OMG! It’s Jane Austen... the TikTok generation embraces new heroine

Two hundred years on, Austen’s take on the pressures of friendship and love is winning over young readers

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!” wrote Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice.

This weekend, 210 years after the publication of the second of her six novels, Austen’s work is providing as much enjoyment as ever – and to a younger audience than the author probably ever dreamed of.

“We have seen an increasing number of young Janeites visiting,” said Alice Hodges, who works at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. These include children as young as eight.

Jane Austen TikTok BookTok #booktok #janeausten
Eden Reid, a fan of #booktok #janeausten on TikTok Photograph: @edenreidreads/TikTok

As well as screen adaptations and young adult fiction reimaginings of Austen and her novels, interest is being driven by a proliferation of internet memes and TikToks. These have spawned so many videos, images and hashtags online that it prompted a recent study led by a Cambridge academic entitled OMG Jane Austen. One of its authors has suggested Austen is the most memed writer after Shakespeare.

The Bath museum features actor guides who play characters from the books, something that goes down well with younger visitors, says Hodges. It also offers the chance to try on costumes and write with quills.

Eleven-year-old Clem Melling, who lives near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, will be visiting the centre in June for her next birthday. “Jane Austen’s writing is so energetic and fun, I love how witty, funny and clever she is,” she says. “The focus on friendships and relationships means that you aren’t concentrating on historical details all the time. The way she makes funny, sarcastic comments about her characters makes it feel as though she’s talking to you like a friend.”

Clem’s sister, Gillie, 10, is also a Janeite. Her favourite character is Eleanor Tilney from Northanger Abbey “because she’s very calm and more relatable to modern girls, especially an introverted girl like me”.

Their mum, Hazel Davis, 46, a writer, welcomes her daughters’ interest in Austen. She says: “I am a bit tired of books for children and young adults that are dystopian or apocalyptic. It’s nice to read books with the girls that address human concerns but without angst.

“There’s no dumbing down with Austen. She’s smart, funny and insightful, and it’s so lovely that they relate to her writing so much. It’s also a great, fun way to teach history – and especially feminist history. Many of her role models are intelligent and sparky women fighting to change their circumstances.”

Julia Golding runs an Austen-inspired podcast, What Would Jane Do?, and is the author of the Jane Austen Investigates series of books, which reimagine the author as a child detective. She, too, has noticed a lot of younger readers coming to the work of the writer, who died in 1817.

“It may seem unlikely at first – what does this generation with all their social media options and frenetic visual culture find in Austen?” says Golding. “Then you realise that’s the answer. Jane Austen allows everyone to step aside and take a breath in the beautiful worlds she creates. Then we see that we share more with the past than we imagined.”

Even in a world where young girls’ role models seem to be found on Love Island, Instagram and TikTok, there is a space for Austen, says Golding.

“Her works are strangely applicable to our online existence. In the smaller worlds of her novel – a village, a great house – everyone is under a microscope, just as young people are with their connectivity,” she says. “Jane Austen might’ve worn a bonnet and muslin but you feel, reading her, that she would’ve been an amazing best friend for us now and help us get out of trouble.”

Two young Jane Austen fans sitting in their bedroom at home
Janeites Clem Melling, left, and her sister, Gillie: ‘you feel as though Austen’s talking to you like a friend’. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Younger readers often come to Austen through reimaginings such as Golding’s books, or film adaptations. Olive Jenkins, 16, who lives near Esher, Surrey, discovered her four years ago when she saw the 2005 film of Pride & Prejudice on Netflix.

“From then, I felt a connection to how true the love presented in this story was, despite complications that make the plot interesting,” says the A-level student, who went on to read the book after seeing the film. “I felt that, despite the tricky language, she imparts a very clear and euphoric idea of love, which is a sense that I only ever get when reading classical literature.”

Dr Rita J Dashwood, who specialises in 18th- and 19th-century studies at the University of Liverpool, has researched how media riffing off Austen’s work has affected the author’s legacy and brought new readers to the source material.

“The number of recent young adult novels that reimagine Austen’s works – particularly her most popular one, Pride and Prejudice – such as Ibi Zoboi’s Pride (2018) and Alice Oseman’s Solitaire (2014), as well as new media series such as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012) for YouTube, make Austen’s novels accessible to young people in new and engaging ways,” she says. “My experience as a university lecturer is also that, by the time students come to university, they have admired Austen for years, having encountered her both through the original novels and popular culture adaptations of her work.”


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Heads warn parents not to back pupil protests spreading via TikTok
Teachers condemn family support for trend in England and Wales that leads to school ‘stampedes’

Anna Fazackerley

05, Mar, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
TikTok and tiaras: the youngsters leading a new generation of royalists
A 70-year reign is being hailed in 60-second video clips to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee – winning over hundreds of thousands of followers

Ruchira Sharma

21, May, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
‘People get bored quickly’: how UK teens turned to social media for their news
As Ofcom confirms that young people now stay informed through Instagram and TikTok, we meet the online newshounds

Ruchira Sharma

24, Jul, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Tobacco giant bets £1bn on influencers to boost 'more lung-friendly' sales
As smoking falls out of fashion, BAT is pinning its hopes on younger users of e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches

Rob Davies and Matthew Chapman

20, Feb, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
‘When I see kids vaping, I warn them: that’s what killed my daughter’
The mother of a teenager who died after her lungs collapsed believes e-cigarettes were the cause and is calling for tougher legislation

Jon Ungoed-Thomas and Shanti Das

07, Aug, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Chinese vaping giant flouting UK advertising rules on selling to children
Observer investigation finds Chinese-owned brand Elf Bar is fuelling the boom in e-cigarettes among young people as social media influencers on TikTok promote its goods in an apparent breach of advertising rules

Shanti Das and Jon Ungoed-Thomas

17, Jul, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Child vaping risks becoming ‘public health catastrophe’ in UK, experts warn
There are fears that the e-cigarette boom has the potential to create a generation of young people hooked on nicotine

Shanti Das and Jon Ungoed-Thomas

23, Jul, 2022 @1:43 PM

Article image
How TikTok bombards young men with misogynistic videos
Observer investigation shows how online platform’s algorithm pushed Andrew Tate posts to an imaginary teenager

Shanti Das

06, Aug, 2022 @4:46 PM

Article image
The key to Edinburgh Fringe stardom? Having your own TikTok army
During lockdown, fledgling comedians won virtual acclaim. Now they hope real-life festival crowds will find them just as funny

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent

16, Jul, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Pranks, skits and dancing… welcome to the TikTok house
Six of generation Z’s star performers are living under the the same roof to create content for their 15 million followers

Nosheen Iqbal

26, Apr, 2020 @7:17 AM