My favorite item from the growing mountain of Pride and Prejudice bicentennial trivia comes courtesy of an article in something called Regency World Magazine, which is going gaga over the anniversary. The article, "Albert Goes Ape for Austen," describes how a 200-pound orangutan named Albert, living in the Gdansk Zoo in Poland, insists on having 50 pages a night of Pride and Prejudice read to him at bedtime by his keeper or else he refuses to go to sleep.
What does Albert the orangutan hear in Pride and Prejudice, I wonder? Maybe the same thing my students hear when I teach survey courses on the evolution of the novel. We start our voyage out with Robinson Crusoe and often go on to Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy — fine, weird novels that seem to hail from a civilization a million light years from our own. Then we arrive home, on Planet Austen.
The relief in the classroom is palpable; the energy of class discussion spikes. It's certainly not that my students mistake Austen's world for our own. After all, her novels revolve around the make-or-break perils of a highly ritualized marriage market. Rather, it's Austen's smart-girl voice: peppery, wry, eye rolling — that seems so close to modern consciousness. Austen could be gal pals with Tina Fey and Lena Dunham; she talks to us directly, bridging time and custom.
Pride and Prejudice, Austen's most widely read novel, was first published on Jan. 28, 1813, and has since generated musicals and computer games, operas and anime, Masterpiece Theatre costume dramas and Bollywood movies. It's been updated and reimagined as mystery fiction, sci-fi, X-rated erotica and vampire gore. We readers clearly want Austen's voice to go on and on — a voice that was silenced when she died at the age of 41 in 1817.
Though I could happily watch Bridget Jones's Diary for eternity, I mostly think the best way to revisit Austen and learn something new is through the art of criticism. Out of the slew of critical books that have been spawned by the book's bicentennial, one that particularly caught my eye is called The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne. Byrne has previously written about Austen and the theater; here, she takes a clever approach to scrutinizing the few facts that we know about Austen's life.
Byrne reads Austen's life through key objects, many of which would have surrounded her in her parlor and bedroom. There are familiar relics like the three vellum notebooks in which a juvenile Austen penned poems and stories, as well as the pair of gorgeous topaz crosses that Austen's sailor brother Charles bought for Jane and her sister, Cassandra.
Then there are more exotic tokens: an "East Indian shawl" belonged to Austen's Aunt Philadelphia, who sailed to India with other single girls in search of husbands; they were part of what was then derisively called "the fishing fleet." Byrne's aim is to show how these objects, many of them reproduced in her book in lush color plates, reveal a much more cosmopolitan awareness of the world than is commonly credited to Austen.
Byrne also throws in a wild card: a small Regency-era portrait sketch of a slim middle-aged woman, cap on head, pen in hand. The portrait's provenance is unknown; on its back someone wrote: "Miss Jane Austin," spelling the last name with an "I," as Austen herself did on her 1816 royalty check for her novel Emma.
If this is, indeed, an authentic portrait of Austen, she looks like you might want her to look: staring off into the distance, faintly smiling, perhaps getting a kick out of a vision of the great fuss futurity would make of the creatures of her imagination.