Winchester, United Kingdom | AFP | Two hundred years after Jane Austen’s death, Britain is celebrating one of its best-loved authors, who combined romance with biting social commentary that still speaks to fans around the world.
The author of classic novels “Pride and Prejudice”, “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility” had only just become known when she died on July 18, 1817, aged 41.
But her six novels, dissecting the lives of 19th century rural aristocracy, have since sold millions of copies, led to film adaptations and even spawned a zombie spin-off.
She has inspired countless other authors, from Virginia Woolf, who praised her “genius”, to Helen Fielding of the best-selling “Bridget Jones” series.
Next week the Bank of England will issue a new £10 note bearing Austen’s image, during this year of special events including walks through her native Hampshire in southern England and exhibitions about her life.
Part of Austen’s appeal rests on her depiction of a romanticised England with love affairs, tea and parties in the glorious surroundings of sprawling stately homes.
Some have even compared her to Barbara Cartland, the late English romantic novelist.
But Austen’s novels have long been studied for their critique of a world of rigid class structure that was nevertheless in flux thanks to the Napoleonic wars.
“One of the things she is concerned with as a moral writer is social responsibility,” said Professor Kathryn Sutherland of the University of Oxford, co-curator of a new exhibition in Winchester.
Austen also shone a harsh light on the status of women, for whom a good match in marriage was considered the only goal.
“She was very conscious of the plight of women, of women’s dependence on men and she found that frustrating,” Sutherland said, calling her a feminist.