|Jane Austen's Emma, Three Volume Set|
by Jane Austen
Read on an Amazon Kindle
I hesitate to write about a subject like Jane Austen books, but the bottom line is that she is a hitmaker AND her status as a hit maker was late in developing, which puts her into the exalted Romantic category of "misunderstood genius." Her books were not in style when published. Rather, the Audience favored the historic novels of Sir Walter Scott. You only have to compare the two names on the Google Ngram viewer to see what I am talking about.
Specifically, you can see a dramatic rise in the prevalence of Sir Walter Scott's name by Zeroing in on the period 1800 to 1830 on the Google Ngram Viewer. The first notable uptick in popularity of Sir Walter Scott occurs in the period of 1818 to 1820. Now, the number of books published during that time period was quantifiable, but much smaller then the number of books today, obviously. Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy and Ivanhoe were published between 1817 and 1819, so it's fair to say that those two books actually "moved the needle" upon release, unlike his earlier fame-making work of Waverely, published 1814.
From the period of 1820 to 1830, Sir Walter Scott skyrockets and Jane Austen is a flat line. This state of affairs persists into the mid 20th century, but Jane Austen doesn't even get off the Mat until the 1880s. According to the Google Ngram Viewer, the eclipse of Sir Walter Scott by Jane Austen in popularity happened in the mid 1940s. However you want to interpret the data, it's clear that Jane Austen was the beneficiary of what modern music fans and critics call a "Revival."
Thus, part of the appeal of Jane Austen- in the 1890s up until today is the biography or "myth" of Jane Austen. It's not true that she was ignored- her books were published, purchased, read and reviewed- it's just that they never "took off." In subsequent decades the format that she published in (three volume set checked out a lending library) declined in importance and her books went out of print.
The bottom line though is that Jane Austen wrote because it amused her, and the best evidence of this is Emma, which is either the best or worst of her novels- I can't decide which. Certainly, recent Hollywood remakes, including the remake starring Gywenth Paltrow and of course, Clueless with Paul Rudd and Alicia Silverstone, probably weigh on the "worst" side of the scale.
Austen's Emma Woodhouse, set in the context of her other heroines and contemporary fiction, comes off with shades of the Picaro of 18th century literature. Like the Picaro, everything works out in the end, and it's questionable whether Emma learns her lesson.
One of the initial criticisms of Emma was the "small town" setting: specific to a time and place but vague as to the exact details. There are no trips to the pleasure gardens of London in the novels of Jane Austen. Jane Austen never went to London. At the time, this feature likely diminished the potential size of her audience, but over time the generality of ALL of Jane Austen's novels proved to be an enduring strength. A pleasing vagueness of time and place, I suppose you could call it.