What Jane Austen Earned from Her Books During Her Lifetime
(from The Friendly Jane Austen by Natalie Tyler (1999), pg. 227)
1803: £10 from Richard Crosby for the manuscript of Susan (later published posthumously as Northanger Abbey)
1811: £140 from the publisher Thomas Egerton for Sense & Sensibility. £150 from its profits.
1812: £110 for Pride & Prejudice.
1814: £450 from the publisher John Murray for Emma and the copyrights to Sense & Sensibility and Mansfield Park.
Any way you look at it, even inflating the total to today's currency, Jane Austen was severely underpaid for a lifetime of work, or, rather, for a lifetime of such genius. Many other authors could have made far less and been justly compensated for their drivel, but Miss Austen deserved the wealth of Solomon for matching his wisdom and, surely, outshining that ancient monarch's wit. Now, coming upon two full centuries after her death, many good folks have worked her legacy for a tidy profit in the form of biographies, literary critiques, sequels, films, plays, audiobooks, and countless sundry others of the Austenly themed.
Here's my list of some of the very best and very worst that I have so far found of those who have dared to tread on the blessed ground first indented by Jane's daintily-slippered feet.
Best and Worst Film Adaptations:
Best: Pride & Prejudice (1995) (BBC/A&E) - Mention this finest of the film adaptations to any female Janeite and watch her bosoms heave in her Empire-waisted gown. Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy was a stroke of casting genius - he brings a vigor and virility to a role that could easily be made too restrained and dandified; yet, he is completely believable as the proprietor of Pemberley - conveying equally well his complete abhorrence of Lizzy's vulgar relations and his burgeoning attraction to her despite it all. Speaking of whom, no one else can ever be Lizzy to me now other than the spectacular Jennifer Ehle. She is simply amazing as this most beloved of Brit-Lit heroines - how daunting it must have been for her to undertake this role, knowing how Elizabeth Bennet is nearly sacrosanct to P&P fans! The rest of the cast is exemplary too - I especially like Mr. Collins, Jane Bennet, and Mr. Bennet. I am so grateful that this mini-series format allows for five hours to revel in the perfection of it all.
Worst: Mansfield Park (2000) - It is very difficult for me to express fully my all-consuming hatred for this travesty cloaked in celluloid. Suffice it to say that it sucks with a sucking power that Hoover would envy. It sucks itself into the black hole of "cinema-with-an-axe-to-grind" that doesn't even try to make a faithful representation of the work which it purportedly portrays. I'd tar and feather Patricia Rozema if I ever caught her walking down the street. Jane, being ever so much more the lady than I, would probably merely freeze her out with the cool kind of cutting at which the Eighteenth Century English gentry excelled. I'm planning on suffering through it again, so that I can report on more of the specific ways that it sucks. Look for that future post.
Best and Worst Novel Sequels: (I have not read every sequel, having only so much time and stomach for what is too often disappointing fare. For a complete review and opinions on the myriad JA sequels, I refer you to The Republic of Pemberley.)
Best: Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken - Not exactly a "sequel" but a "parallel-quel," this is a really rather good re-telling of Emma from the point of view of a minor character, Jane Fairfax. The author also fleshes out Jane's back-story and provides believable insights and motives for an (in Emma) rather unfathomable young woman.
Honorable Mention: Presumption: An Entertainment by Julia Barrett - As far as I can remember (though it has been several years since I read it) this sequel to Pride and Prejudice did not fail as miserably as most sequels to JA's work. It centers around Darcy's sister Georgiana and her courtship and marriage, and it is not too offensive without being particularly memorable or endearing.
Worst: Oh Goodness! Anything by Emma Tennant, who seems to think that writing a good JA sequel involves having characters do and say things completely, well, out of character! I do not think that Emma Tennant likes JA's novels, or, if she does, it is a superficial appreciation without any understanding of what make JA so very beloved. If you want to torture yourself, read Emma Tennant's Pemberley (a sequel to Pride and Prejudice) and Emma in Love (a sequel to Emma). JA would certainly not approve of this author, and she would not even be excessively diverted by her literary pretensions. Emma Tennant is the Patricia Rozema of JA sequels.
Best and Worst Spin-Offs: (Works definitely related in some way to Jane Austen, but not directly based upon her work)
Best: The Jane Austen Mysteries by Stephanie Barron - Jane as detective - absolutely delicious! I really like this series, and I think that Ms. Barron has done a better job than just about anyone in capturing the ironic, yet genteel, tone of Ms. Austen. An interesting and fulfilling vision of what Jane Austen fans and biographers often refer to as the "lost years," the eight year period between Steventon Rectory and her original drafts of P&P, S&S and NA, and Chawton House and the writing of MP, Emma, and Persuasion.
Worst: Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding and Pride and Prejudice and Jasmin Field by Melissa Nathan - These British women authors need to get over riding on Jane's coattails to chick lit fame. I can understand borrowing elements of JA's work - she was so foundational as an author, it is difficult not to borrow a little bit - but re-tellings of P&P over and over again (except with sex and more modern sensibilities - yuck!!) are getting old, ladies. Try for something a bit more original, like Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series - echoes of JA without direct lifting of plot and character.
Best and Worst Jane Austen Reference Works:
Best: The Friendly Jane Austen by Natalie Tyler - This is a wonderful collection of fact and supposition, scholarly insights and not-so-scholarly gossip. If I were to recommend just one book to the novice Jane Austen fan who loved P&P and wanted to know more, this is the book I would suggest. Chock full of trivia and tid-bits, you couldn't ask for a better overview of everything JA.
Worst: Sibling Love & Incest in Jane Austen's Fiction by Glenda A. Hudson - Okay, probably not too much of an explanation is needed here after taking a look at the title, but I just want to add that it managed to take a completely prurient topic and turn it into the driest of scholarly assessments. So, it's premise is disgusting, and it's body is boring. Enough said.
Best and Worst Biography:
A Confession: I have not read a biography of Jane Austen for many years. At one point, I read two different biographies, Jane Austen: A Life by David Nokes and Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin, in immediate succession. One, I liked very much; the other I didn't really like at all. Now, I cannot remember which was which. I shall have to re-read them and post more about that later.
Well, that's a brief overview. I'm sure there will be lots more sponging off of Jane Austen in the future. They say that "imitation is the highest form of flattery," and I'm certain Jane would be tickled, but, as she once wrote, "tho' I like praise as well as anybody, I like what [brother] Edward calls pewter too." I wish that she could have had fewer financial worries during her lifetime. No novelist deserved pecuniary advantage more than she.