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Jane Austen and The Comic Tradition by Ken Ludwig

Published by The Yale Review
April, 2017

This is the text of a speech delivered on 19 October 2016 in Washington, D.C., to open the Annual Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, which was celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Emma, Austen’s fifth novel.

We are here on a very happy occasion, because what could be better than taking a few days out of our lives to honor an author who has given everyone at this convention so much joy.

I was at the Edinburgh Festival in August of this year, and one of the improvisational groups called themselves ‘‘Austentatious.’’ The performance began when a handsome young man in Regency attire came out onstage and explained to the audience that he was there to talk about Jane Austen, the author of six screenplays and the long, tedious novels they were based on.

A similar story involves a topic that we have all been thinking about lately, Jane Austen and Brexit. On 24 June 2016, the day after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Alexandra Petri wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying, ‘‘Dang it, Britain, we thought you had things under control. . . . In the Jane Austen novel of international life, we were supposed to be Marianne, the one with all the feelings. You were supposed to be Elinor, the sensible one.’’ Soon after, I heard a rerun on BBC Radio
of Desert Island Discs, on which the new prime minister, Theresa May, was asked what single novel she wanted to take to an island as a castaway and she answered Pride and Prejudice. (She also said that her single luxury item would be a lifetime subscription to Vogue.)

I mention these stories to remind us of what a phenomenon Jane Austen has become. As demonstrated by the wonderful exhibition now at the Folger Shakespeare Library – Will and Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity, curated by Janine Barchas and Kristina Straub – Jane Austen is currently going through a massive revival of interest equivalent to the Shakespeare revival of the late eighteenth century, which was fueled by
David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769.

Read the full text of Jane Austen and The Comic Tradition, published by The Yale Review

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