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