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Anya Taylor-Joy revels in the role of the handsome, clever heroine with a sadistic streak in this amiable adaptation of Jane Austens great romcom

Not badly done, Emma. Novelist Eleanor Catton has scripted this amiable, genial and interestingly unassuming new adaptation of Jane Austens Regency classic, the great prototype romantic comedy, though it may be truer to call it a marriage comedy or marrcom. Music video specialist Autumn de Wilde makes her feature directing debut, with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt often confecting a buttery sunlight in which to shoot. De Wilde and Catton are pretty content to let the story itself do the work, getting the big moments, letting the subtleties go, but showcasing a very watchable lead turn from Anya Taylor-Joy whose eerily unblinking gaze has something calculating and predatory.

This movie does take a bit of time to settle down, with a frantically intrusive musical soundtrack at the very beginning, chirruping away under the action to make sure we understand how sprightly and amusing things are supposed to be. There is also what I can only describe as some startling buttock action. Dishy Mr Knightley is briefly glimpsed stark naked from the, ahem, rear. And Emma herself, standing alone with her back to the chimneypiece on a winters day, bizarrely hoists her skirts to get the full benefit of a roaring open fire, without obviously troubling herself to ascertain that the servants are not nearby. But these indiscretions happen at the very beginning, after which the movie keeps its full period costume sedately in place.

Pernickety Bill Nighy, left, as Mr Woodhouse. Photograph: Box Hill Films

Taylor-Joy is the famous Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich but, most importantly of course, unmarried, subverting sexual politics by bearing the previous three attributes as coolly as any eligible bachelor. She passes her time by matchmaking, a passion into which she diverts her own romantic frustrations. Emma has found a suitor for her former governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), who leaves their home to marry Mr Weston (Rupert Graves) thus grieving Emmas pernickety old dad, in which role Bill Nighy is inevitably, amusingly cast. Emma cant wait to set up her low-born friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) with the oleaginous clergyman Mr Elton (Josh OConnor), despite Mr Eltons socio-sexual intentions being elsewhere engaged, and despite sweet-natured Harriets tendresse for local farmer Mr Martin (Connor Swindells).

Arrogant heir-to-a-fortune Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) intrigues Emma, though he is perhaps more enamoured of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) and Emma is continuingly piqued by the intimate, needlingly flirtatious criticisms of Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), whose brother is married to Emmas sister. Their meet-cute has been going on since childhood.

Taylor-Joy is interestingly cast, especially for Emmas legendary nasty moment, a flash of spite and sadism in which Taylor-Joy suddenly resembles the sinister rich kid she played in Cory Finleys recent thriller Thoroughbreds. Emma waspishly humiliates tiresome old Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) in front of everyone during an outing to Box Hill, an act of despicable cruelty for which she is famously criticised by Mr Knightley it was badly done and for which she gets karmic justice. Yet Emma is so conceited that afterwards, when she is very contrite, her sense of status is such that she cannot quite bring herself to apologise to Miss Bates explicitly, leaving us to wonder how intentional a character revelation this is.

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Complete with quills, country dancing and rag curls, a country hotel is wooing dedicated Janeites to visit their favourite fictional world

Jane Austen fans are a devoted bunch. True Janeites tend to travel widely to celebrate their favourite author, most often to Bath for the Jane Austen festival. But on the other side of the world sits Governors House, a picturesque, yellow Georgian-style mansion in Hyde Park, Vermont. The house, along with its owner Suzanne Boden, draws Janeites from all over the globe who come not only to celebrate their favourite author, but to live as a character in her world.

Boden had the idea to start hosting Austen weekends at her home 11 years ago. I was outside hanging tablecloths on the clothesline, she says, against the backdrop of Governors House, and I was listening to some music through the window, which happened to be Mozart. From the back of the house, you cant see anything thats modern because of the trees. And I thought: I could be Jane Austen! And someone else might want to come and be Austen, too.

Others did. For more than a decade, Boden, who also offers the occasional Downton Abbey experience, has been hosting in-character weekends where attendees who range in age from seven to 80 get the pleasure of living life through the eyes and words of Austen.

Its an escape, says Boden, who encourages guests to eschew modern technology and leave their phones behind. Its about going back in time. Its a chance to dress up. Most of all, its a chance to be with, and interact with, other Austen fans, who always have a lot to say. Its unusual if someone goes home without a long list of book recommendations or film recommendations from new friends. People come for all sorts of reasons: One woman clearly thought it was going to be like the movie Austenland and shed meet her husband here.

Although guests dont typically find partners at the rate Austens characters do, they do gain new skills: learning to write with a quill pen and fold paper the way the author did, before envelopes existed. They get English country dancing lessons and indulge in afternoon tea. No lunch is served, because, as Boden points out, lunch wasnt invented in Austens time (neither was afternoon tea, but an exception is made). Other weekend activities include sewing reticules (a small purse-like bag used in Austens time to carry gloves, a fan, and perhaps even love notes), horse-drawn carriage rides and archery.

A recent weekend dedicated to Emma at Governors House drew Janeites from as far away as Texas. On a Friday night, attendees nibbled lemon squares and sipped tea as they watched a short lecture titled Bared Bosoms and Padded Calves (on the fashions of Regency England).

Two women in Regency costume walking dogs through Bath during the citys annual Jane Austen festival. Photograph: Alamy

There are 79 regional groups in the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) across the US and Canada. When asked why so many Americans love Austen, Boden is incredulous. Everybody loves Jane Austen! She gets right to the heart of things, she says. On the surface, it looks like a little romance, but there are so many layers in her works, which have been translated into well, how many languages are there in the world? Although its very British, she doesnt mention anything going on politically so it could be set anywhere.

Over a breakfast of tea, blueberry muffins and baked eggs, guests discuss favourite books, adaptations, characters and their shared love for spotting inaccuracies in period films (I heard theres a shocking lack of hairpins in the new Little Women!). Everyone agrees that Henry from Mansfield Park was one of her best male creations, for being sweet, competent and witty. But he was never witty in a mean way, or at someone elses expense, says Lena Ruth Yasutake, a 36-year-old teacher from Connecticut. She runs a Regency clothing business called Cassandras Closet (a subtle nod to Austen) with her sister-in-law Anna, who has also joined the party: she had her hair in rag curlers yesterday night and has an Austenesque hairstyle ready for breakfast. Lenas her devotion to Austen has been hard-won: I pushed through my dyslexia to finish Emma because I loved the story so much. It was my gateway drug into Austen.

Everybody loves Jane Austen! … Women take a turn through the grounds of Governors House

The women here tend to come in groups: Vermont bookstore owner Kim Crady-Smith has brought her sister, her niece and a friend, who sit alongside three childhood friends from Dallas, all in their 70s. Ann, who urged her friends Charlene and Mary to join her, has attended other Austen weekends before, and, as a result, ended up joining the Dallas chapter of JASNA. The Dallas meetings arent as much fun as Bodens weekends, Ann says: After experiencing this, its hard to settle for less!

Janeites delight in Austens words and stories, but what most bonds the Americans is a bit more complex. Anglophilia is strong throughout the US; its presence is reflected in Americans appetite for British television and film, football, music and more. The enthusiasm for Austen reflects a wider desire to journey into a world that feels foreign and familiar all at once.

At the end of Bodens weekends, she gives guests a quiz over Sunday brunch. Throughout the weekend, she drops hints and breadcrumbs of information that are answers to Sundays quiz. What happens if you fail the quiz? Boden doesnt miss a beat: If you flunk, you get the greatest prize of all: you get to reread the novel.

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Kept in a private collection for more than a century, the 1813 letter to the authors sister Cassandra details her thoughts on dentists, fashion and daily life

Caps with large full bows of very narrow ribbon one over the right temple, perhaps, and another at the left ear were the height of fashion in 1813 at least according to Jane Austen, who informs her sister Cassandra of the latest trend in a rare letter that will be auctioned at Bonhams in New York next month.

Letters from Austen seldom come up for auction, because Cassandra and other members of the novelists family destroyed the majority of them in the 1840s. Of the estimated 3,000 missives written by Austen, only around 161 survive, of which around 95 are to Cassandra.

Austen to her sister Cassandra, from 16 September 1813. Photograph: Bonhams

The letter, dated 16 September 1813 and written shortly after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, runs to four pages. Dealing with everything from a trip to the dentist with her nieces to her mothers health (Austen is hopeful she is no longer in need of leeches), it is a gem, according to Kathryn Sutherland, an Austen scholar and trustee of Jane Austens House Museum.

Bonhams, which will auction the letter on 23 October, said it is full of lively detail, wit and charm, vividly echoing the world [Austen] deftly portrayed in her novels and written at the height of [her] literary powers.

The poor Girls & their Teeth! writes Austen at one point. Lizzys were filed & lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all … we heard each of the two sharp hasty screams. The dentist, she adds, must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischief she would not have had him look at mine for a shilling a tooth & double it.

She also mentions a visit to a Mrs T. This is Fanny Tilson, the wife of Henry Austens business partner, James Tilson, who had given birth to at least 11 children by that point. Austen finds her as affectionate & pleasing as ever, but notes to her sister that from her appearance I suspect her to be in the family way. Poor Woman!

With just a few words, the novelist conjures up for her sister an image of her situation: We are now all four of us young Ladies sitting round the Circular Table in the inner room writing our Letters, while the two Brothers are having a comfortable coze in the room adjoining. This use of coze predates the words first recorded appearance in print in Austens own novel Mansfield Park, in 1814.

Austen also takes a deep dive into the world of headgear. My cap is come home, and I like it very much, she informs Cassandra. Fanny has one also; hers is white sarsenet and lace, of a different shape from mine, more fit for morning carriage wear, which is what it is intended for, and is in shape exceedingly like our own satin and lace of last winter; shaped around the face exactly like it, with pipes and more fulness, and a round crown inserted behind. My cap has a peak in front. Large full bows of very narrow ribbon (old twopenny) are the thing. One over the right temple, perhaps, and another at the left ear.

Bonhams believes the letter, which has been in a private collection since 1909, will fetch between 65,000 to 97,000 at auction. Sutherland said that because of specific domestic details within it, it would have by far the greatest resonance inside the collection held by Jane Austens House Museum in the cottage where Austen lived and wrote.

Earlier this year, the museum launched a crowdfunding campaign to help it raise the 35,000 it needed to buy a snippet of a letter written by Austen in 1814. More than 250 donors raised 10,000 in a public campaign in six weeks and it is on display at the museum.

Sutherland said it was particularly sad that publicly funded organisations like Jane Austens House Museum were unable to compete with international commercial buyers, because so few Austen letters are retained for public benefit in British institutions.

If the present owners had consulted privately with us of course we would have been happy to try to reach a mutually fair accommodation, but auction house prices do not sit well with what public institutions can in most cases afford to offer, she said.

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Two hundred years since the novelists death, Austen obsessives celebrate her legacy

Roland Anderson, 44, finance director, London

It wasnt until I was in my 20s that I started getting into Austen. My friend Mark kept going on about Pride And Prejudice, so I reread it, then worked my way through the rest of the novels, plus anything I could get my hands on: the letters, the unfinished novels. Once I read a boyfriend Pride And Prejudice as a bedtime story. It doesnt take as long as you think 20 nights at two or three chapters a night. He really liked it, even if the relationship didnt last.

After I started posting at the Austen messageboard, I met other fans. We visited Bath and other locations, and spent the afternoons drinking tea and talking about Austen. I studied French and German at university. Whenever I visit a new place, I look for a translation of Pride And Prejudice and see if I can read it. Ive now got copies in French, Italian, a couple of different German ones, and Im looking for a Norwegian.

Virginia Woolf says somewhere that Austen is the hardest writer to catch in the act of greatness. Shes so economical: she can sketch a character in a single stroke. When Elizabeth Bennet is feeling sorry for herself about Darcy, she goes for walks to indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections; its such a perfect phrase. In Sense And Sensibility, Elinor looks at Robert Ferrars, whos a complete idiot and decides that he doesnt deserve the compliment of rational opposition. Who hasnt thought that about someone theyve met at a party?

The novels are so modern, particularly in the way they treat women: I dont think any writer before her managed to write about female characters as if they were actual human beings, with their own feelings and ambitions. She was centuries ahead of her time.

Sophie Andrews, 21, blogger, Reading

Sophie Andrews. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian

At school, I was a bit of an odd one out. I felt as if I was born in the wrong century. I wasnt into teenage things. Then we were set Pride And Prejudice for GCSE English, and suddenly everything clicked. Her characters are two centuries old, but all of us know flirts like Lydia Bennet, or mean girls like Caroline Bingley. And her voice is so strong on the page. Theres a line from a letter from Jane to her sister Cassandra I really like: I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal. You get a sense of her personality immediately.

I reread Pride And Prejudice straight away, and then devoured the rest, as well as the film and TV adaptations. The books were better: it was much more enjoyable to imagine the characters in my head.

I began posting on Facebook, and then started a blog. I was 16, and I called it Laughing with Lizzie, because of that line by Elizabeth Bennet: I dearly love a laugh. It was low-key at first: GCSE essays, writing about the adaptations, things like that. It grew from there. Ive hosted guest posts, interviews, and reviews of Austen-inspired fan fiction. Its become a bit of a hub. My followers enjoy reading about me attending events; I think theyre waiting for me to find my Mr Darcy. Its sort of become my life.

Theres this line of Janes I really like: Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. Thats why she means so much to me: theres drama in the books, but its never threatening. A few years ago, I nearly lost my sister to a serious illness, and I myself have a condition a bit like ME, which makes it hard for me to do a regular job. The books have been my lifeline; when things are tough in the real world, I can just dive into hers. I cant imagine my life without Jane. It sounds melodramatic but, in a way, shes saved me.

Amy Rollason, 25, and Jagjit Dhandra, 51, members of the Jane Austen Dancers, Bath

Amy Rollason and Jagjit Dhandra. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian

Jagjit I was really keen on archery, and I went to a historical fair a few years ago to buy some strings for my bow. There was a flyer for a Regency ball in Bath, and it was happening on my birthday, so I thought, why not? I didnt really love the books, to be honest; Austens not very good at male characters theyre a bit one-dimensional but that world really appealed. Partly its the history: the Regency period was a time of great social and political change, with almost continual warfare and great inequality; even though you see only bits of that in the novels. Captain Wentworth in Persuasion and William Price in Mansfield Park were both probably based on Austens brother Francis, who joined the Royal Navy.

When I started dancing, I took some lessons from a local group in Lichfield. Finding a decent costume was more of a challenge: there are a lot of dressmakers online, but theyre very busy so they need a lot of advance notice. I got lucky with a tailcoat and breeches from eBay, and ordered another tailcoat and waistcoat from America. Im probably not the tallest or most handsome guy, but a uniform makes all the difference as Ive discovered walking around Bath in costume while hen parties are on the loose.

The dancing is really graceful; people move quite slowly and sedately, and the music is soft. Its surprisingly easy, too, if you count the beats and keep your footwork precise. You can do it while youre drunk. Believe me, Ive tried.

I probably do seven or eight balls a year with different groups, all over the country and even abroad, and private events, too. I know a lot of couples whove met at Austen dances. In the world of Austen, men are massively outnumbered. Im pretty sure Im invited to so many balls because Im a single man who knows how to dance.

Amy People think everyones middle-aged, but theyre not. We meet every other week to rehearse; anyone can come along; its 4 a go. The dancing isnt hard to pick up: its like country dancing. Its a really sociable thing to do, because youre swapping around the whole time. Im in my 20s and the other month, I was at someones 60th birthday ball. Not many of my friends have that.

I started reading the books as a teenager and got hooked. They just felt so adult, compared with the things Id been reading before: full of deep emotions, but so smartly and funnily told with so much social observation. Even when the story is as simple as girl meets bad boy in Brighton, as it is with the Lydia Bennet subplot in Pride And Prejudice, its told with such humanity. You feel for Lydia, even as you realise how silly she is.

I did English at university, but for a long time I avoided specialising in Austen because I love the novels so much I didnt want to spoil them. Then I ended up doing a masters in Austen. It became a kind of joke. Later, I got a job volunteering at the Jane Austen festival in Bath. We walk through the streets wearing costume. You get such an amazing reaction, children yelling, Why are you dressed so crazily? I love that.

Mira Magdo, 31, blogger, Cambridge

Mira Magdo. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian

My first encounter with Austen was watching the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride And Prejudice. Im from Hungary originally, so I got the videos and watched them with my mum, then I read the books in one big gulp, in translation.

Austens world was just so different from mine: the characters seemed to spend all day studying, reading, going for walks.

Four years ago, I moved to England to be close to Jane it sounds weird but its true. Each year, theres a big festival in Bath. One year, I was there and Adrian Lukis, who played Wickham in the BBC version, was there too, and I had the idea of trying to meet every major cast member. Some of them were in plays, so I bought tickets and got autographs afterwards. I had to travel to New York to get Jennifer Ehle; she was in a play off-Broadway. I tweeted her, asking if she could sign a book of the original TV script, and she messaged straight back, saying to meet her at the stage door afterwards. She was lovely.

Colin Firth was my last. I went to the premiere of Bridget Joness Baby in London last year, and caught him in the crowd. I was a bit dumbfounded. All I could do was ask him for a selfie and if he could he sign a painting of him as Darcy. He gave me a bit of a weird look when he saw the painting, but he did it. I was shaking for an hour afterwards.

My family think Im too old for it, spending money on gowns, books and balls, but it makes me happy. I have 80 copies of Pride And Prejudice in 15 languages. Maybe its a bit unoriginal, but its definitely my favourite novel as well as my favourite TV series; the writing is so sharp and funny: One cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty.

I also read a lot of Jane Austen fan fiction, and review it on my blog. I remember telling my mum that I was going to meet everyone whod been in the TV series, and she told me that life doesnt work like that. But sometimes it does.

Gabrielle Malcolm, 46, academic, Bath

I was standing at the bus stop one day, and saw a young woman carrying an I heart Darcy tote bag. I thought, thats interesting. Its not just about Austen, its Darcy particularly, and probably Colin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen, too. I hadnt realised that fan culture was such a huge thing. So I started digging: going to events, meeting people, interviewing fans. Eventually it turned into a book.

People often talk about the books being a kind of refuge. George Henry Lewes, George Eliots lover, said of Austen that she was a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, and a lot of fans seem to think of her like that: a witty friend you can turn to. Theres something in the plots, too: conflict leading to resolution, the happy ever after. Then theres the history, the feminism and the English thing, which attract fans from all across the world. The costume-drama side is really strong, too: a lot of fans are also madly passionate about Poldark and Downton Abbey.

And then you have the Jane Austen fan fiction (Jaff) scene, with as many as 70 new books a month, mostly self-published, all inspired by Austen stories from faithful continuations of plots to things that are more out-there: The Other Mr Bingley, Pride And Pettiness, Sif And Sensibility, the Zombies series They keep coming. There are so many sides to Austen fan culture: its as if you got all the fans of Star Trek, cosplay and book groups, and rolled them into one. And then added a lot of tea.

Im one too, of course. I first read Pride And Prejudice when I was 11 and my whole family read Austen; it was a large family, and wed swap the books between us. I was pretty young, but my mum helped me with the language. I lost both my parents when I was in my 20s, so its a way of connecting with them, I suppose. Its become a major part of my life. I was giving a talk at an Austen festival the other month, thinking, I wish my mum could see this.

Nili Olay, 72, and Jerry Vetowich, 80, members of the Jane Austen Society of North America

Jerry and Nili. Photograph: Christopher Lane for the Guardian

Nili I first read Austen at university in the 1960s, and adored her straight away. I love language, so that was partly it, but its also the psychology. You meet someone and find yourself saying, Oh, theyre an Elizabeth Bennet, or Theyre a bit like Frank Churchill, a bit of a rogue. Pre-Freud, she just nails it.

Jerry started reading the books and we used to read Austen to each other while we were driving the kids around. Then one day, Jerry saw an advert for the Jane Austen Society of North America and said, guess what, theres a whole society of people as crazy as we are.

We went to our first meeting in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1980s 250 people, maybe. Now about 800 show up at the annual event, with about 5,000 members in all. Were based mostly in New York, but when we started spending more time in Florida, we realised there wasnt a local chapter; so we turned up in costume one day at a book festival and encouraged people to sign up. Were up to 25 people. I think well get more.

Jerry I love the dressing-up, I admit Ive got four costumes, including a redcoat and an admiral, and Nili has several gowns. They look pretty authentic. Of course, we dont dress up for the regular meetings, just the balls, but its great to see people in their finery.

Weve been to the UK a couple of times. We did all the Austen tours; its fascinating to stand inside Chawton, the house where she lived, and to walk along the cliffs at Lyme Regis like Anne Elliot in Persuasion.

I guess people might be surprised that Americans love Austen so much, but we were the colonies for a long time, so its partly in our blood. Jane Austens world, that world of early 19th-century Britain, seems very orderly to us. Maybe its something we wish we had particularly right now.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the greatest English novelists. On the 200th anniversary of her death, writers make the case for the novel closest to their hearts

Hilary Mantel

Jack and Alice and other juvenilia
Charlotte Bront did not like Jane Austen because she thought she was mimsy, with a fenced-in imagination. But the teenage Jane was ruthless, well read, exuberant and scathing. She understood the cult of sensibility, and sniggered at it. She parodied the gothic, long before she wrote Northanger Abbey: horrid secrets, fulminating infatuations, astonishing coincidences, catastrophic lapses of memory, road traffic accidents and the theft of 50 notes. Every coroneted carriage contains a long-lost relation. Orphaned babies perfectly able to relate their sensational histories are discovered in haystacks. In Henry and Eliza, two hungry children bite off their mothers fingers.

If there is no logical connection between the actions of her early characters, its not because shes child-like, its because shes clever. She has understood that in genre fiction the conventions of the form overrule reason: so whenever the plot defeats itself, or the author loses interest, Ah! what could we do but what we did! We sighed and fainted on the sofa.

That is from Love and Freindship [sic], one of the longer stories. Some of the early ones are only a few lines long. But Janes shorthand is savage. No cliche goes unmolested. If her mature novels elicit a knowing smile, the juvenilia makes you laugh out loud. These squibs, remnants and broken stories, incised with glee between the ages of about 11 and 17, show how deep her art goes into her early life: and how aware she is already of the techniques and tropes that will later produce her popularity.

Its as if she is mocking her own work before shes done it. In The Visit, a short play, diners sit in each others laps for want of chairs, and the menu offers the absurdist version of supper with Mr Woodhouse in Emma. Sir Arthur, taste that tripe. I think you will not find it amiss.

In Jack and Alice, the three or four families who were her later stock in trade inhabit the neighbourhood of Pammydiddle. The heroine, Alice, has many rare and charming qualities, but sobriety is not one of them. Repeatedly this genius child invites us to slide along the polished floor of her sentences, before demurely opening a trap door. Charles Adams was an amiable, accomplished and bewitching young man, of so dazzling a beauty that none but eagles could look him in the face. The love-lorn Lucy, trekking from Wales to see him, falls into a steel mantrap and breaks her leg; though two days later she is fit enough for a spree in Bath.

Adams is the original Mr Darcy. Readers are reverent about her heroes the master of Pemberley, and the sainted Knightley. But young Jane sees straight through them. Says Charles Adams: I expect nothing more in my wife than my wife will find in me perfection.

The juvenilia make me wonder did the writer of Jack and Alice ever write a single straight sentence? Did she subdue her spirits, simply to get into print and earn a little cash? Or was she, as Id rather think, cutting up her cardboard beaux in her mind even as she created them, and laughing at her public as much as at her characters?

Ian McEwan

Northanger Abbey
Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?

They had reached the end of the gallery, and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.

I first read this passage in 1965 at the age of 17 and it made a great impression on me. The heroines unruly imagination is suddenly tethered by this vigorous remonstration from General Tilney. Whats striking is that in the very early 19th century, before the railways had transformed the country, long before the telegraph, the General evokes a society that is intricately connected, where no one can hide from public scrutiny when a network of communications and media can lay everything open. No place here for wild and foolish imaginings. Perhaps this is the very essence of the condition of modernity always to believe one has arrived in ones time at the summit of the modern.

Jane Austens Northanger Abbey profoundly influenced my novel Atonement. General Tilneys resounding words form the epigraph.

Included in a fundraising auction for the Royal Society of Literature.

Ahdaf Soueif

Sense and Sensibility
My mother had a handsome set of Jane Austens novels, bound in pale blue cloth with gold lettering on the spine, the text printed quite large on thick, off-white paper. These physical attributes were what taught my 12-year-old self that the world thought better of Austen than of the Mills & Boon paperbacks that lived on my aunts bookshelves. But in essence, I read both in the same way: a heroine (who was reasonably pretty and good and kind and knew right from wrong but was poor) won the heart of the hero (who was in some fashion difficult but generally rich) after a series of mishaps (which involved misunderstandings and prettier and easier rivals).

There was another similarity that I felt but could not put my finger on then: that the characters lived only in the world of the story with no reference to anything that was going on in the larger world.

Its odd how Austens novels, more than other classics, change as you change. Reading her later I found her stories to be more about money than romance. And even now, reading Sense and Sensibility, Im surprised at how often actual figures are specified. We may not know what Elinors drawings look like or what music Marianne sits down to but we know that each young woman has no income or expectation beyond one pound a week (about 30 in todays money).

And yet it is perhaps this absence of description that leaves us free to supply our own details. With nothing more than the barest instruction that a chamber is well-appointed or that there were many servants waiting at dinner our minds immediately furnish the rooms and clothe the ladies, from fantasy or film, and possibly without much accuracy; yet so vivid are the lives being lived within them that on looking up from the pages Im surprised to find myself in my own surroundings which for a moment seem less familiar to me than the ones Ive just left.

The Dashwoods (from left): Kate Winslet, Gemma Jones, Emilie Franois and Emma Thompson, in Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee (1995), Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Pictures

Sense and Sensibility was not my favourite Austen, for it had neither a Mr Darcy nor a Mr Knightley to satisfy an incorrigible urge towards the Romantic Hero. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon seem more like diffident absences, to be honest. And yet perhaps, I now reflect, they are among the truest of Austens characters. For the world in which they live is actually a world in which no one may do what they really want. Its a world where to be not unhappy a person needs to be a superficial, jovial, undiscerning (and rich) fool, or a superficial, disagreeable, limited (and rich) manipulator. And even though the focus of the novel is on the womens travails, the men unless possessed of a large independent fortune are every bit as circumscribed and helpless. It was the darkness of this world this rigorously enclosed world the sheer nastiness of some of the exchanges, and the bitchiness (no other word for it) of Austens tone that stood out for me on this rereading.

Austens genius is that you find in her a true reflection of whatever you, at a particular moment, think is reality.

Claire Tomalin

Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice was said to be too clever to be by a woman by a not very clever admirer when it was published in 1813. First drafted in the 1790s, the manuscript had to be carried about carefully as the Austen family moved from place to place. Austen herself called it my own darling Child, and enjoyed reading it aloud to friends and family, but she published it anonymously, since ladies did not promote themselves.

The narrative is brilliantly confident from its famous Johnsonian start, It is a truth universally acknowledged From then on it is all drama, largely told through the voices of its characters, and mercilessly funny in presenting fools, Mr Collins, the first of Austens unctuous clergymen, and Mrs Bennet, the mother from hell.

Mrs Bennets least favourite daughter, Elizabeth, stands alongside Shakespeares Rosalind as one of the most interesting heroines ever written, and surpasses her by being more complex multi-stranded, capable of dark thoughts. She tells her sister: You are a great deal too apt to like people in general, and The more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it. Growing up with mismatched parents has sharpened her take on life and she looks at the world closely and critically like a writer, you might say. She is not Austen, but she is what Austen thought a young woman should be: tough, energetic, observant, forthright.

Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice (1995). Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

Elizabeth is set to enjoy her youth and freedom dancing, friendship, the prospect of love and marriage but Austen does not hesitate to give us the brutal truth about economics for women of her time by showing her best friend Charlotte ready to marry a man she neither loves nor respects because it is better than becoming a despised old maid. Charlotte regards selling her body and domestic skills for married status as normal. Elizabeth is dismayed but has to accept that her friend has little choice.

The book is structured to give Elizabeth temptations, dramatic reversals, discoveries and arguments in her own love affairs. At the climax of the book she is attacked by the aristocratic aunt of her lover, and in a virtuoso chapter the two women play out their battle, a verbal game of tennis with Lady Catherine de Bourgh confident of defeating a social inferior. Instead Elizabeth coolly wins every point. Although she says I am a gentlemans daughter, this is not how she triumphs over Lady Catherine it is by insisting on her right to act in that manner which will, in my opinion, constitute my happiness. This is her own declaration of independence. It recalls another great document of the period in which we are shown aristocrats routed by their servants Beaumarchaiss The Marriage of Figaro, first staged in 1784 and made into an opera by Mozart. Austen is in good company and deserves a place of honour.

Tessa Hadley

Mansfield Park
Readers are often perplexed by Mansfield Park, the first time they read it. Coming next in order of writing after effervescent, exuberant Pride and Prejudice, it can seem a bit like sobering up. So Austen has done Elizabeth Bennet, who is so easy to like spirited and smart and funny and kind too. Its as if for her next book she wants to push herself, try something trickier. There is a spirited, fearless, clever girl in Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford: but she isnt the heroine, and it turns out in the end that she isnt kind. Bold clever girls cant always be trusted. Being irreverent and amusing isnt really any guarantee you wont play with other peoples feelings, use them for your own ends.

The moral universe in Mansfield Park gets more complicated; Austens emotional range thickens and deepens, along with her novelistic technique. You might say its the book in which she comes closest to imagining forwards into the moralised world of the great Victorian novels. The very best writers are sometimes afforded glimpses into the future like Shakespeare anticipating the whole of colonialism in The Tempest. Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price, the lovers in Mansfield Park, are serious and high-minded: he wants to be a clergyman, and shes loved him ever since she first came as a little girl to live with his grand family, in a role something between a companion and a servant: Edmund found her crying on the attic stairs and comforted her, sharpening her pencils and helping her with spelling so that she could write letters home. Its well known that the money in Mansfield Park comes from plantations in Antigua, worked by slaves. I always think that after the end of the novel Edmund and Fanny if they live that long, because shes very fragile will become convinced evangelicals and abolitionists. The shadow of slavery, although its remote and mostly unexamined, does cast its darkness over the world of the book.

But Im making the novel sound like medicine meant to do the reader good, and it isnt that in the least. Its gloriously funny Edmunds mother Lady Bertram with her pug, for example, is a marvellous study of indolence and benign blandness and tender and thrilling. Theres real malevolence in the form of nasty Mrs Norris, and plenty of high drama; a pair of selfish sisters with some stupid suitors even some adultery. Just because Edmund and Fanny are solemn, it doesnt mean that Austen becomes solemn to match. She is so tenderly sympathetic and psychologically insightful and amused, watching the comedy of their true love not running smooth. Edmund falls of course, who wouldnt? for sparkling, witty Mary Crawford. And Fanny can only watch and suffer in solitude, seeing through all Marys self-interested calculations, not able to tell anyone.

The ITV production of Mansfield Park with (from left) Michelle Ryan as Maria; Rory Kinnear as Rushworth; Catherine Steadman as Julia; James DArcy as Tom and Billie Piper as Fanny Price. Photograph: ITV/Company Pictures

Underneath Fannys anxious shyness and strong sense of duty shes passionate and determined and more clear-sighted than anyone else around her. When Marys glamorous, sexy, brother Henry Crawford falls for Fanny just because she resists him, and sets about breaking her heart, she astonishes everyone by refusing him. Heres another way Mansfield Park represents an advance, imaginatively, on Pride and Prejudice. The turnaround in Darcy and Elizabeths feelings always feels to me too perfunctorily plotted, contrived too easily Darcy in the middle of the book feels too unconvincingly different from Darcy at the beginning. In Mansfield Park the jeopardy, the possibility of these young men and women making a mistake that could cost them a lifetime of unhappiness, feels more real. The stakes are higher, the wind is colder that blows in from outside the small world of their story.

Joyce Carol Oates

Some time in the late 1970s, at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, I taught a course in the English novel that included Austens Emma. Revisiting my lecture notes evokes much nostalgia. Did I admire Austen, or detest her? Did I admire Austen as a stylist, but detest her perspective, ever smug and knowing?

Emma Woodhouse is presented to us in the opening words of the novel as handsome, clever, and rich and blessed: having lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. We are told our confidante leans closer, to murmur in our ear that the evils of Emmas situation are transparent: The power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her. In miniature, the novel is laid out before us, as if we stood upon a hill gazing down upon a narrative about to spring into life; the novel that follows will be an illustration of the novelists precis.

Akicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz in Amy Heckerlings Clueless (1995) based on Emma. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

My notes for Emma cover pages in my battered Riverside paperback textbook with its excellent introduction by Lionel Trilling. How thrilling it was, lecturing on great English novels, to a fairly large class of undergraduate and graduate students, as a relatively young academic in my 30s at the time. I have not glanced into Emma since those heady days but recall the precision of Austens gently satiric prose, its way of both exposing foibles and forgiving them in virtually the same sweep of a sentence; the very essence, perhaps, of the feminine, if not the female to expose, but (of course) to forgive. Yet Austen is surely speaking for herself, not Emma, when, at the novels end, she waxes extremely indignant at the possibility that Emmas protege Harriet daughter of a tradesman might have been considered a proper match for the genteel Mr Knightley: The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed. Here Austen lowers her genteel mask and speaks frankly to us; we feel her frisson of horror, that the illegitimate interloper has come so close to penetrating our closed society; we may wish that she had ended her novel with the preceding, more generous-minded chapter.

Emma is the supreme novel of adolescence, ideally read when one is the heroines age: 20. Our heroines faults her vanity, short-sightedness, peremptory behaviour are flattering faults; commonplace and essentially trivial, not like traits of meanness, malice, duplicity. (We know that when Austen uses the word evils she does not mean evil not even wickedness.) Emma Woodhouse is as much a stranger to ideas (political, social, religious) as to physical experience. She inhabits a superficial girlish consciousness, bodiless and underdeveloped. Emotions such as fear, dread, despair, rage, intense love and sexual yearning do not exist. Adolescent romance, no evil, no disturbances, no shadows or depths for these very reasons, in some quarters, Austen will always be revered.

Margaret Drabble

Persuasion is the novel of the second chance, and it is the most poignant and tender of Austens works. Her heroine Anne Elliot, we are repeatedly told, is no longer in the bloom of youth. She is not quite in the autumn of her days, but the mood of the novel is autumnal. She is 27, and for eight and a half years she has been silently and passively regretting her lost love, and her broken engagement to the dashing Captain Wentworth, surely the most active and vigorous of Austens heroes. Anne is deeply conscious of the contrast between his outgoing and enterprising male life in the larger world, and the confines of her dependent female lot. One of the most moving scenes comes towards the end of the novel, when Anne and Wentworths friend Captain Harville are discussing with much animation the difference between male and female passion and the capacity for constancy of either sex: Anne objects to womans literary reputation for inconstancy, arguing that men have had every advantage in telling us their own story the pen has been in their hands, and continues, with rash, heartbreaking and revealing candour: All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.

Wentworth, overhearing this, is emboldened to renew his proposal, and Annes weary years of being bullied by her father and her sisters, of playing second fiddle (or the piano for country dances on demand), and of studying the navy lists and newspapers for news of the captain are over. All ends well, and the tangles of subplot are made straight.

Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth in the BBC production of Persuasion (1995). Photograph: Allstar/BBC

The novel is also graced by some of her finest scenery, from the tawny leaves and withered hedges of inland November to the seascapes and flowing tides of Lyme Regis and the green chasms between romantic rocks of Up Lyme. Although Austen gently mocks the fashionable romanticism of Walter Scott, she is herself susceptible to it, and allows a melancholy sense of the declining year to pervade the narrative. But there is also comedy: the physical vanity and obsession with rank of Sir Walter Elliot are wittily satirised, as they are contrasted with his tenant Admiral Crofts weather-beaten good nature. Crofts comment on the self-important Sir Walter after their first encounter is delicious: The Baronet will never set the Thames on fire, but there seems to be no harm in him. And I have always been intrigued by the sycophantic Mrs Clay, who has wound her way into Sir Walters good opinion, despite her red hair and her freckles. Austens preoccupation with complexion, with bloom and freckles and skin remedies, may foreshadow her own declining health, which she addressed more caustically in her last, unfinished novel, Sanditon. It is interesting to note, however, that the scheming Penelope Clay may after all end up as the wife of Sir William Elliot, undeserving heir to Sir Walters baronetcy. It is a doubtful point whether his cunning, or hers, may finally carry the day Theirs is an open ending, and another story. Mrs Clay may have the last laugh.

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