A Preview & Exclusive Excerpt of Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson

From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress: 

On May 18th the highly anticipated new book, Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by the eminent Jane Austen scholar, Dr. Claudia Johnson, releases from The University of Chicago Press. Described as an “insightful look at how and why readers have cherished one of our most beloved authors” Johnson delves into the history of Austen’s enthusiasts through the centuries.

We have been very fortunate to be given a sneak peek of the book before publication by the author. Here is a book description, Dr. Johnson’s brief introduction, and the excerpt she selected for us:


Jane Austen completed only six novels, but enduring passion for the author and her works has driven fans to read these books repeatedly, in book clubs or solo, while also inspiring countless film adaptations, sequels, and even spoofs involving zombies and sea monsters. Austen’s lasting appeal to both popular and elite audiences has lifted her to legendary status. In Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, Claudia L. Johnson shows how Jane Austen became “Jane Austen,” a figure intensely—sometimes even wildly—venerated, and often for markedly different reasons.

Johnson begins by exploring the most important monuments and portraits of Austen, considering how these artifacts point to an author who is invisible and yet whose image is inseparable from the characters and fictional worlds she created. She then passes through the four critical phases of Austen’s reception—the Victorian era, the First and Second World Wars, and the establishment of the Austen House and Museum in 1949—and ponders what the adoration of Austen has meant to readers over the past two centuries. For her fans, the very concept of “Jane Austen” encapsulates powerful ideas and feelings about history, class, manners, intimacy, language, and the everyday. By respecting the intelligence of past commentary about Austen, Johnson shows, we are able to revisit her work and unearth fresh insights and new critical possibilities.


The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Jane Austen’s Magic,” which discusses versions of Victorian Janeism that link Austen with enchantment, indeed even with the fairy world that is full of magic despite its apparently humdrum appearance.

Foremost among the “pretty” volumes [Henry] James probably had in mind when he acidly described them as “what is called tasteful” is Constance Hill’s 1902 Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends. This volume is by no means the first published effort to recover Jane Austen by visiting the places and recollecting the people associated with her; but it is the most sustained (the book is 268 pages long), and the most elaborate (Hill and her sister undertake their journeys with well-thumbed copies of Austen’s novels, Brabourne’s edition of the Letters and J.E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir in hand).  It was also the most influential.  In his “authoritative” editions of Austen’s novels, R.W. Chapman cribs this book when footnoting the actual places visited by Austen’s characters.   Hill’s Preface begins by citing the altogether banal observation that “works of genius” are marked by “something intangible” that is “felt” but that eludes words:  “This ‘intangible something’ —  this undefinable charm – is felt,” she writes, “by all Jane Austen’s admirers.”  Generally we encounter such platitudes about Austen’s genius – which make up a large part of Victorian commentary on Austen – without attending closely.  If we listen carefully, however, something remarkable emerges.  Austen’s “undefinable charm,” she continues, has exercised a sway of ever-increasing power over the writer and illustrator of these pages; constraining them to follow the author to all the places where she dwelt  and inspiring them with a determination to find out all that could be known of her life and its surroundings. (v)

In Hill’s hands the word genius starts to dance across semantic boundaries, sometimes denoting the modern sense of talent or intellectual endowment, and other times reverting to the earlier sense of a tutelary spirit attached to a place; and the word charm is similarly charged, surpassing its bland sense as attraction, and moving towards something stronger, like spell.  Only this could account for the delightful but nevertheless palpable sense of supra-voluntary compulsion: under the “increasing power” of Austen’s “charm” the writer is “constrained” to follow Austen’s footsteps.  Veering momentarily into the language of Christianity borrowed by literary tourism throughout the nineteenth century (one recollects the prominent example of Byron), Hill  tells us that her book will take us on a “pilgrimage,” but only, as it turns out, to observe a crucial difference from other literary tourists.  Following “in the footprints of a favourite writer would, alas! in many cases lead to a sad disenchantment”(v).  Hill’s book promises, by contrast, an enchantment that will never disappoint or diminish: “We would now request our readers,” she writes, in “imagination, to put back the finger of Time for more than a hundred years and to step with us into Miss Austen’s presence,” a presence which is special.  Our journey is, to be sure, an act of friendship, for to know Jane Austen, as we have seen, is to desire to be her friend.  As it is so often the case throughout this little volume, we also cross boundaries into the noumenal: Jane Austen is no ordinary friend, and the purpose is not simply to get to become acquainted with her in any ordinary sense, rather it is to “‘hold communion sweet’” with her “mind and heart” (viii).  What is this enchanted place located at the intersection of space and time, a place from a bygone era, yet accessible today and still somehow permeated by the traces of Austen’s presence?   The title of the first chapter provides the answer: “An Arrival in Austen-land.”

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures (FIG 002.001)(FIG 002.001)

In an 1885 review of Brabourne’s edition of Austen’s Letters Thomas Kebbel describes his own pilgrimage to Austenian sites in Hampshire, and he laments that “Miss Austen’s country” is so little known.[i]  “Miss Austen’s country” has a different valence from “Austen-land.”  I take Hill’s unblushingly fanciful chapter title – and its accompanying illustration (FIG 002.001), guiding us towards a magical place – as an allusion to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  The wonders Hill’s volume goes on to narrate are – like everything about Austen – infinitely less egregious than Charles Dodgson’s to be sure, but paradoxically they may also be more powerful for being so because, however palpable, most of the important ones aren’t, strictly speaking, visibly there at all, and this invisibility is in marked contrast to so many author-pilgrimages of the earlier nineteenth century.[ii]  Unlike heritage-constructing books of roughly the same period, such as W. Jerome Harrison’s Shakespeare-Land (1907) and Ward and Ward’s Shakespeare’s Town and Times (1896) or James Leon Williams’s The Homes and Haunts of Shakespeare (1892), which, as John Taylor has shown, use photographs both to show literary tourists what traces to look for and just as importantly to testify to the reality/authenticity of those sites, Hill’s volume relies mostly on drawings of Austenian places executed by Hill’s sister, even though photography was available.[iii]

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures (FIG 002.002)

(FIG 002.002)

When Hill and her sister arrive at the village of Steventon, they cannot find the rectory where Austen was born (it had been torn down in the 1820s by Austen’s brother Edward who, oblivious of its hallowed status as Austen’s birthplace, built a better house there for his son’s use).  With the marvelous appearance of an aged informant related to servants in the Austen household, they locate “a pump in the middle o’ the field” which “stood i’ the washhouse at the back o’ the parsonage” (Hill, 8).  Though “barely noticed before,” the pump [see FIG 002.002] “become[s] interesting now as the only visible relic of the Austen’s home” (Hill, 10).  As the sketch indicates, the view of the pump clearly lacks the patent if somewhat shabby materiality that countless photographs imparted to, say, Ann Hathaway’s cottage, and the site and sight of the pump would look even more absurd as a photograph.  Its primary purpose, after all, is to represent the absence of the Steventon rectory.  As a result, the burden of wondrous vision is placed on the visitant – as when Ellen Hill is drawing the pump, and Constance, gazing upon the blank space,  muses “I can now picture to myself the exact spot where the parsonage stood, and can fancy the carriage drive approaching it . . .  I can even fancy the house itself…” (Hill, 10-11). In cases where Austenian remnants are actually extant, they are not always bewitching and, in the nineteenth century, made no part of the pilgrimage.  Chawton Cottage, to take the most conspicuous example, is an authentic and extant Austenian home, but it was so far from charming that J.E. Austen-Leigh not only declines to represent it in his Memoir, but he also actively discourages “any admirer of Jane Austen to undertake a pilgrimage to the spot,” because it has now been “divided into tenements for labourers” and “reverted to ordinary uses.” (Memoir, 69).  A comparison between Ellen Hill’s partial, highly idealized sketch and a contemporary 1910 photograph of Chawton Cottage demonstrates just how much imaginative work is required from the visitor bent on Austenian enchantment when confronted with such refractorily unlovely but actual material.


[i] Thomas Edward Kebbel, “Jane Austen at Home,” Fortnightly Review 43 (1885), 270. [262-70]

[ii] I am much indebted to Deidre Lynch, “Homes and Haunts: Austen’s and Mitford’s English Idylls,”  PMLA 115, no. 5 (October, 2000),  1103-1108; the essays in Nicola Watson, ed., Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture, (Houndmills: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2009),  Harald Henrix, ed., Writers’ Houses and the Making of Memory (New York: Routledge, 2008) and Nicola Watson, The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic & Victorian Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006).

[iii] See Chapter 2 (“Shakespeare Land”) of John Taylor, A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), 64-89.


Claudia L. Johnson is the Murray Professor of English Literature and Chair of the English Department at Princeton University. She specializes in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature, with a particular emphasis on the novel. In addition to eighteenth-century survey courses, she teaches courses about prose style,  gothic fiction, sentimentalism, the emergence of nationalism, film adaptations of fiction, Samuel Johnson, and, of course, Jane Austen. Her books include Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (Chicago, 1988), Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender and Sentimentality in the 1790s (Chicago, 1995), and The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft (Cambridge, 2002), with Clara Tuite The Blackwell Companion to Jane Austen (2005).  She has also prepared with editions of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (Norton, 1998), Sense and Sensibility (Norton, 2002), and Northanger Abbey (Oxford, 2003).  At present she is writing a book on novel studies tentatively entitled, Raising the Novel. She enjoys singing and gazing out the window, though not necessarily at the same time.

Detail of the cover of Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson (2012)

Detail of the cover design of Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures


  • Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson
  • The University of Chicago Press (2012)
  • Hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook (240) pages
  • ISBN: 978-0226402031
  • Genre: Literary Criticism


We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image, book description, excerpt, and author bio courtesy of The University of Chicago Press © 2012; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2012, austenprose.com.

42 thoughts on “A Preview & Exclusive Excerpt of Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson

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  1. I am a member of the cult of Jane because her characters and eloquence have given me so much strength in this ever-changing world. Her novels have given me strength to keep pushing forward. As a teen, it is important to have someone to look up to so as to not follow the wrong paths.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Like so many “of the cult of Jane”, I
    have been reading and retreading
    Jane Austen’s novels with continuing
    pleasure for 50 years – never tiring of
    the elegance of her language, the
    realism of her characters, the cleverness
    of her plots, the entertainment of her
    humor and the nuances of her irony.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was fortunate to hear Dr. Johnson at a JASNA AGM Conference, and she was an amazing speaker. She had so much knowledge of Austen ,yet she seemed not to have lost the common touch that enabled her to connect with the entire audience, not just the academic wing of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I hadn’t heard this book was coming out but it sounds so interesting that I’m sure I’ll be reading it before the year is out.

    Much as I would love to win a copy of this book, I can’t claim to be a part of the cult of Jane, though I have several shelves of not only her books and books about her and knick-knacks picked up at JASNA AGMs, etc., because I’m not really obsessed. Heck, I haven’t even visited Chawton! But, she remains one of my favorite author and one I discovered early and never tire of.


  5. “Literary Tourism” … what a splendid term! I enjoyed the excerpt. It’s something to meet admirers of Jane’s from another era.

    It’s hard to pin down why I am drawn to her works again and again. I suppose it’s her characters—so varied, and yet so true to life. They resonate. What I have learned from Jane Austen about people is a lot!


  6. I would truly be remiss if I did not confess that I cannot get enough Jane Austen and your generous offer is no exception!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m definitely part of the cult. I’ve been to Chawton! Why you ask? Ahh, a most difficult question without sounding like so many others. Marianne Dashwood, Lizzy, and Jane Bennet! The good humor of Admiral Croft. P&P, S&S, and Persuasion. Ok, Emma, Northanger, and History of England too!(Yes, MP is ok, but won’t be a member of the Jane cult if all the books were like MP). Etc…


  8. I am a member of the “Cult of Jane” because her characters speak to me. Her romances are beautiful and timeless, and I am desperately enamored of the Regency period (though I could never live there long term). What’s not to love in the world of Austen? I ask you :)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, this looks interesting! I’d no idea that Austen scholarship went back so far as the Victorian period.
    I would consider myself only a peripheral member of the cult. I enjoyed the books by Austen that I’ve read (unfortunately, not all of them – yet), and I also love seeing what others do with her inspirations.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m definitely an adherent of the Cult of Jane. Her insight and her sense of whimsy make her books perfect anytime reading that is challenging in just the right way–not because I need a dictionary to interpret them but because I need to ponder on my own life and my own personal relationships with friends, relatives, and lovers to get something out of them. Austen challenges readers’ *emotional* intelligence.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is the perfect book for all Austen lovers. It will help to really get as much out of her books as possible. Hope I win a copy!


    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m a cult member because I know that I can open any of her books to any page and find something wise, witty, and/or graceful. I would love to read this book! Thanks for the giveaway.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Please forgive if this is a double post… I am a cult member because I know that every page of her books includes wit, wisdom, and grace…


  14. “The cult of Jane”. I guess I never really thought of it that way.
    I think what draws me most to Austen’s books is her devotion to realism and the social commentary she infuses into her stories.
    Her works are similar to those of Dickens, another favorite, in those respects.
    Thanks for the chance to win this cool new book.


    Liked by 1 person

  15. Jane Austen’s characters and their conditions lend themselves to re-reading so well. Her insights and wit create layers that allow each re-read to lead to something new.Definitely a member! I would love to own this book!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I am really interested in this book and would like to read it.Rereading Jane Austen’ s book is very important and necessary to me especially today,


  17. A cult suggests to me a ‘blinded’ following to a particular figure who promises to save your soul. The writings of Jane Austen assure us that we all have souls, and hence, the added comfort of being connected to each other. I look forward to Ms. Johnson’s thoughts!


  18. I’m so excited about this book. I’ve seen it listed on amazon for awhile now, I’m so glad it’s available now. I’d love to win!

    Why am I in the Jane Cult? When I rediscovered her many years ago, I couldn’t stop re-reading her books. I love her words and her characters are like friends. I thought I’d gone mad, then I found a group of friends that love Jane just as much as I do. Jane Austen has helped me to find life long friendships.


  19. I am an admirer of Jane because her characters are very similar to people I know today. I enjoy seeing how she maneuvers the plots to solve their delimmas.
    Thank you for the giveaway!


  20. I have enjoyed Austen’s heroine/hero characters and the quirks of the supporting characters. I was first drawn to P&P years ago and thru FF have developed online friends from across the globe that share the same love of Austen that I do. How her influence 200 years later could not be treasured is anyone’s guess.


  21. Am I an adherent to the Cult of Jane? You betcha – I’ve even danced a quadrille at Chawton Great House. Why do I belong? It’s her amazing ability to draw the personalities of her characters, in so few words. I KNOW some of those people. In fact, I’m sure Jane has been spying on my family. Her Mrs. Elton is exactly like my cousin.


  22. One of the main reasons that I still believe in and read Jane Austen
    is because of her strength and being a woman before her time!
    Many thanks, Cindi


  23. I have read Ms. Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (Chicago, 1988) and was quite amazed – Ms. Austen’s consideration of contemporary issues is brought forward clearly by Ms. Johnson. I was quite impressed by the organization of Ms. Johnson’s work – by Austen novel title – bringing out the particular points in the novel(s) with the chapter topic – very well done.
    Look forward to reading this new work: Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures.


  24. As a writer, I know how much authors rely on scholars to help give us all a clearer view of the masters like Austen.

    How on earth could someone as smart as Henry James say that Austen’s heroines had “small and second-rate minds” and call them “perfect little she-Philistines”?


    1. He was just jealous because he could not write that way. Nobody else could either! Our Miss Austen: Totally unique in all of literature!


  25. I became a teacher just so I could teach Pride and Prejudice. The lousy pay, lack of respect and lazy students are worth it, because there is always that one kid who says, “This is my favorite book.”


  26. No one has before or since been able to turn a phrase like Jane Austen. The sentences she constructed are works of art…and she created Henry Tilney! She was a genius.


  27. I am a member of the cult of Jane, because every time I read her work, it is better, fresher, and more complex than ever before. She converts people into English majors (yay!). I’m so excited about Johnson’s book!


  28. I love Jane Austen and at times it is a kind of mystery …why am I so drawn to her? I feel and I see a part of me in her writtings. I would LOVE this book!!


  29. I’m part of the cult of jane austen since I read and reread her books and re lated to her. I even do research on her time period too and watch anything re lated to jane too.
    Thank you for this op portunity


  30. I’m a member of the cult of Jane because I’m an Anglophile and I like historical books (okay, that pertains to the Jane Austen sequels that I read). I also like it when the book has a happy ending. I have seen a lot of the recent Austen movies and at first it was hard to get into the language and the Regency period, but then I was sucked in. Haven’t read all of her books yet, but I do own them all.


  31. I am certainly a member of the cult of Jane because whenever I walk into a bookstore, I always go straight to the Jane Austen section. I’ll pretty much walk out with any book about Jane that I don’t already own!


  32. I am devoted to Jane Austen because no other author has ever understood human nature better than she did. Or was as funny.


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