From the desk of Katie Patchell:
I remember what I felt when I discovered that Jane Austen was not famous in her lifetime: Outright shock. I had been a self-proclaimed Janeite for years when I discovered this fact. I had read her books multiple times, collected movie adaptations, researched and written papers about her novels in college, etc. The enormous amount of 21st-century hype around Jane led me to believe that, like Charles Dickens, her fame began in her lifetime. How wrong I was; in fact, many of Austen’s early readers never even knew her name until after she died.
Discovering you are mistaken is always a jolting experience, and I felt like my own literary world had shifted on its axis. Somehow not knowing this fact earlier was very unsettling, and with hindsight, I think it was so unsettling because my ‘Jane Austen timeline’ was thrown off. The little fact about when Jane was famous shouldn’t be a footnote in her history because how and when she became THE Jane Austen is of cultural and historical importance. Not only for what we know about the author, but what we know about ourselves, her fandom. Timelines really do matter. Devoney Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen is a gem of a book because, in it, she answers the integral questions of “how” and “when” that has rarely been asked. How did the early illustrations in Sense and Sensibility affect people’s views of the novel? When did the idea of a brooding Heathcliff-esque hero replace Jane Austen’s original reserved Mr. Darcy? These questions and answers are only a few of the many addressed in The Making of Jane Austen.
Image from chapter two, of an illustration by A. F. Lydon from Mansfield Park, Groombridge & Sons’ (London) 1875. Fanny Price gazing over the verdant park to the manor house.
As advertised on the cover flap, the key question of this book is “How is a literary icon made, transformed, and handed down through the generations?” Each of its four parts contains anecdotes and research that generally follows a chronological journey from the 1800s to present. In the first – “Jane Austen, Illustrated” – Looser gives an in-depth analysis of the artistic interpretations of Austen’s novels. She includes some pictures which are fascinating to view, although I wish there had been more. A highlight for me was learning that Victorian illustrators updated the clothing styles from the Regency to be more “modern” in their images – although these clothing choices are severely outdated now!
Image from chapter 7 of a Pride and Prejudice movie poster for the Metro Goldwyn Mayer 1940 film starring Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy.
The second part is titled “Jane Austen, Dramatized.” This was my favorite section, as Looser charts the journey from the little-known stage duologues to the 1940 Pride and Prejudice film. Here, readers learn about the changes made to Darcy’s character, a focus shift from Elizabeth to Darcy as the lead, and the empowerment of women created by the stages duologues. Readers also learn about Aldous Huxley’s surprising connection to MGM’s Pride and Prejudice (and his father’s spirited defense of the original) and the never-filmed 1970s Peter O’Toole version.
Image from chapter 11 of a Jane Austen / English literature poster, School of Hard Sell series, National Lampoon Magazine, October 1971.
The final two sections – “Jane Austen, Politicized” & “Jane Austen, Schooled” – contain a wealth of information about textbooks and political meetings. Looser takes on the (at the time) heated discussion of the rise in male fans of Austen and her work. The fact that Jane Austen’s quotes were also used to argue passionately for and against certain legislation is proof against the unfair accusation of “passionless” that Charlotte Bronte brought against her.
There are two more sections I can’t skip mentioning: the Introduction and Suggested Further Reading pages. Looser’s Introduction tells the fascinating story of how Jane Austen’s name changed from “By a Lady” to “Miss Austen” to “Aunt Jane”…before eventually moving to the straightforward but informal “Jane” we know her as today. The Suggested Further Reading section is worth the maxed out library card it will inevitably cause. The author lists and – even better – explains sources that can help readers further explore this topic. Definitely not to miss.
The Making of Jane Austen is a fact-filled treasure-trove of a book. I highly recommend it to fellow Janeites who, like me, wonder about what people really thought of Jane Austen…as well as how the present fandom came to be. My only negative comment is its occasional dryness. There were times when the author introduced people who seemed to have unconventional, story-filled lives…and then veered off to discuss the minutiae of artwork details or MGM funding. I would place the writing of this book more in the category of a dissertation than I would general nonfiction. However, dry doesn’t mean humorless – Looser’s humor and passion for her topic clearly shine through in each chapter, and this passion carries the reader from the first page to last.
I cannot end my review without sharing my favorite quote from The Making of Jane Austen – which is incidentally a riff off of two brilliant quotes by the Author herself. Since it’s also the final line of this book, it seems doubly appropriate.
But rather than end this book with any truth universally acknowledged, I’ll riff with this: I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend haughty, highbrow exclusivity or celebrate uncritical adulation. (223)
4.5 out 5 Stars
The Making of Jane Austen, by Devoney Looser
Johns Hopkins University Press (2017)
Hardcover, trade paperback and eBook (308) pages
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Cover image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press © 2017; text Katie Patchell © 2019, Austenprose.com