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Will the real Lady Susan please stand up?




Today (Monday July 18th) marks the anniversary of the death of one of Britain's best-loved authors, Jane Austen.


It is, in fact, the 199th anniversary of her death so, amidst the success of the Shakespeare 400 events, we wonder what might be lined up for next year? Certainly the UK public won't take much persuading to celebrate Austen and reconnect with her work.

In the BBC's Big Read survey of 2003, her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, was voted as the second most popular novel of all time. It was beaten only by The Lord of the Rings – and it should be pointed out that the nation was gripped by Tolkeinmania at the time, with the film franchise at its peak (between films two and three).

Her other major works – Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Emma – are, of course, just as enjoyable and accomplished. Emma, in fact, contains one of those great opening lines we love so much: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her."

Has there ever been a better-placed 'seemed' in all of English literature?

It's also worth highlighting a much less known work, an epistolary novel called Lady Susan which Austen never submitted to a publisher and didn't appear until 54 years after her death.

The eponymous heroine is a fascinating character: selfish and scheming, manipulative, determined to snare the best possible husband (in terms of status and wealth), whilst maintaining a relationship with a married man. But also witty, intelligent and the driving force of the plot. Austen undoubtedly sympathises with her and does not contrive to 'punish' her, but sort of dares us to admire her. Perhaps she thought Susan might be a bit much for the genteel reader of the early 19th century.

We're probably ready now, though, and an interesting adaptation hit the big screen earlier this year. Rather confusingly, it is called Love & Friendship, which is the title of a novella Austen wrote for her family's amusement as an adolescent, but it is the spiky and very grown-up story of Lady Susan (played by Kate Beckinsale), and it could well be one of the best Austen adaptations ever.

It was been showered with 5-star reviews when it was released here in May, and you can still find it in some cinemas. Oh, and it's out on DVD in September. You can watch the trailer here.

We hope you agree it looks well worth a watch.

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