Few authors have been as analysed, criticised, lionised, imitated, adapted and parodied as Jane Austen. And yet, you could barely hang a bonnet on what is known of the writer who lampooned the gentry of Georgian England with such ruthless precision that, in 2017, she became the first female writer to be pictured on a British banknote.
No diaries, if they ever existed, survived and her family mysteriously burned the bulk of her correspondence after her death. But despite the enduring questions over what Jane Austen was really like, her work endures stronger than ever-inspiring TV shows, films and books. Lots of books.
If you're an Austen Super Fan, as loyal to her as Mr Darcy is to an awkward encounter, these are the ones you should consider, from the classics she influenced to modern fiction she inspired to non-fiction that shines a light on one of literature's most intriguing figures.
Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin (1997)
Biographers of Jane Austen face the same jam as those who tackle Shakespeare: there is far more interest in her life than information about it. As far as anyone knows she didn’t keep a diary (though her family may have destroyed it), and her family mysteriously burned most of her letters when she died.
Tomalin’s exquisitely written biography gets deeper than most, reading between the lines to present a woman far from the sheltered country mouse her nephew described after her death (‘Of events her life was singularly barren. Few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course’) to unearth the mystery of ‘the real Jane’ academics have been seeking for 200 years: a worldly and cosmopolitan woman, surrounded by interesting people, who led a far more fascinating life than meets the eye.
Evelina by Frances Burney (1778)
Frances "Fanny" Burney wrote when Austen was still an infant, and her work would go on to have a big impact on the young Jane. So much so that her novel
Cecilia inspired the title Pride and Prejudice, and is referenced directly in Northanger Abbey, in which it is described as a 'work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed'.
But it is Burney's other novel,
Evelina, that arguably resonates even more strongly with Austen's own writing. It chronicles the entrance of a young girl into the world of 18th-century society and is a hilarious and satirical lampoon of the manners and customs of the time. Not for nothing did Virginia Woolf once call Burney 'the mother of English fiction.’
Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken (1991)
Jane Austen famously called Emma a ‘heroine whom no one but myself will much like'. You can see why: Emma Woodhouse is self-deluded, bossy, snobbish and loves nothing more than to meddle in the love lives of others.
By contrast, Jane Fairfax is the story's put-upon Cinderella-type who deserves the love she craves, and it is the second heroine of Austen’s masterpiece that Joan Aiken decided to pick up and run with for her own novel in 1991. With considerable wit, style and skill, Aiken retells the story of
Emma from Jane’s point of view. It’s a lovely read, and the perfect companion to the ground-breaking original.
The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth (1812)
In 1814 Jane Austen jokingly wrote to her niece, Anna: ‘I have made up my mind to like no novels really, but Miss Edgeworth's, your, and my own.’
If you want to read what Austen read, pick up a copy of
The Absentee, a sparkling satire that helped establish the 'regional' novel form by Maria Edgeworth, the most famous writer of English fiction of her time. She may not be as well-known as Austen now, but in her heyday she could command advances of more than £2,000 (which, for a sense of scale, is Mr Bennet’s entire annual income in Pride & Prejudice).
Readers of Austen will recognise a number of tropes, from the drawing-room sabre rattling, to the petty rivalries to the implied put-downs and comedy of manners. But morality and social realism are the most common flavour in both writer’s works.
The One That Got Away by Melissa Pimentel (2016)
This one’s a modern take on
Austen’s last and arguably most mature novel – and an ode second chances. Ruby Atlas is a 32-year-old ad girl with her own Manhattan apartment, a personal trainer and a loin-burning hankering for Ethan, the ex she dumped in favour of a career. Then, just as she’s coming to terms with the fact she’ll probably never get another run at love, her sister announces she’s getting married in a castle in England… and Ethan just happens to be best man. Thus begins a game of cat and emotional mouse until… well, if you’ve read Persuasion, Persuasion, you know where this is going.
Pimentel doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to ape Austen’s inimitable style, but instead uses the story of her final finished book to guide her characters in a carefree romantic comedy.
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler (2005)
The idea is simple: in their nice homes in California's Sacramento Valley, five women and one man meet monthly to discuss one of Jane Austen's domestic romances. As they work from
Emma to Persuasion, each novel parallels the lives of Fowler’s characters – a single mum in her 50s; a dog-loving spinster; a glamourous, gay 30-something, a 67-year-old yoga bunny with a string of marriages behind her; a 28-year-old French teacher; and a single 40-something man who likes sci-fi.
Fowler weaves Austen’s stories and those of her protagonists with delightful skill, not only infusing a modern flavour into Austen’s work but also portraying the book-club dynamic (that anyone who’s been in one knows) with wicked accuracy. A
New York Times bestseller, it's a lively and entertaining ode to the (sometimes) happy marriage between literature and friendship.