There are at least 27 American legal decisions that reference Jane Austen’s books. And the famous author appears in judge’s rulings at all levels of America’s courts.
Professor Matthew H. Birkhold reviewed all the cases referencing Austen. He found that some judges quoted Austen’s work, such as Pride and Prejudice (Amazon | Bookshop), often adapting the novel’s opening line to suit their purposes.
That line reads, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
The judges and attorneys who cite Austen reach across the gender and age spectrums. And the decisions range from domestic disputes to white-collar criminal prosecutions.
So, why are Jane Austen’s works and the author herself so popular in America’s legal system?
Birkhold thinks it’s Austen’s ability to parse people and culture that makes her appealing to judges.
“Jane Austen is cited as an authority on the complexity of life, particularly with regard to the intricacies of relationships,” Birkhold said.
That authority’s also why many continue to read Austen more than 200 years after her death. She published six novels. Her best-known books are Sense and Sensibility (Amazon | Bookshop) and Pride and Prejudice (Amazon | Bookshop).
The secret behind Jane Austen’s books
Austen was born in 1775 in Hampshire, England. She was the seventh of eight kids. Her parents, Cassandra and George, ran a bookish household. As a result, all the Austen children grew up reading.
But it was Jane Austen who took to writing. She started writing as a child and finished her first novella when she was 19.
Sitting at the table in her family’s dining room, Austen wrote in small handmade books. The journals were small. Their compact size meant she could hide them if some entered the room.
After all, Austen didn’t want others to know about her fiction writing. For years only her parents, siblings, and best friend knew Jane wrote stories. Instead, she led others to believe she spent her time writing letters.
It wasn’t until after her first two novels came out that people outside Austen’s close circle realized she was an author. This recognition came even though all six of Austen’s novels were published anonymously.
Today, though, many people know her name. Jane Austen is one of the most-read authors of all time. Many movies and TV shows portray Austen’s books. And the author’s inspired many spin-off novels.
- Born on Dec. 16, 1775, Hampshire, England
- Died on July 18, 1817, Hampshire, England
Jane Austen’s Books
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- “Jane Austen: A Brief Biography.” Jane Austen Society of North America.
- “The Many Ways in Which We Are Wrong About Jane Austen.” Helena Kelly. Literary Hub. May 3, 2017.
- “Why Do So Many Judges Cite Jane Austen in Legal Decisions?.” Matthew H. Birkhold. Electric Lit. April 24, 2018.
- “Stanford Literary Scholars Reflect on Jane Austen’s Legacy.” Alex Shashkevich. Stanford News. July 27, 2017.
- “Jane Austen’s Lady Susan.” The Morgan Library & Museum.
- “Jane Austen’s Manuscripts.” British Library.
- “A Day in the Life of Jane Austen.” Rebecca Smith. HistoryExtra. Dec. 15, 2016.