In 1814 Jane Austen wrote a series of letters to her niece Anna critiquing a novel that Anna was writing. While Anna’s uncompleted novel has not survived, her aunt’s letters are treasured for the light they shed on Austen’s working methods, including her most famous advice:
You are now collecting your People delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life;—3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on—& I hope you will write a great deal more, & make full use of them while they are so very favourably arranged.
A defining characteristic of Jane Austen’s fiction is its realism: she depicts characters, events, and places firmly rooted in early nineteenth-century England. The three or four families she collects in each novel share a locale—a country village—situated in Hertfordshire or Surrey or Devonshire. The geography is real and realistically described. While writing Mansfield Park, Austen asked Cassandra “whether Northamptonshire is a Country of Hedgerows.” In one of her letters to Anna, she advised, “Lyme is towards 40 miles distance from Dawlish & would not be talked of there.” And, “we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland, but as you know nothing of the Manners there, you had better not go with them.” Any reference to location must be accurate because, in Austen’s philosophy of fiction, a story must be believable to be true.
Austen thus begins by writing locally. But the genius of her art is its universality. The ultimate truth of her novels does not lie in their description of topography; it lies in her understanding of human nature. Austen’s depiction of human psychology and the way people behave toward one another is not peculiar to her locale or even her era. For that reason, her fiction travels well.
This special issue of Persuasions On-Line, entitled “Global Jane Austen,” is a testament to the universal appeal of Austen’s work. The essays examine Austen in translation and adaptation over the past two hundred years in countries ranging from Spain to Turkey and from India to Japan. The conflict and ultimate romance between proud Mr. Darcy and prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet plays well in many languages. And Marianne Dashwood ends happily with Colonel Brandon—or his modern incarnation—whether they speak English, Turkish, or Tamil.
Other papers in this issue discuss the extent to which Jane Austen was herself influenced by global literature and culture. She was no provincial naïf. Her novels allude to plays from Germany, exploration in China, war with France, and the stories of Scheherazade.
JASNA thanks the editors of this special edition, Inger Sigrun Brodey and Persuasions Editor Susan Allen Ford, for thinking globally. The collection of essays also serves as a prelude to JASNA’s 2008 Annual General Meeting in Chicago, whose theme is “Austen’s Legacy: Life, Love & Laughter.” Presentations at the AGM will continue the exploration of Austen’s global influence as evidenced in novels, films, cartoons, and even Japanese manga. We can look forward to reading many of the AGM papers next year in Persuasions On-Line and Persuasions.