Jane Austen left this world more than 200 years ago, and the British author completed only six major novels before her untimely demise at 41. Yet her literary legacy refuses to die. In the last 20 years she has been given Shakespearean-level attention on film, TV and the stage. The latest iteration: a theatrical adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility,” which opens South Coast Repertory’s Mainstage season on Sept. 7.
Every generation, it seems, rediscovers Austen’s gifts of observation.
Who better to describe the particular attractions of Austen than those who manage her fan clubs? Two members of Jane Austen societies, which participate in all things Austen, from historical lectures about Regency architecture to dance classes, explained some of the reasons the author has such a strong following.
“I think she’s really a timeless writer,” said Susan Wampler, president and regional coordinator for the Jane Austen Society of North America/Southwest (there are 76 regional groups in the U.S. and Canada). “And her writing has great clarity. If you look at other writers of her era, it takes a little getting used to their language.”
Austen’s stories and characters also ring true to today’s reader, Wampler added. “The people you meet in her novels you frequently see today: the spoiled rich kid, the guy who’s just a player but comes across as charming, the know-it-all authority figure, parents who aren’t the most ideal parents, and even the heroes and heroines are flawed.”
In her richness of character development, Wampler rates Austen even higher than Charles Dickens, who ruled Victorian literature a few decades later. “For the most part, Dickens wrote broadly, often in caricatures. Austen’s characters always feel like real people.”
Laura Frears of the Valley Area English Regency Society also admires Austen’s characters and the artful way she develops them over time.
“In the course of her stories, you see the character flaws of each individual,” she said. “And you see the consequences of their flaws — what happens when they defy institutions and behave in a wanton or foolish fashion.”
Wampler said Austen’s keen sense of feminism was expressed at a time when women held little real power. “Women weren’t even able to inherit property, for the most part. Yet Austen’s women are brilliant and many can hold her own with any man.”
Frears insists that it’s important to interpret the behavior of Austen’s characters within their historical context in order to understand them completely.
“Why was Mrs. Bennett in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ so focused on finding husbands for her five daughters? It wasn’t just vanity. She knew that if they didn’t marry, her daughters could face very bleak futures — either become governesses or go out in society and sell themselves. There was no protection for a female other than marriage.”
Wampler’s Austen fixation didn’t start in high school; she discovered the author after she began her career.
“I’m a writer, so I’m a great reader as well, and I admired her craft,” she said. “But it started when my sister, and I began watching a BBC version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in the early 1980s.”
For Frears, it was a chance encounter at a science-fiction convention.
“It all started in 1981,” she said. “I went to a class called Regency dancing.” (Austen was an expert dancer and her novels frequently feature scenes of social dancing.) “Well, I immediately fell in love with it. Not just the dancing, but the teacher was explaining things about what aristocratic people did in that era, and what their posture and attitude said about their standing.”
Wampler works in communications for not-for-profit companies, so her professional writing is nonfiction and utilitarian, for the most part.
But she finds herself emulating certain Austen qualities in her work.
“Her style is so subtle and persuasive and beautiful,” she said. “I do read her when I’m trying to elevate my style and get a complex point across.”
Frears, a classical music radio program host for much of her career, has taught Regency-era dancing for the last four decades in both Northern and Southern California.
“I try to keep it focused on what Jane would have done,” she said. “We dance for 90 minutes then we relax with real tea and cucumber sandwiches. It feels like the real thing.”
If You Go
What: ‘Sense and Sensibility’
Where: Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Previews Sept 1-6. Opening night Sept. 7. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Sept. 29