Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson – A Review

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson (2012)Review by Aia Hussein-Yousef

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
ISBN: 978-0226402031

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

Jane Austen in Love: An Entertainment, by Elsa A. Solender – A Review

Jane Austen in Love, by Elsa Solender (2012)Review by Aia A. Hussein

While many of us can certainly understand Cassandra Austen’s desire to protect the privacy and personal life of her younger sister by destroying much of their correspondence, it is nevertheless a point of frustration for Jane Austen scholars and enthusiasts.  Not only did all that letter-burning deprive us of valuable insight into the smaller details of Jane Austen’s life but also, and perhaps most importantly, it deprived us of the undoubtedly fascinating thoughts that accompanied them.  It is only fitting, then, that the narrator for the new novel Jane Austen in Love: An Entertainment, a fictional story inspired by known biographical details of Jane Austen’s life, is the protective but loving Cassandra who is imagined to have written this account of the life of her younger sister years after her death in an attempt to bring color to a life so persistently speculated and wondered about.

The voice behind this imagined Cassandra is past president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Elsa A. Solender.  Released earlier this year by Amazon Digital Services as an e-book, Solender’s novel is actually an expansion of an earlier short story “Second Impressions” that was a runner-up in the first Chawton House Library Jane Austen Story Competition in 2009.  An entertaining blend of fact and fiction – and, of course, filled with references to Jane Austen’s own novels – Solender gives narrative energy to the few known facts of Jane Austen’s life and, in doing so, imagines a series of events that takes its inspiration from actual letters and Jane Austen’s own popular novels.

Beginning with Jane as a young, energetic, and delightfully precocious child and moving into her young adulthood, Solender examines some of the early “loves” in her life that have given profound shape and meaning to it – the love between her and her family, especially Cassandra, but also the love between friends, particularly Jane’s sympathetic and elegant friend Madame Lefroy and her fascinating cousin Eliza, the Comtesse de Feuillide.  As the young Jane grows in years and intelligence, she becomes attuned to social intricacies that shape behavior and, in some instances, inspire potential subversions of it much to the dismay of society’s stalwarts but much to the delight of the young but intelligent observer.  When society threatens to potentially alienate or pass judgment on those that Jane loves and admires, she learns the importance of balancing society’s expectations with one’s own personal beliefs and values.

Moving into Jane’s adulthood, Solender visits more romantic love: the white coat-donning Tom Lefroy who amusingly reminds Jane of Henry Fielding’s title character in Tom Jones, her one-day engagement to kind but one-dimensional Harris Bigg-Wither, and the mysterious “Gentleman suitor of the seaside.”  Like the novel itself, all of this is part-real, part-imaginary, and part-derived from Jane’s own later novels.  While knowing that Solender is limited by the plain fact that Jane remained unmarried her entire life, she is still able to build an appropriate amount of tension regarding Jane’s love interests – what exactly attracts her to them?  Who or what will come between them?  What can we learn about Solender’s Jane from these imagined encounters?

I found the novel to perfectly live up to its subtitle “An Entertainment” as it is very entertaining.  More interested in character development than plot, this novel is rich with detail and extremely engaging.  Solender’s decision to write this novel from the perspective of Cassandra was a smart one because it allows the tone and style of the novel to be appropriate to the time of the novel without having to be an exact imitation of Jane Austen’s.  Plus, I have always been interested in the relationship between sisters (how interesting would it be to read a novel about Cassandra’s support but also jealousy of her sister’s success?).  Solender’s Cassandra is sympathetic and the idea that she could inhabit her sister’s consciousness and relate events from this position is convincing.  Moreover, Solender creatively uses Jane Austen’s own novels to inform and inspire events in fictional Jane’s life and you will enjoy, for example, how Mr. and Mrs. Austen are at times the Bennets, fictional neighbors are Mrs. and Miss Bates, and other references.  If you enjoy fictional biographies, I highly recommend this book.

4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen in Love: An Entertainment, by Elsa A. Solender
Amazon Digital Services (2012)
Kindle ebook (334) pages
ASIN: B0074KBJZ4

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area.

© 2007 – 2012 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, by Juliette Wells – A Review

Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, by Juliette Wells (2012)Review by Aia A. Hussein

The epigraph to chapter 3 of Juliette Wells’ new book Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination is taken from Michael Chabon’s “The Amateur Family” in Manhood for Amateurs (2010) and is one of the most interesting, almost poetic, descriptions of amateurs that I have ever read (it is quite long but worth reproducing in its entirety):

Perhaps there is no perfect word for the kind of people I have raised my children to be: a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in the game, to inhabit in some manner – through writing, drawing, dressing up, or endless conversational trifling and Talmudic debate – the world for the endlessly inviting, endlessly inhabitable work of popular art.  The closest I have ever come for myself is amateur, in all the original best sense of the word: a lover; a devotee; a person drive by passion and obsession to do it – to explore the imaginary world – oneself.

Admittedly, the word amateur has negative connotations but not so in Wells’ book.

An amateur is simply someone who is passionate about books and pursues that passion as a hobby rather than a scholarly profession, she argues.  In the last couple of decades, Wells, an Associate Professor of English at Manhattanville College and features editor for the Penguin Classics enhanced e-book edition of Pride and Prejudice (2008), has noted the rise in Austen tributes – the countless fiction, nonfiction, biographies, films, merchandise, and so forth, inspired by Austen’s novels.  Wells offers through her new book what could arguably be thought of as a tribute to the tributes, a critical examination of Austen-mania that acknowledges the important role it has played in keeping Jane Austen culturally relevant.

Everybody’s Jane, released this month by Continuum, takes into account scholarly work on fan cultures and fictions to explore Austen appreciation and appropriation, particularly its appreciation and appropriation in the United States.  After introducing the book in chapter 1, Wells begins her study by looking back to the early twentieth-century to introduce Alberta H. Burke, an American collector and self-confessed Janeite who Wells argues can be thought of as a direct forerunner to modern fans.  Later chapters explore such topics as literary tourism, Austen images, and Austen hybrids where, in addition to exploring hybrids such as Austen-paranormal fiction, Wells also takes a look at the little-studied phenomenon of Austen fan fiction aimed at evangelical Christians.

One of her most fascinating chapters, titled Reading Like an Amateur, explores the sometimes sticky subject of amateur reading versus professional reading or, in other words, the enthusiast versus the scholar. Striking a conciliatory tone, Wells suggests that there is room for both and that, perhaps, the two reading practices that the amateur and scholar are thought to adopt are not so very different.  Quoting scholar Roger Sales, Everybody’s Jane suggests that:

…popular modern texts are relevant to the academic study of Austen since readers constructs an idea of the author, and therefore of her works and their historical period, from the materials that are readily available within a particular culture at a particular time.  It would be very arrogant indeed to assume that all those who teach and study Austen are necessarily exempt from, rather than implicated in, this cultural process. (10)

Wells examines such topics as why and how amateurs read Austen, the reading experience of the amateur, and the juxtaposition of amateur reading with professional reading in this very important chapter.

In the book’s last chapter, aptly titled Coming Together Through Austen, Wells shares her belief that a deep appreciation for Austen can bring together amateurs and scholars and that the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), since its inception in 1979, has auspiciously offered a home to a broad spectrum of Austen lovers.  An examination of the organization and a call to arms to continue exploring the works and influence of Austen conclude the book.

Wells uses novels, scholarly materials, sites of importance to Austen studies and fans, images, and films to beautifully illustrate her points in a way that is accessible to the ordinary reader but also valuable to the more professional one.  Each chapter begins with a clear and concise overview which helps give structure and order to an extremely comprehensive account of Austen in the popular culture.  It’s impossible to know if Austen will continue to remain a point of fascination for modern writers and fans in the decades to come but, nevertheless, the explosion of Austen-related materials over the last two decades makes this a phenomenon worth documenting and, thankfully, scholars like Wells agree.  This is a fascinating study.  I highly recommend this book.

5 out of 5 Stars

Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, by Juliette Wells
Continuum International Publishing Group (2012)
Trade paperback (256) pages
ISBN: 978-1441145543
Kindle: ASIN: B0071GVQRC

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area.

© 2007 – 2012, Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

Austentatious, by Alyssa Goodnight – A Review

Austentatious, by Alyssa Goodnight (2012)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

The archetypical figure of the fairy godmother – an imagined mentor with supernatural powers – is an attractive trope because it suggests that certain elements of the unseen universe are rooting for us whether we are aware of it or not.  The most popular fairy godmother is arguably the sweet-tempered, grandmother-like figure of Cinderella who swishes her wand to create carriages out of pumpkins and attractive debutantes out of housemaids but she has also appeared in literature as conniving and ruthless (Shrek) or even male and wizardly (Gandalf could be thought of as a “fairy godperson,” couldn’t he?).  If you’ve ever imagined a fairy godmother as equal parts scheming and shrewd, unrelenting and witty, in perhaps a bonnet with a quill in hand, then you might be interested in Alyssa Goodnight’s new novel Austentatious in which a certain popular eighteenth-century female novelist takes on the role as modern-day life coach.

With a release date of January 31, 2012, from Kensington Books, Austentatious tells the story of a modern woman living in Austin, Texas who comes across a rather strange and somewhat presumptuous vintage journal that is inexplicably writing her back.  Such messages as “Miss Nicola James will be sensible and indulge in a little romance” and one of my favorites, “cleavage is as cleavage does,” quite understandably alarm Nic and she soon begins to believe the little journal is channeling Jane Austen herself.  While the idea of a personal life coach who may be Jane Austen is definitely alluring, Nic soon finds Jane’s advice to be distracting and more than a little unnerving because it threatens to upset the life she has spent years trying to build.

An engineer based in Austin, Nic is a steadfast believer in The Plan, a rigid set of life goals meant to help Nic professionally and romantically advance in a sensible manner.  When we meet Nic at the beginning of the novel, she is bent on landing a promotion and pursuing a relationship with a similarly-minded work colleague.  All seems to be moving in the right direction when a mysterious journal makes its way to her.  Instead of quietly accepting and retaining her words, the journal inexplicably erases and rearranges them to leave messages for its owner.  Despite feeling hesitant and enormously confused, Nic decides to consider the possibility that the journal may be channeling Jane Austen herself because of the journal’s history and thinks there can be little harm in following its advice until it begins to set things in motion that go against her life’s plan.  Enter Sean MacInnes, a warm and charming musician from Scotland who just so happens to think that Nic is the one for him.  Much to Nic’s dismay, her journal feels the same way.  While struggling to make sense of her experiences, Nic must choose between The Plan or the one life seems to have for her.

As mentioned in her Austenprose blog entry, Goodnight serendipitously came across an actual journal dedication in her research written by Jane Austen to Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen with the hope that her niece would derive some instruction from her writings.  Goodnight cleverly uses this as a launching point for her novel’s premise.  Additionally, as mentioned in the novel’s afterword, Austentatious is a “(loosely interpreted) modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and part homage to the wit and timelessness of Ms. Jane Austen.”  Moreover, and much to my liking, it is also a homage to great literature including a number of witty and funny references to Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings.  In fact, one of things I loved about this novel was the writing.  Goodnight’s writing is lively, engaging, and enjoyably fast-paced.  Austentatious will be of particular interest to those readers looking for something more modern to complement their Austenesque tastes.

4 out of 5 stars

Austentatious, by Alyssa Goodnight
Kensington Books (2012)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-0758267436
Nook: ISBN: 978-0758278067
Kindle: ASIN: B005JSZOIG

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

© 2007 – 2012 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – A Review

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Not too long ago, I picked up my old and battered copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and reread the novel.  It was my third reading.  I was pretty confident that I would stop reading after the first few chapters, thinking that I only wanted a small dose of familiarity and good, old-fashioned Gothic comfort before turning to something else, something new.  Jane’s haunting self-awareness, however, sucked me in (again) and I read the whole thing through trying hard to keep feelings of guilt at bay for what felt like a waste of my time.  I shouldn’t be rereading Jane Eyre, I told myself, when I still haven’t read Bronte’s Shirley or the book I checked out from the library or this book or that book that I should read for this or that reason.

And yet, despite these feelings, I reread all the time and I’ll probably never stop.  In fact, I hope I never do because my third reading of Jane Eyre was, so far, my most enjoyable.  “This passion for sameness,” as recently retired Literature professor and editor of Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition Patricia Meyer Spacks describes it, is the subject of her new book On Rereading, an interesting hybrid of literary criticism and memoir.  Released late last year by Harvard University Press, Spacks’ book attempts to answer the very fascinating question of why we read the same books over and over again.

Spacks’ book is mostly a collection of thoughts about novels reread over a period of one year, an attempt to trace personal development and growth through literature revisited.  After a nuanced examination of the act of rereading, Spacks begins her experiment with children’s books with such classics as Alice in Wonderland.  A substantial chapter on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma follows with a discussion of how these novels continue to instruct far beyond the initial reading.  A number of chapters are devoted to the project of trying to disentangle personal and social history from the books we read and reread followed by chapters on recreational and professional rereading.  Of course, like any comprehensive book on rereading, the temptation of rereading books we should have liked, and those we feel we shouldn’t have liked but did anyway, is also explored.  The book ends with the lovely articulation that we are never alone when we read since through reading and rereading we are in a silent exchange with the book’s author, with the generations of readers before and after us, etc., that the act of rereading can be far more dynamic and interactive than we realize.

Rereading, according to Spacks, is “a treat, a form of escape, a device for getting to sleep or distracting oneself, a way to evoke memories (not only of the text but of one’s life and of past selves), a reminder of half-forgotten truths, an inlet to new insight.  It rouses or soothes or reassures.  And…it can provide security” (2).  This sense of security is born from a text’s seeming stability since, as we all know, the words on the page do not change with time.  And, yet, the conviction that change has indeed taken place when we reread can feel so powerful as to convince us otherwise.  It is this sense of change, this “something,” that fascinates Spacks.  The book may not have changed over time but we, as readers, definitely have and, consequently, our relation to the book has changed as well.

Underpinning this experiment are assumptions worth highlighting: reading fiction is important, recreational reading is important, and rereading need not be an act of avoidance or laziness but re-engagement.  Readers of this blog will probably find the act of rereading pretty standard as, according to an informal British survey mentioned in Spacks’ book, Pride and Prejudice is the third most popular reread text (the Harry Potter books, interestingly, are the first most popular).  And, arguably, the countless contemporary re-imaginings of Austen’s world are, to my mind anyway, a type of rereading – we revisit and re-imagine and relive our experience(s) of reading Austen’s books whenever we pick up a contemporary book featuring Darcy or Lizzy Bennet.  Spacks’ book, particularly her first chapter which I think is her best chapter, is worth the read if you’ve ever been interested in this question of why we read the same books over and over.  But, fair warning, you’ll probably feel the urge to pick up an old favorite as soon as you’re done.  Hopefully with a little less guilt.

4 out of 5 Stars

On Rereading, by Patricia Meyer Spacks
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2011)
Hardcover (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0674062221
Kindle: ASIN: B006LZTL9O
Nook: ISBN: 978-0674063310

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

© 2007 – 2012 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose