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Jane Austen's Immortal Legacy

Cassandra Austen's watercolor portrait
of her sister Jane, painted in 1804
This past week is the 201st anniversary of Jane Austen's death. She died on July 18, 1817, at age 41 after about a year of suffering from a degenerative disease.

Although her illness was undiagnosed at the time, most scholars think she had Addison’s disease (a disorder of the adrenal glands), though some believe that it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer involving the body’s lymph nodes, which finally took her life. 

Both of these conditions are treatable today.

By contemporary standards, Jane Austen's life was relatively short. Yet she left us with six novels and a novella that have become classics in English literature, along with two unfinished books and a host of other works. 

However, despite this prodigious literary output, there’s no mention of her writing in the epitaph her brother James composed for her memorial gravestone in Winchester Cathedral, her burial site.

Another sketch of Jane by Cassandra, 1810
Instead, her brother, who like his father was the rector at Steventon, commemorates the “extraordinary endowments" of his sister's mind, lauds her benevolence and sweet temperament, and commends her soul to God. No one reading that description could guess that she'd ever published a word.

While Jane Austen did enjoy some modest success as an author while she was alive, you could say her career really took off after her death. Her novels slowly gained in popularity during the rest of the 19th century, and by the 20th century not only were her novels well known and loved (and on many a high school and college student’s reading list) but were adapted into movies and television series, too.

And I’m not just talking about Pride and Prejudice, perhaps her most famous book. (The Internet Movie Data Base lists 44 television programs and feature-length films based on Austen’s novel, going back as far as 1938.) Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey have all come to life on the screen.  

Colorized portrait of Jane done in 1872, based on
Cassandra's 1810 sketch. Note how the unknown artist
softened her face and gave her a 
wedding ring!
These stories are not just told using their original Regency settings, but many have inspired modern-day adaptations as well.

Sometimes these adaptations are almost unrecognizable from Jane’s original tale, but her basic story always shines through, no matter the setting.

Some examples are Clueless (1995), a clever spin on Emma set against a backdrop of a snobbish and socially stratified Beverly Hills high school, and Bride and Prejudice (2004), a delightful Bollywood take on Jane's classic tale, complete with a character named Darcy. 

More recently there’s From Prada to Nada (2011), a 21st-century version of Sense and Sensibility playing out in the contrasting worlds of Beverly Hills and the East Los Angeles barrio. 

And in 2016 Jane's novella Lady Susan made it to the big screen, adapted into a movie titled Love and Friendship starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny.

Jane Austen wrote her last piece, a comic poem she most likely dictated to her sister, on July 15, just a few days before she died. The humor of the piece is pretty remarkable in itself since, according to Cassandra, Jane was in a lot of pain during that time. 

Winchester Cathedral, where Jane is buried.
(Photo by Matt Turner, CC-BY-2.0)
This last work was about the Winchester races, held every summer and supposedly cursed by St. Swithin. According to legend, when St. Swithin’s remains were relocated by monks to a shrine inside the Cathedral against his explicit wishes, the saint cursed the event forevermore with wet weather.  

In Austen’s poem, here’s what the outraged St. Swithin says to the townspeople, by way of explaining his supernatural ability to literally rain on their parade:

When once we are buried you think we are dead,
But behold me Immortal.

Though she couldn’t have known it, Jane was describing her own literary future. 

So, while Jane Austen may have died over two centuries ago, her ideas, as expressed in her writing, live on. And that’s the best legacy any author can hope for.

Here’s the official trailer of Love and Friendship:

Sources for this post include:

Jane Austen Her Life Her Times Her Novels
Jane Austen, Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels by Janet Todd, an Andre Deutsch book, Carlton Publishing Group, London, 2013

Voices from the World of Jane Austen, by Malcolm Day, a David & Charles, F+W Publications Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio, 2006


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