No Longer Clueless About Jane Austen's Clout
Fans stream back to the home where she wrote - discreetly
CHAWTON, ENGLAND — THE creaking door to the parlor stands ajar - the way Jane Austen left it. She needed to hear visitors approach so she could hide her manuscript. Writing wasn't a proper occupation for ladies in the early 1800s.
First edition copies of Austen's six books are placed throughout this country house where she spent the last seven years of her life. The first book she published in 1811, "Sense and Sensibility," lies open on a table in her bedroom. The flyleaf states, simply and mysteriously, "written by a lady."
You've come a long way, lady. "Sense and Sensibility" and "Persuasion," her last novel, are movie hits being shown worldwide. "Emma," which many describe as her masterpiece, is in production. BBC turned "Pride and Prejudice" - Austen's second novel that is written "by the author of Sense and Sensibility" - into a three-part television series. It ran on the A&E channel in the US in January to record ratings for that network.
But nowhere is Austen's aura more apparent than in her homeland. Newspaper headlines and radio and television broadcasts reveled in the news that actress Emma Thompson won an Oscar last week for writing the "Sense and Sensibility" screenplay. She also starred in the movie.
In her acceptance speech, Ms. Thompson said she had just paid a visit to Austen's grave in nearby Winchester Cathedral (Austen's epitaph describes her as a daughter and Christian, but not an author) to "pay my respects and tell her about the grosses. I hope she knows how big she is in Uruguay."
The fact that Austen is big in Uruguay may show as much about the endurance of her satire of England's leisure class as it does of Thompson's screenplay.
Traffic through the Austen house has more than doubled since the BBC broadcast "Pride and Prejudice" in England last October.
"We normally would have 2,000 visitors a month, but when the series was being shown here, we had 5,300," says Tom Carpenter, one of four trustees who administer Austen's estate. "The house has effectively been open everyday nonstop, in order that we can host and look after Miss Austen's callers."
The tourists who call from around the globe, according to Mr. Carpenter, pass a poster of Colin Firth - the actor who played the romantic hero, Fitzwilliam Darcy, in "Pride and Prejudice."
"Oh," says the grandmotherly clerk in the bookshop, Ann Channon, fanning her face with a book she had intended to place on a shelf, "he's even better in real life - much fairer."
Ms. Channon, who attended the premier of "Sense and Sensibility" in Winchester, along with Thompson, says Austen is much more popular with Americans than the English. "American kids appreciate 19th century literature more than the English kids do," she says. "Our kids take it for granted because the history is right here."
Channon adds that Mr. Firth never read Austen until he received the script for "Pride and Prejudice." He then read the book and decided to visit Austen's house in Chawton.
"He came down here three times, the first for two hours, and he was hooked on Jane Austen's books," the beaming Channon says. "You see, Jane Austen was not meant to be just read; she was meant to be read aloud."
Visitors are free to wander through most of the house, where pictures, documents, and period furnishings show what life was like in the 1800s.
In the corner opposite the creaking door sits the three-legged table where Austen revised "Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice," and "Northanger Abbey," going on to write "Mansfield Park," "Emma," and "Persuasion."
The characters from these novels are essentially timeless. Rather than write about the political problems of her time, Austen humorously looks at marriage, cash, and class issues - the same topics people deal with today.
On the top floor are mannequins of most of her characters - Elizabeth Bennet from "Pride and Prejudice," Elinor and Marianne Dashwood from "Sense and Sensibility," Anne Elliot from "Persuasion," and Catherine Morland from "Northanger Abbey." They are dressed in genuine period costumes - floor length, empire waisted gowns just like in the movies.
In fact, six costumes from the movies went on display this week, along with the only Austen garment in existence, according to Carpenter. Austen's pelisse - a brown silk coat with a gold fleur-de-lis pattern - is a far cry from Alicia Silverstone's fab wardrobe in "Clueless," a loose remake of "Emma" done in high 90210 style. But if the revival keeps up like this, maybe Alicia's Calvin Klein minidress will end up here one day too.