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

Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion, by Janet Mullany – A Review

Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion, by Janet Mullany (2011)From the desk of Aia A. Hussein: 

For those who have the seemingly unrelated interest in the Georgian world of Jane Austen and the macabre one of immortal vampires, Janet Mullany’s new novel Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion is a perfect combination of the two.  In fact, as was recounted in Mullany’s previous novel Jane and the Damned, beloved and proper Jane Austen is a vampire.  Or, at least, she has been bitten and is trying her hardest to fight against the metamorphosis as would any proper eighteenth-century female.  In this new Austen-vampire mashup, Jane continues to struggle against what seems an inevitable metamorphosis into one of the Damned while reconciling her feelings for a seemingly indifferent Creator, a former consort, a new love interest, a vulnerable niece, a dear friend who has an odd penchant for being leeched by vampires, and an oblivious family.  You are, indeed, correct in assuming that poor Jane has a lot on her plate.

It is 1810 and the Austen family has new, undead neighbors.  Having just been banished from polite society, the Damned are seeking less conspicuous roles in provincial society where they hope to blend in unnoticed or, at least, without too much notice.  Jane is in the middle of working on what will be her literary masterpiece when she is interrupted by the return of a number of old, undead friends – a formerly indifferent Creator who is seeking to make amends and a seemingly ambivalent former consort – both of whom have found themselves entrenched in a looming civil war between factions of the Damned right in the heart of Jane’s small provincial town.  More upsetting for Jane is the return of her vampire characteristics and feelings for her former consort, Luke.  Even more upsetting, and completely unexpected, is a sudden passionate interest in a steward named Raphael, who is similarly in-between vampire metamorphosis, and which only complicates Jane’s feelings towards Luke.

Her internal love struggle aside, Jane gets caught up in trying to prevent civil war amongst the Damned especially since the safety of her town and family is in peril despite the high risk of metamorphosis that being near the Damned poses.  She is torn between wanting to save her town and family (especially a vulnerable niece who has caught the eye of a ruthless vampire) or her soul.  Her propriety or her passion.  Luke or Raphael.  And, perhaps most importantly, her writing or transforming into a vampire to save her family from danger since, as was demonstrated in Jane and the Damned, her vampire-self could not write.  Not to mention Jane’s dear friend who continues to have intimate contact with vampires despite Jane’s numerous warnings and who annoyingly persists in borrowing Jane’s precious silk stockings for these liaisons! Continue reading “Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion, by Janet Mullany – A Review”

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos – A Review

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornesbos (2011)From the desk of Aia A. Hussein:       

The young bachelor enters a room filled with young ladies, all of whom are eyeing the invitations he holds in his hands, fully conscious that there are not enough invitations for all them.  They straighten their postures and smooth their gowns as their chaperones hold their breaths.  They all listen as the butler recounts the ladies’ accomplishment points from the recent foxhunt expedition and tea party, shares viewer ratings, and explains that a number of them will be eliminated from the competition and sent home.  The bachelor steps forwards and begins to read aloud the names of the young ladies that he has decided will stay.

You’re right in thinking that the above description is of a reality television dating game show but it’s a far cry from anything like ABC’s The Bachelor for the sole reason that it’s not set in the twenty-first Continue reading “Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, by Karen Doornebos – A Review”

The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors, by Nava Atlas – A Review

Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Judging by the number of writing guides available in bookstores today, as compared to the number of guides available twenty or thirty years ago, it would seem that there has been an increase in demand for books about writing.  Admittedly, many of these guides are similar in scope and advice although their continued consumption would suggest that they are serving their purpose to some aspiring writers out there.  Imagine, though, a writing guide written by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë, a detailed account of where they wrote and how often, how they dealt with rejection, and how they juggled their domestic responsibilities with their need to write.  Alas, no such book exists but something close has just been written which will be of interest to aspiring writers as well as readers interested in learning more about their favorite authors.

Nava Atlas, well-known author and illustrator of cookbooks including the highly regarded Vegetariana, presents an intimate glimpse into the writing process of twelve beloved women writers in The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors. Drawing from journals, letters, memoirs, and interviews, Atlas organizes the thoughts and advice of twelve successful women authors into eight chapters that specifically address relevant aspects of the writing process such as developing a voice, finding the time to write, and dealing with rejection.  More importantly, she includes chapters of particular significance to some aspiring women writers, such as “The Writer Mother,” which draws from the experiences of women authors who juggled the responsibilities of motherhood and writing.

In Atlas’ words, her book is not merely a “how-to of writing” but, rather, “something that might prove even more valuable – a treasury of intimate glimpses into the unfolding creative process across twelve brilliant careers” which includes that of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.

Such intimate treasures include Charlotte Brontë’s 1846 query letter to a prospective publisher, excerpts from Louisa May Alcott’s journal where she admits that she, herself, didn’t enjoy stories like Little Women, and a spotlight on Jane Austen’s inner critic which led her to write in a 1815 letter to James Stanier “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.”  In addition to well-placed quotes and excerpts from the writings of these twelve classic authors, Atlas, departing from many how-to writing guides, draws from original images and photos to further captivate the interest of the reader.  Such images include one of Steventon, the birthplace of Jane Austen, and a number of author photos, including one of L. M. Montgomery in a wonderful, feathery hat.  Atlas also provides her own commentary which helps gives a sense of overall structure to the book.

There is something to turning to beloved authors for advice about the writing and creative process.  Not content to merely glamorize or romanticize the writing process, which happens all too often in author biographies, Atlas makes a point to highlight the frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies any writing attempt, even attempts by classic authors.  Madeleine L’Engle’s assertion that a rejection letter was “like the rejection of me, myself” will resonate with many writers out there.  Admittedly, Atlas’ ambitious attempt to organize the thoughts and advice of twelve writers undoubtedly means that readers will find themselves sifting through the book to get to the parts about their favorite writers but that’s to be expected.

A small complaint, which Atlas wisely anticipates, is the conspicuous lack of writers who are not either European or of European origins.  Citing that the increased odds against any female of color in the nineteenth century as compared to their white counterparts is what ultimately led to her decision, Atlas fails to realize that these increased odds could have been a point of interest in their own right for contemporary writers and readers.  It is important to note that she does occasionally offer the insights of Zora Neale Hurston or Maya Angelou but they are embedded within blocks of text and easy to miss.

Nevertheless, Atlas’ The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life is an absorbing book that will make even those who have never dreamt of pursuing a writing life want to pick up paper and pen (or, more accurately, turn on the computer) and begin a work of their own.

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.

4 out of 5 Stars

The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas
Sellers Publishing, Inc. (2011)
Hardcover (176) pages
ISBN: 978-1416206323

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

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