an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins University. She writes about short stories for Bookslut.)