Jane Austen at 200

NI writers on the literary icon's work remaining relevant and its role in bringing women-led stories to wider prominence

Tuesday, July 18, 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, with a year of events organised by the Hampshire Cultural Trust, Jane Austen House Museum and other partners throughout 2017. Having penned such literary gems like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Emma, Austen’s influence is still very much prevalent today – one could argue that it grows year on year.

She may have been writing in a time far removed from our own, but Austen’s words have resonated with many readers over the years. Her novels portray ideas and behaviours which have incited remarks that she was ahead of her time. Indeed, her writing appears timeless, though the stories are rooted firmly in the period in which she lived.

We asked some writers from Northern Ireland to share their thoughts on Jane Austen and what she means to them. Which books do they prefer, and how do they think television and film adaptations of these hold up? Furthermore, do any of them actually not like Jane Austen..?

Bernie McGill – Portstewart-based author of The Butterfly Cabinet and The Watch House (publishing August 2017).

'My absolute favourite adaptation of a Jane Austen book is the 1995 Ang Lee-directed Sense and Sensibility, with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet as the older Dashwood girls.

'One of my favourite scenes is when Lucy Steele (played by Imogen Stubbs) is encouraged into betraying a confidence to Fanny Dashwood (played by the brilliant Harriet Walters). Fanny is fishing for idle gossip, but when Lucy reveals that she is secretly engaged to Fanny's brother, the normally icy Fanny flies into a rage and attacks and beats her young companion viciously with her fan. The scene where Edward Ferrars (played by Hugh Grant) reveals to Elinor Dashwood that Lucy has, in fact, opted for his younger brother, and that he is free to marry, reduces me to a teary wreck.

'And as for Alan Rickman as the love-crossed Colonel Brandon... My heart breaks for him every time I watch it.

'It has snobbery, greed, discrimination, manipulation, power struggles, the dominance of one class over another, and all of the heartbreak and frustration that ensues. It’s interesting to consider it in the light of the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (with which I am somewhat obsessed at the moment). On the surface, the two may seem like light years away, but in essence they deal with many of the same issues in relation to the bartering and trading of women, and their powerlessness, in the period under examination, to determine their own destiny.

'Austen was years ahead of her time. Let us all hope that Atwood isn’t.'

Kelly Creighton – Newtownards-based author of The Bones of It, with a new short story collection to be published by Doire Press in 2018.

'I'm a big fan of Sense and Sensibility but Pride and Prejudice has to be my favourite of Jane Austen’s works. I first read it at the age of 14 and fell in love with the author’s insightfulness and timeless wit.

'The family dynamics within the Bennet household are pretty unforgettable and the female characters strong and well ahead of their time. Austen’s writing feels just as relevant now as it ever was.

'My favourite adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is the 2005 movie with Keira Knightley as Lizzie and Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy. It's a more grown-up take on the novel and much moodier than most adaptations of Austen’s work that I've seen.'

Sinead Coll – Belfast-based singer-songwriter/actor/writer.

'My favourite Jane Austen novel is Pride and Prejudice. I remember reading it when I was about 14 and laughing so much. It was the first ‘classic’ I'd connected with.

'My favourite adaptation is, maybe controversially, the Joe Wright version starring Kiera Knightley. I love the speed and zing of the dialogue. But I grew up watching the old black and white version so Laurence Olivier is Mr Darcy to me.'

Tara West – Newtownabbey-based author of Fodder, Poets are Eaten as a Delicacy in Japan and Happy Dark.

'Most writers encounter Jane Austen in their teens and fall hopelessly in love. Not me. I couldn’t sympathise or identify with her characters, and I found her middle-class world and values too alien. It’s hard to care about the petty struggles of the bourgeoisie when you’re growing up on the wrong side of the poverty line.

'I watched the BBC TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in my 20s and found it just as frustrating as the book.

'That said, Jane Austen brought stories about women – strong-willed, thoughtful, intelligent women – to public attention, and without doubt, I owe her a debt.'

Jane Austen fans in Northern Ireland can enjoy the gothic romance of Northanger Abbey on July 20 at Bangor Castle Walled Garden, when Heartbreak Productions presents this classic tale in an outdoor theatre performance. The show starts at 7pm and you can find out more at www.visitardsandnorthdown.com.