by Vicky Huntley
Were she alive today - and no matter how strong her urge to gloat - Jane Austen would view the unabated revival of interest in her with her famous sense of perspective. Despite the fact that her books are set in a society and time about which most of us could have no idea, her stories continue to delight, bewitch and absorb us some 180 years on. We cannot, it seems, get enough of her.
The craze began in earnest with the BBC-TV adaptation of "Persuasion" that won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award for best single drama and was broadcast last year.
Actress Jennifer Ehle is one of Jane Austen's most famous heroines - Lizzie Bennet - and Cohn Firth is her suitor, Mr Darcy, seen here in the 1995 BBC-TV serialisation of "Pride And Prejudice".
Later, and even more significantly, there followed BBC-TV's immensely popular serialisation of "Pride And Prejudice", with Jennifer Ehle, who played the lead role of Lizzie Bennet, getting the BAFTA award for best actress. And, in February this year the much-feted "Sense And Sensibility" earned its star, Emma Thompson, an Oscar for her screenplay of the classic.
Unsurprisingly, that is not the end of it. A film version of "Emma" starring Gwyneth Paltro is scheduled for release in September, while its television counterpart has just gone into production to be seen in December on ITV (Britain's independent television network). The ITV single drama is being made by the team that produced "Pride And Prejudice": writer Andrew Davies and producer Sue Birtwistle.
This latest revival has also spawned a spin-off trade in Jane Austen CDS, videos, cooking books and T-shirts - all of which would perhaps raise an incomprehensible smile from Miss Austen. She might be baffled that her portrait now decorates people's shirts, considering that when she was first published she did so in secret and used the pseudonym of "by a lady".
Streams of visitors from around the globe continue the trek to her home in Chawton, Hampshire, in southern England. She lived there between 1809 and 1817 with her greatly loved sister, Cassandra, her friend, Martha Lloyd, and her mother. For Miss Austen's followers this most celebrated literary figure - who died at the age of 41, the author of six novels - has never been out of fashion.
"People are rediscovering that you don't need exaggerated sex and violence to get your drama," says Tom Carpenter who, as trustee administrator, runs the house at Chawton for the Jane Austen Memorial Trust. "Her observation of human nature is as relevant today as it was then." A sentiment shared by Susan McCartan, honorary secretary of the Jane Austen Society, who adds: "She was such a psychologist. What she says is so pertinent."
Both have a tangible respect and affection for the writer and both bear witness to the amazing impact of "the media circus" following the film and television exposure. The Austen home is now the key element in the promotion of tourism in Hampshire.
Chawton village is surviving the mania with fortitude and patience, welcoming the visitors who generally behave with propriety. But there's talk of one tourist moving a milk crate from the front of a pretty cottage because it was not considered aesthetically correct for a photograph he wanted to take.
Jane Austen's home at Chawton, Hampshire, southern England, where the writer lived from 1809 until her early death in 1817. It looks little changed from her day.
Cassandra's Cup, the pub opposite the house, copes magnificently with the groups of hungry and thirsty callers. Bar staff at the Greyfriar Inn pull the pints with a smile and receive bookings from overseas for table reservations with equanimity. (One visitor is supposed to have asked whether Miss Austen was available for book signings but the story may be a slight exaggeration.)
Tom Carpenter - whose grandfather bought the 17th-century redbrick house in 1948 for £3000, thence founding the Jane Austen Memorial Trust - observes the Austen fever with a pragmatic and genial eye. By the second television episode of "Pride And Prejudice", the monthly average of 2000 visitors increased by 3000 and the 20,000 yearly average leapt to 30,000 last year.
"The house is very forgiving but we have noticed a lot more creaks from the floorboards. We need to keep a balance and not put it under excess strain," says Mr Carpenter. No stranger to film crews, he is unlikely to forget the visit from a UK breakfast television programme to coincide with the premiere of "Sense And Sensibility".
"The camera took the entire nation through the house one morning in just five minutes and then the entire nation came down to the house afterwards."
Mr Carpenter is keenly aware of the need to make this essential part of the English heritage "very accessible". A policy underlined by the fact that the house's curator, Jean Bowden, and her assistant, Ann Channon, make themselves available for broadcasts, talks and interviews. A crucial support for the trust is the Jane Austen Society that was formed in 1940 with the specific purpose of raising funds to preserve the home where the writer spent the last seven years of her life.
Here, she revised her three early novels for publication ("Elinor And Marianne' became "Sense And Sensibility"; "First Impressions" became "Pride And Prejudice", and "Susan" became "Northanger Abbey") and wrote the three novels of her maturity:
"Mansfield Park", "Emma" and "Persuasion". She had begun work on a seventh, "Sanditon", in 1816 but illness prevented its completion. By that time she had contracted a tubercular disease of the kidneys and died in July 1817.
Born in 1775, the daughter of a country clergyman, Jane Austen spent her first 25 years at the village of Steventon in Hampshire. As a child, she wrote amusing burlesques of contemporary sentimental fiction (including her lively and somewhat disrespectful "A History of England"), establishing the patterns that were to make her one of the great British novelists.
Although she never married and led a comparatively restricted existence, the world of the family, courtship, village life and England's rural gentry withheld few secrets from her discriminating eye. As Austen's character in "Pride and Prejudice", Lizzie Bennet, puts it: she hopes she "never laughs at what is wise or good, but at foolishness and nonsense. "She knew what it was like to be a poor relation," says Susan Mccartan, of the Jane Austen Society. "She had a privileged grounding in a loving home environment but after her father died she lived on a reduced incorne and couldn't break into society even in a casual way because she simply wasn't grand enough."
The society is a thriving organisation committed to the preservation of the manuscripts, letters and memorabilia of the author and her family. It nurtures an appreciation and study of her life1 work and times, producing scholarly publications and providing authoritative back-up for schools and colleges. Its current membership is a little over 10,000 - 400 of whom are from overseas (North America, Australia, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Malaysia, Hawaii and central Africa included). auSusan McCartan sums up all the renewed interest in the respected writer this way: "The revival has introduced Jane Austen to a new generation... one that has never heard of her."