Jane Austen (1775–1817) is a writer with a global reputation. She is one of a very few writers to enjoy both a wide popular readership and critical acclaim, and one of even fewer writers of her period whose name has instant recognition. Her literary reputation rests on six novels—Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Northanger Abbey (1818), and Persuasion (1818)—a handful of unfinished works, and three manuscript notebooks of juvenilia, but this small oeuvre has been translated into almost every known language, has been adapted for film and television across the world, and has spawned an enormous number of sequels, prequels, spin-offs, remediations, and other fan fictions in both print and digital media. Critics have, for more than two centuries, attempted both to describe the technical brilliance of Austen’s work and to account for her surprising popularity with very diverse audiences. Her works describe the daily realities of life in Georgian and Regency England but clearly still speak to modern, worldwide audiences. She is known simultaneously as a romance writer par excellence and as a deeply ironic and skeptical social commentator. Her style is characterized by economy, brevity, and wit, and through a series of technical innovations in the craft of writing, Austen transformed the genre of the novel and thus its status from the 19th century onward. Her international success, however, can be attributed only partly to the brilliance of her literary output and must, in part, be ascribed to the work of successive film adaptations of her novels, in particular the 1940 and 1995 versions of Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, respectively. Across the world, many people now know Austen’s works primarily through the medium of film adaptations of her novels and biopics that fictionalize her life. “Jane Austen” has become a lucrative brand, existing almost irrespective of the original works.
Prose is a fabrication, not a linguistic axiom. It has a complex history well before its intricate literary genealogy. Made, not given, prose comes down to modern use with the form, formally determined, of a world-historical invention. As culturally significant in its evolutionary advent as in its ramified means of reporting event, prose thus bears with it a biography as telling as the fictional narratives it eventually serves to recount. Born of empiricism and print culture, prose is neither neutered poetry nor transcribed speech. Only its immediate ancestry is oratorical. Nonetheless, when “modern prose” is launched by leaving embellished declamatory models behind for the reign, first of epistemological lucidity, later of verisimilitude in narrative fiction, the oral is not thereby cancelled entirely. For prose, not unlike poetry, makes—and shapes—its way by incorporating the subvocal underlay of alphabetic (hence phonemic) language into the rhythms of its evoked readerly enunciation. It is in this fashion, by tapping its own linguistic platform or substrate, that prose comes to seem, more than otherwise, a medium rather than just one among several contested rhetorical means. Long after the modified or overthrown “plain style” taken up by early fiction like that of Daniel Defoe or Jonathan Swift, prose’s developing tendency to recover language’s silent phonetic resonance anticipates, in turn, one major Victorian inheritance from the complexities of Romantic verse sonority: a legacy that renders, ever afterward, the idea of “prose poetics” anything but an oxymoron. Here, too, is where the idea of “style” persists as an ongoing flashpoint for literary response. From Charles Dickens and Herman Melville to Joseph Conrad, for instance, we hear the potential sounding of theme in the depth charges of fictional prose. At the same time, from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, we can track an alternate mode of deflected orality in the “free indirect discourse” of surfaced inner speech—not overheard talk, these elicited mental monologues, but their own kind of artificial and subliminal eavesdropping—as they channel the cadences of represented psychology. Channel: in precisely that sense of a medium by which prose can best be understood and studied, both in the ecology of modern literary communication and in its reframing by media theory.