Nearly 200 years after her death, Jane Austen is bigger than ever.
The annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, is a celebration of all things Austen, from walking tours and lectures to a bonnet-making workshop and a chance to be photographed in full Georgian costume. The festival's Web site describes the weeklong gathering as "a veritable feast of delights for all Jane Austen fans."
"I like the fashion, the culture, the manners, the whole ambience," said one attendee at the Regency Ball, the climax of the festival.
The ball is the sort of social event Austen and her characters frequented. It's the sort of occasion at which a suggestive fan flutter is considered flirting, and where, as one attendee said, men and women "treat each other with respect and manners, and I think that's sadly lacking in our society today."
"I still remember when I first read 'Pride and Prejudice' and said, 'I will find a Mr. Darcy,'" said one person at the ball, referring to the leading man of Austen's best-known work.
"We do look to her novels for truth," observed another attendee. "We do look to her novels to understand why people do what we do and what we should do next."
"Nothing's so beautiful nowadays," explained Chris Northey of the Jane Austen Center in Bath. "It's like, 'Do you want to go out for a drink?' 'Yea, all right then.' And then a quick snog."
That means a kiss, by the way. When she's not drinking or kissing, Northey is a guide at the center.
The Austen Adaptation
The city of Bath is where a young Jane Austen socialized, and on an average weekend 600 visitors of all ages and nationalities come to breathe it in, buy trinkets and visit the Mr. Darcy tearoom.
Women from around the world can be transformed, at a small price, into Elizabeth Bennett acolytes.
"It's not books that are about sex and violence and all that kind of thing, like modern books. It's just very real, genuine," said a visitor named Christy, visiting all the way from Zimbabwe.
"We have to thank, I think, the films and the television series," said Terry Old, who also works at the center, of the continued interest in all things Austen-related.
The Austen adaptation is nothing new. Laurence Olivier played Mr. Darcy back in 1940. But recently there have been a spate of big-budget, big-name adaptations, with smoldering men in tights and little hearts beating fast in tightened corsets.
Keira Knightley received an Oscar nomination for her role as Elizabeth Bennett in 2005's movie version of "Pride and Prejudice."
And Austen keeps the BBC's costume department very busy. For some, Colin Firth will always be Mr. Darcy, thanks to the BBC mini-series, and more recently the BBC produced a version of "Sense and Sensibility."
Gwyneth Paltrow's "Emma," released in 1996, earned more than $20 million at the U.S. box office. That story was conceived 192 years ago in Jane Austen's dining parlor.
Austen's nephews and nieces remember Aunty Jane disappearing for hours. They thought she was writing letters. Actually, she was writing "Emma," "Persuasion" and "Mansfield Park."
Before breakfast, Austen would play the piano, and after breakfast she would write. The house where she spent her later years is now a literary shrine.
"She did change the English novel," says Louise West of Jane Austen's House Museum. "Characters were three-dimensional, and there is a lot of psychological depth, which you don't get in earlier novels."
'The Rules Were Simple'
Austen captured a simpler time, when, as the opening line of "Pride and Prejudice" states, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
"I think the feeling is it was uncomplicated, the rules were simple, and if you stuck by them then maybe you would get your Mr. Darcy," West said.
Darcy is indeed embodied, for British fans at least, by Colin Firth. His picture graces the museum window. Firth also starred in another Austen-inspired movie, "Bridget Jones's Diary," one of many modern works that uses Austen's romantic template, including 1995's "Clueless," which sticks closely to the plot of "Emma."
The film version of the best-seller "The Jane Austen Book Club" is now in theaters, and it's just one of many Austen-inspired books. Alexandra Potter is the author of "Me and Mr. Darcy," in which she writes, "I open my eyes to see a man over by the fireplace: Tall and broad, he has thick hair curling over his collar and black eyebrows that look like smudges of charcoal." "Her characters are really, really strong, and I think you see that today in TV and in books, and she's pretty much the mother of chick lit, really," said Potter.
Potter sees Austen's tentacles all over films like "When Harry met Sally" and TV shows such as "Sex in the City."
"That's pretty much what Jane Austen was writing about," said Potter. "Feisty, strong, opinionated women looking for love."
The irony: Austen herself looked, but never found. She never met her Mr. Darcy … if she had, she might never have left all this behind. Love and marriage might have gotten in the way.