In chapter five of Claudia L. Johnson’s new book Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, she notes that in the first Jane Austen Society Report for the years 1943 – 46, a memory belonging to an elderly village woman named Mrs. Luff was recorded in which she remembers watching Jane Austen walking across a field to a visit a family. “We called her the poor young lady,” recalled Mrs. Luff as indicated in the report, “and now she’s gone” (177). Stop for a moment and reflect on that. The elderly woman remembered Jane Austen not as “the venerable author” or “the national treasure” but, for whatever distressing reason, the “poor young lady.”
How interesting is it to think that at one point in time Jane Austen was nothing more than a woman named Jane who lived in an English village and visited families and did all the other things that women did in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries? That the sight of her did not immediately inspire admiration for her written accomplishments but, rather, recalled contemporaneous events or gossip attached to her? I certainly have to take a moment to remember that especially given that evidence of her talent is now on display everywhere – her novels are still prominently displayed on bookshelves at the local bookstore (no relegation to the dusty, shadowy corner for this author), new film adaptations and mini-series are advertised almost every year, her image and images inspired by her works can be found on mugs, tote bags, note cards, posters, you name it, it’s on it. The constant and formidable engine that drives the power of Divine Jane can be seen almost everywhere so much so that it can be hard to remember that she was once just Jane, a quiet author who probably would have parodied her commercialization if she were alive today to see it.
The question of how the quiet author became the modern-day celebrity or, in other words, Jane Austen’s “afterlives,” is tackled in Johnson’s new book, released this month by The University of Chicago Press. The Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University, and the author or editor of several works on Jane Austen, Johnson historicizes Austen’s canonization by tracing how the very concept of Austen has changed over time and how it has shown itself to be amenable to sometimes contradictory ideas and feelings about a variety of things including history, taste and manners, and language.
In the first chapter, Jane Austen’s Body, Johnson examines how representations of Austen’s body have developed alongside the public’s perception of her art and, interestingly, how her family may have played a role in all of this. In the second chapter, Jane Austen’s Magic, Johnson explores the reception of Austen during the Victorian period, how she was used to relieve anxieties about modernity by a placement within a context of fairies and enchantment (strange, because we rarely think of Austen in this context, but fascinating). The third and fourth chapters, Jane Austen’s World War I and Jane Austen’s World War II, place Austen against the backdrop of these wars and explore the vastly different reasons why she was read by both soldiers and the larger public. In the last chapter, Jane Austen’s House, Johnson explores the almost obsessive relationship Janeites have with objects that have had both a direct and indirect relation to Austen with a specific look at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton. This last chapter is extremely gratifying in the way that it invokes Austen characters Fanny Price and Anne Eliot to give shape to the reader’s relationship with the author, successfully demonstrating that the best way to invoke Austen is, not through objects that may or may not have held significance to her, but through the result of actions that we know she highly valued: her writings.
It was a real pleasure to read this book. It is richly informative and clearly outlines the ways in which Austen has been constructed and her writings interpreted by readers from the Victorian period through now in a way that is both scholarly and accessible and, sometimes even, playful with such delightfully accurate lines as “the Austen they adore has more to do with the world of wonder than with the world of reason” (5) and “to be a Janeite is really a form of possession, with a profound contentment in being thus possessed” (7). Johnson also includes in the appendix to the book three folk tales known to be told by Edward Austen Knight, and possibly heard by Jane Austen herself as a child, and a collection of Austen-related images throughout the book. This book is highly recommended for those who are interested in how Austen’s legacy has changed throughout the years.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson
The University of Chicago Press (2012)
Hardcover (240) pages
Aia Hussein-Yousef, a proud member of JASNA, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading. She will be leaving the DC area in the fall to begin a doctoral program in Comparative Literature at Princeton University.
© 2012 Aia Hussein-Yousef, Austenprose