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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Jane Austen, citizen of the world

Jane Austen is often seen as quintessentially English, in her portraits of a rural middle-class life dominated by the gentry and the church, in her moral clarity, and in her elegant prose. So redolent was she of home and peace that she was prescribed as a curative to British soldiers recovering from shellshock acquired in the trenches of World War I.

Yet in the two centuries since Austen was first translated, it’s become clear that her work speaks to readers who have never set foot in the British Isles. Today, there are Jane Austen societies in countries from Brazil to Pakistan. And three recent news items reminded me of the extent to which this English writer is now a citizen of the world:

--This month, a hotel in Seoul will commemorate the upcoming bicentenary of Austen’s death by displaying a set of Korean translations of her novels in its book café. (Also available: Star Wars graphic novels. Speaking of international fandoms.)

--In Spain, the city of Leȯn voted last month to name some of its streets after famous women, including Austen. Apparently, it’s all part of a trend to eradicate the names of men who were prominent during Spain’s decades of fascist rule. Viva Jane!

--Earlier this month, as civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo cowered under a rain of artillery shells, a BBC reporter interviewed a young woman named Bassma who said that she – not unlike those shellshocked soldiers of the First World War -- was using books to distract herself from the brutality surrounding her.

“I spend the long nights at home reading,” Bassma said. “I’ve read Austen and all the classics so I don’t have to think just about the war. I travel in my thoughts to another period, another time, and it really helped.”

No word on whether Bassma and her books survived the siege, which ended last week with victory for the Syrian government.


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