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Public love of Jane Austen was a slow-burner, new BBC documentary reveals

A new BBC documentary, marking the bicentenary of the publication of Jane Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility, will be presented by a historian at Queen Mary, University of London.

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Professor Amanda Vickery
Professor Amanda Vickery

Professor Amanda Vickery, chronicler of Georgian England, examines why Austen - one of the most widely-read writers in English Literature – may not have been so popular in the past.

“Since Colin Firth’s wet-shirted Mr Darcy, the Austen brand has gone global.  But you would never have predicted such popularity in the decades after her death – with her novels out of print and no mention of authorship on her gravestone in Winchester Cathedral,” explains Professor Vickery.

The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen, which airs on BBC2 in December, explores what readers have loved and hated about Austen over the last 200 years.  Professor Vickery will show how each era found its own reflection in Austen’s six novels, and determine why they continue to ‘delight, amuse, console and provoke’.

In the hour-long programme, Professor Vickery views the sale of a rare, handwritten manuscript of an unfinished Austen novel at Sotheby’s auction house. She also interviews literary scholars, film directors and devoted fans along the way.

Austen has sold more than 100 million books world-wide, and fans would argue that her enduring success and historical importance is down to the timelessness of the fictional world, and the biting social commentary that she penned.

But Professor Vickery will reveal that Jane Austen’s novels made little impact in her own lifetime and that the mid Victorians found her bloodless, prosy, polite and dull. “Austen’s reputation only revived in the late nineteenth century when the first Janeites mapped out ‘Austen country’ and true critical acclaim did not come till the twentieth century,” says Professor Vickery.

The programme will highlight the ebb and flow of Austen’s popularity, how different generations have connected to (or dismissed) her storylines and protagonists, and what that says about them, as well as about the author.

“Our documentary looks at the readers who loved, hated and rediscovered her – from the cosy Victorian parlour to the first railway station bookshops, from the university tutorial to the trenches of the Western front,” adds Professor Vickery.

The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen will air on BBC2 on Friday 23 December, 9pm-10pm.

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