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Austenmania: why 1995 was the year Jane Austen catapulted into pop culture

Twenty years on from Austen’s cinematic rise, her influence shows no sign of waning.

“First there is no Jane Austen and then it’s raining Jane Austen.” When a flurry of cinematic adaptations saw Austenmania hit Hollywood in 1995, even the filmmakers themselves seemed at a loss to say why: Doug McGrath, the director of Emma, speaking to the New Yorker in the same year, observed the phenomenon in this stark, almost divine, binary. In the beginning, there was no Austen. And then, there was.

When Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility opened in 1995, it was the first English-language Austen adaptation with a period setting to appear in cinemas for over 50 years. In the same year, we saw a cinematic release for 1995’s Persuasion, Emma take $56m at the US box office reimagined as Clueless, and Colin Firth revitalise Mr Darcy as a modern heartthrob in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice television series. 1995 was also the year in which both McGrath’s film Emma and a BBC television adaptation of the same novel went into production.

Audiences devoured these new takes on old stories with relish. The BBC’s Pride and Prejudice miniseries attracted 11m viewers per episode, while its VHS, released midway through the series, sold 12,000 copies in just two days. (By the end of October, this figure stood at 100,000: the BBC reportedly had to abandon other projects to reissue it in time for Christmas.)

The Jane Austen House at Chawton in Hampshire saw visitor numbers rise by 250 per cent in October, and saw 57,000 people pass through their doors in 1995. Sales of the original novels were up by 40 per cent at Penguin. In December 1995, the New York Times gasped, “There are even a series of devotional World Wide Web pages”.

Journalists were stunned, variously labeling the rush of popularity “Austenmania”, “Austenfever”, “Austenitis” and “Darcymania”. In a January 1996 article, Vanity Fair labelled Austen “the hottest writer in showbusiness”, she was compared to Quentin Tarantino, and came tenth in Entertainment Weekly’s 1995 “Entertainers of the Year” list.

In perhaps the truest stamp of popular approval, Martin Amis wrote a sneering column in the New Yorker titled “Jane’s World”, in which he praised the author but condemned the world’s “bad taste”, and declared romcoms like Four Weddings and a Funeral “Jane Austen, in a vile new outfit.” In the words of Mary Brennan, in a special for MSNBC, Austen had been “dead for 179 years, an unfortunate condition which has done her career nothing but good”.

An Entertainment Weekly image of Austen as Hollywood’s hottest scriptwriter.

More conservative critics at the time pointed towards modern society’s failings as the reason behind Austen’s resurgence. Newsweek wrote that her popularity lay in “nostalgia for a more decorous and polite age”, a glimpse of a more secure world in “an age of marriage meltdown”. The New York Times noted, “It is no accident that her novels’ finely detailed accounts of moral and social education should inspire such interest at a time when conservative criticism of American culture is increasingly concerned with failures in those areas”, concluding, “we gaze upon Austen’s world with... envy”.

But conservatives of every decade seems to think that the lastest is the least morally secure, heralding a new era of social decline, and not all flock to Austen. Nostalgia alone cannot account for the suddenness of the Austen revival.

Andrew Higson, in his book Film England, writes that Austen adaptations were able to piggyback onto to two major trends of the nineties: Anglo-Hollywood costume drama production, and the continued rise of the romcom. Films incorporating one or more of these trends, like A Room With a View (1985), Enchanted April (1991), Howards End (1992), The Age of Innocence (1993), Remains of the Day (1993) and Little Women (1994) had done surprisingly well at the box office, so Austen adaptations were a likely success. 

It’s unsurprising, then, that like Amis, the film’s promotors were keen to draw a link between Austen and current British romcoms. Aided by the casting of Hugh Grant, the poster for Sense and Sensibility included the Daily Mail quote, “The paciest, wittiest, most entertaining romantic comedy since Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Opposite it sits the Independent on Sunday comment, “Thompson’s best performance since Howards End”: distributers knew that the key to this film’s success lay in its mass appeal as both a contemporary romcom and a traditional period drama.

Exactly why these two genres of film were so popular is another question in itself, but it seems likely that, as Justine Ashby notes, films made by and aimed at women “finally found a place in mainstream British cinema in the 1990s”. While the majority of the Austen adaptations of the mid-nineties were directed by men, they of course shared a female author writing about female experience, and often women were at the heart of the adaption process, like Emma Thompson as scriptwriter and Lindsay Doran as producer on Sense and Sensiblity, and Amy Heckerling as screenwriter and director and Twink Caplan as producer on Clueless.

As Lindsay Doran noted at the time, filmmakers interested in period romantic dramas didn’t believe they were a feasible prospect until the 1990s demonstrated that they were commercially viable: “The idea of investigating romance – does it kill young girls or make them better? – is intriguing to a lot of us. And then The Age of Innocence actually got made. That made it acceptable. Everybody said, ‘Wow! You can get that cast and that director for that?’”

Austen adaptations offered a delicious combination of all these Nineties tastes, with an added dash of English cultural heritage added into the mix. And once Austen’s power of audiences has been revealed, it has continued to evolve and reflect changing times, from the turn of the century classic Bridget Jones’s Diary and a more pouty, windswept mid-noughties Pride and Prejudice, to vlog-style webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diares and a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies adaptation due to satisfy a thirst for women in “badass” action roles. That Austen will continue to influence popular culture 20 years on from her mid-Nineties revival, and almost 200 years after her death, is universally acknowledged.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

Samuel Beckett in Paris, 1960. Credit: OZKOK/SIPA/REX
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The poets’ home: how one small, heroic publisher shaped modern poetry

Founded in 1967, the pioneering Enitharmon Press established a new poetry world.

Some books make little impression, others earn our respect. And others again make us greedy not just to read but to own them and return to them time and again. Enitharmon’s aptly titled The Heart’s Granary belongs to this last group. Beautifully produced, and with “poetry and prose from 50 years of Enitharmon Press” bursting the seams of its 380-odd pages, it’s an anthology designed not to prove a theory or establish a canon, but to celebrate the work of one of our most remarkable small publishers.

Enitharmon is well-known for its wide-ranging poetry list, but there’s plenty of prose here too. I particularly enjoyed this section of The Heart’s Granary, a tight-focused, characterful set of extracts from, among others, Sebastian Barry, Edward Thomas and Edmund White. There’s also extraordinary artwork. Alongside his literary list, Stephen Stuart-Smith, Enitharmon’s editor for the last 30 years, has run Enitharmon Editions, publishing many of the major names in postwar British art. Peter Blake, Gilbert & George, David Hockney, RB Kitaj and Paula Rego have all worked with him, and are represented in here alongside recouped treasures from David Jones and Gwen Raverat. Also among the colour plates are stunning cover designs from the press’s half century.

So this book is an unusually beautiful object. But its beauty shouldn’t detract from its seriousness. Enitharmon was among the crop of independent poetry publishers that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s. Poetry was then passing through one of its phases of heightened popularity – it was the era of the Liverpool poets, and of 1965’s International Poetry Incarnation gala at the Albert Hall – just as trade publishers began to trim their lists. Together with Anvil (also founded in 1968), Carcanet (founded a year later), Peterloo (founded in 1972) and Bloodaxe (founded in 1978), Enitharmon established a new poetry world, in which some of the best writing from home and abroad appeared thanks to the editorial flair of a handful of visionary individuals.

Editors like Enitharmon’s founder Alan Clodd, who ran the press for 20 years, and his gifted successor Stuart-Smith, act as both acute literary minds and as entrepreneurs. They present readers with established giants while also mentoring home-grown talent. Early, Enitharmon published Federico García Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges and David Gascoyne; as well as much from Kathleen Raine, who had encouraged the press’s foundation. The list has remained markedly cosmopolitan. This tendency for independent publishers to brave the commercial risks associated with translation means that they become the go-to lists for adventurous readers.

But Enitharmon has also supported an exceptional number of important British and Irish poets at all stages in their careers. To browse The Heart’s Granary is to realise again what a mighty body of work, solo and collective, 50 years of the press represents. Here are Dannie Abse, Fred D’Aguiar, Simon Armitage, Ronald Blythe, Alan Brownjohn, Frances Cornford, C Day Lewis, Douglas Dunn, Ursula Fanthorpe, Thom Gunn, David Harsent, Lee Harwood, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Frances Horovitz, Michael Longley, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, Pascale Petit, Robin Robertson, Benjamin Zephaniah… not to mention four Nobel laureates: Beckett, Heaney, Pinter and Tranströmer. Even this roll-call of “headliners” – just a small proportion of the poets Enitharmon has published down the years – gives a sense of the tremendous range of work the press has nurtured.

Opening up such a broad church might risk diluting the publishing vision. How can, say, Geoffrey Hill and Benjamin Zephaniah be juxtaposed coherently? I suspect the answer lies partly in Stuart-Smith’s acute editorial sensibility, and partly in his poets’ shared shamelessness of artistic purpose. Enitharmon’s house style traditionally stands against hedging or fakery, and for sincerity in whatever poetic form. Open this book at random and, “Bury me up to my neck/in the sands of my father’s desert,” Pascale Petit’s incendiary “The Burning” declares, while in “Irting Valley” Frances Horovitz questions “can a star be lost/or a stone?”, and Isaac Rosenberg, in “August 1914”, asks “What in our lives is burnt/In the fire of this?/The heart’s dear granary?/The much we shall miss?”

Rosenberg’s is of course the anthology’s title poem. For, like Anvil and Peterloo, Enitharmon’s literary list was dealt a mortal blow when the Arts Council cut off funding. The work collected richly here adds up to a joyous read that should be on everyone’s bedside table. But it also reminds us that in certain fields – education, faith, philosophy, poetry – the market is not always right, and neither is cultural fashion. It reminds us, that’s to say, of “The much we shall miss” if every Enitharmon has to close, and the lights of writing, thinking and art go out. 

The Heart’s Granary: Poetry and Prose from Fifty Years of Enitharmon Press
Compiled by Lawrence Sail
Enitharmon Press, 384pp, £30

Fiona Sampson’s books include “In Search of Mary Shelley” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war