When Georgina put out a call for a post about an author that had influenced me, my first thought was, ‘Jane Austen? No, not Jane Austen. Everything has already been written about Jane Austen. All the words. Too many words. She is the woman who launched countless adaptations and who is indirectly responsible for a whole genre of romance fiction. And Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.’
There’s nothing more I could possibly add to all that. And there are so many other authors who have influenced me. Plenty. Heaps.
So I went to my bookshelf for inspiration. I found lots of great books, lots of terrific authors, but none I felt like writing 600-800 words about. Now I should explain. I moved house six months ago and three-quarters of my paper books are still in boxes. I’m dreaming of a gorgeous built in bookcase to put them in, but that hasn’t miraculous appeared yet. So my boxes of books are waiting for bookshelves as lovely as they are to be unpacked onto. And in the limited collection I have unpacked I didn’t find the other authors I was looking for. But I did find two copies of Pride and Prejudice. And two copies of Emma. And I took that as a sign.
I remember the first time I read Pride and Prejudice clearly – I was on holiday but can still vividly picture the room I was lying in when I first read that Lydia had eloped with Wickham. A few weeks later I groaned and shut the book when Emma insulted Miss Bates, ‘Ah! Ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me-but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.’ A line that still makes me laugh and cringe.
I was also travelling when I first read Persuasion, in the Scottish highlands during a Scottish ‘summer’, which totally matched Anne’s mood. Or maybe it was the other way around.
If you ask me to name my favourite Austen book it will be which ever book I read last. I re-watched a BBC adaptation of Persuasion last week, so it’s on my mind. But I do think Emma is one of the most perfect novels ever written – and this is reinforced with each reading.
Northanger Abbey must be one of the most underrated. Catherine Morland getting lost in gothic novels and being lead astray by her overactive imagination. Because aren’t we all just a bit like that? Though maybe that’s just me… I have an audio book of Joanna Lumley reading Northanger Abbey and it makes me laugh out loud. An inspired pairing.
My reaction to Fanny Price changes with each decade I grow older – from ridicule when I was a teenager to tears now I am, you know, just a couple of years older.
And the Big P&P is so familiar, so entrenched in our psyche. Even if you’ve never read it you will already have met Elizabeth Bennet who lives on countless romantic heroines. And you would already know Mr Darcy, who is the archetypal hero. You can’t have escaped the influence of this couple, even if you’ve never gasped when Elizabeth accidently runs into Mr Darcy in the gardens of Pemberley or cheered when Elizabeth tells Lady Catherine to go stick it. I’m paraphrasing, of course. But I’m sure that’s exactly what Elizabeth was thinking.
I don’t write regency or historical novels – I write contemporary romance. Jane Austen did too.
Set in her present, concerned with the worries and goings on of the people in her circle and in her own time. Her novels were contemporary and yet timeless.
The main way she has influenced me is by showing me that the concerns of a small group of people are worthwhile. That a village, or two or three families are enough for a compelling story. That books don’t have to be about war, or crime, or vampires to be great. That concerns that are often dismissed as trivial, such as love, money, happiness are important enough to base a novel around. Most of all Jane Austen showed me that stories about women, where women are the protagonists and where the reader never sees the male point of view, can also be classics.
Jane Austen has only become more and more popular over the last two centuries. After nearly going out of print, a biography by her nephew revitalised her fame in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, apparently her place in the English cannon was secured during and after the First World War, when she a favourite of soldiers in the trenches and prescribed to shell shock victims as an antidote. I’m not sure how apocryphal this story is, but it reminds of one of the reasons why romance is so important – it comforts us in times of stress and hurt as well as bringing us pleasure in times of happiness.
Justine is the award winning author of fun, contemporary romances. She has spent her professional life writing legal advice – which some may say is similar to creative writing– but the lack of sexy heroes and happy endings led her to try writing romance. She loves Earl Grey tea, talking about which of Jane Austen's novels is her favourite, and searching for the perfect frock. She will read anything, but loves romance most of all.
She is published with Destiny Romance and her third book The Reluctant Lover, is out on 15 March 2016. You can find out more and connect with her at justinelewis.com.