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

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz – A Review

A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz (2011)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

I hate William Deresiewicz for writing this book—but only because I would have loved to have written it myself. A Jane Austen Education resonates so closely with my own approach to studying the Austen canon—living and learning from Austen’s works, as if from a collection of sacred texts (as the term “canon” suggests to a student of theology like me)—that I can only feel that there is nothing left for me to say.

Well, I really wouldn’t go that far, but I do think that Deresiewicz has accomplished something impressive with this latest addition to Austen studies. Indeed, he has done something I think many Janeites—scholars and lay folks alike—would love to do, exploring the meaning of Austen’s major works, while articulating the impact these novels have on how one understands his or her own life and society. His memoir, therefore, demonstrates perfectly why literary works of art matter, showing that these six popular novels are not mere stories of England’s Regency Period—they are communications of what one highly intelligent person thought being human was all about—sociology, theology, philosophy all rolled into the very comprehensible and down-to-earth package of stories about ordinary women and men.

By doing so, Deresiewicz challenges the perception that Austen’s works are romance novels concerned with fairy-tale marriages only. Indeed, these are not light and airy lessons; they come with an ethic that is certainly Christian and heavy in a particular morality. Although Deresiewicz does not emphasize this religious angle, he does lay out Austen’s religious conclusions rather bluntly. In the chapter on Emma, he says Austen condemns a society of elites whose boredom, rooted in a sense of superiority, only camouflages their inattentiveness to others and lack of charity (12-13). In Mansfield Park, he says Austen shows that “the only people who can really feel are those who have a sense of what it means to do without” (156), and in Persuasion, he says Austen argues that true friendship is about self-sacrifice and putting one’s friend’s needs before your own (194). As for romantic love, Sense and Sensibility advocates finding partners that challenge one to grow and improve, rather than people who are just like oneself. Indeed, “True love, for Austen, means a never-ending clash of opinions and perspectives” (237). And the key to success, as Northanger Abbey reveals, is a continual openness to learning, change, and growth (116), not to mention the ability to distinguish true goodness from specious appearances, as the other five novels also stress. Clearly, then, Austen was not an exponent of “I’m okay, you’re okay,” rather she was critical of popular society and the ignorant, idle, or selfish people who fashion and lead it.  She demanded much of her heroines and heroes precisely because she wanted them to experience a greater level of happiness—one rooted in the disciplined life of a Christian. (Again, the Christian emphasis is my own.)

Deresiewicz’s epiphany moments and subsequent insights help us to see these familiar stories and their characters in a fresh new light. Before reading A Jane Austen Education, I used to dismiss Mr. Woodhouse with his hypochondria and Miss Bates with her prattle as caricatures to be laughed at; but Deresiewicz saw something more at work in them. Mr. Woodhouse may have been obsessed of illness, but this did not devolve into self-absorption, rather he had a remarkable propensity for caring about the welfare of others. And Miss Bates, he reminds us, was a woman who had suffered many disappointments and trials in her life. At times, she may have seemed lost in a sea of trifles, but she was actually just being attentive to those around her and the joys of the present moment. Both Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse are happy people, despite their hardships, and so have something to teach Emma and us (29-31). Likewise, in Northanger Abbey, I missed the importance of Catherine’s learning to love a hyacinth, but Deresiewicz saw in that little detail Austen’s moral that it is possible to learn to love (107). This contradicts the idea that love just happens to us, that we are passive “victims” of it, and it says that we can actively seek it and learn to have it for new things we might never have expected to love. Thus, rather than a romantic fatalism we find a philosophical theory of hope rooted in the idea that humans can learn—not bad for a novel branded a Gothic parody.

But what about Deresiewicz’s work as memoir? While the anecdotes he shares about his life are entertaining and well told, they are unremarkable. I do not recall a single one of them with much clarity, except the impressions I have of his unhappy relationship with his father, his friendship with a fatherly professor, his struggles as a graduate student and neophyte teacher, and his journey away from a superficial circle of acquaintances to one of true friends. Of course, I was only interested in the details of Deresiewicz’s life secondarily, as a way of understanding Austen’s novels better. I think this was the author’s intention, and I would say he was successful in his goal of teaching us about Austen and her message by simply telling us how her novels have helped him understand his own life better (or how his life helped him to understand Austen’s novels better).  It is fitting that Deresiewicz was able to glean so much meaning from such ordinary events in his life, since he says Austen herself offers her readers “just the everyday, without amplification. Just the novel, without excuses. Just the personal, just the private, just the little, without apologies” (36).  Deresiewicz attempts to tell his story in the same way, and I applaud his efforts, giving A Jane Austen Education four stars and highly recommending it to others.

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. In the fall of 2011, he will begin classes in the master’s of writing and publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, by William Deresiewicz
Penguin Group (2011)
Hardcover (272) pages
ISBN: 978-1594202889

© 2007 – 2011 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Erin Blakemore – A Review

Behind every unforgettable heroine stands her remarkable creator. Debut author Erin Blakemore explores this theme in The Heroine’s Bookshelf, twelve essays devoted to her favorite literary heroines and the unique correlation between their writer’s life and the character she created. From Jane Austen’s spirited impertinence of Elizabeth Bennet, to the effervescent optimism of Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, to the dogged determination of Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlet O’Hara, anyone who has ever sought solace in the pages of a classic novel or inspiration for new perspective during troubling times will be enthralled by every essay in this book.

Literature is comfort food for me and there is something inherently reassuring about reconnecting again with the books that we read for the first time during our childhood and early adult years. Blakemore and I share this affinity which she elaborates upon in her introduction.

“Call me a coward if you will, but when the lines between duty and sanity blur, you can usually find me curled up with a battered book, reading as if my mental health depended on it. And it does, for inside the books I love I find food, respite, escape, and perspective. I find something else too: heroines and authors, hundreds of them, women whose real and fictitious lives have covered the terrain I too must tread.”

The twelve heroines and their authors she chose to evaluate and share with us are several of my favorite too. Some fight physical hardships, poverty and hatred, snobbery and prejudice and emotional insecurities, and others the foibles and follies of human nature. Each is memorable to me because they faced struggles and challenges, confronted them boldly and creatively, and emerged victorious; a stronger and better person for their endeavor. Just their names alone: Scout Finch, Jane Eyre, Francine Nolan, Mary Lennox, Jo Marsh and Laura Ingalls evoke nostalgia, sending me in an instant to a faraway happy place of comfort, adventure and romance. In addition to revisiting my favorite heroines, my pleasure was heightened by knowledge of their author’s lives that I had not previously known, giving me a deeper understanding and respect for each of the heroines and their creators.

Besides blogging about Jane Austen, I am a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. Occasionally, when a book just bowls me over like The Heroine’s Bookshelf, I select it as my staff rec and talk it up amongst my fellow booksellers. A group of us were seated in the break room yesterday afternoon; ladies who are passionate about reading and love classic literature. As I lifted up the cover and firmly told everyone that this book is a must read,  I proceeded to list all of the twelve heroine’s discussed. The ooo’s, ahh’s and immediate enthusiastic chatter that erupted sent shivers up the back of my neck. Just the mention of each heroine’s name sparked such vivid and happy memories. Everyone had their favorite heroine and a personal story to go with it. It was like a drug, a literary endorphin rush! I asked who wanted to read my copy next and a unanimous reply of “me” resounded like the joyous hallelujah chorus in Handle’s Messiah!  Sweet music for a passionate reader, joyous bookseller, and dedicated book blogger.

The Heroine’s Bookshelf is a frothy literary latte; rich and sweet and deeply satisfying. Beautifully designed, it will make the perfect gift for the literature lover in your family or circle of friends. I wholeheartedly praise it to the skies and recommend it to all who wish to become the heroine of their own life.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lesson’s from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Erin Blakemore
HarperCollins (2010)
Hardcover (200) pages
ISBN: 978-0061958762

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson – A Review

When the new Austen literary tome A Truth Universally Acknowledged edited by Susannah Carson started off with a foreword by Harold Bloom the famous American writer, literary critic and current Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, I was more than a bit anxious fearing the book would be over my head. Firstly, I am neither a scholar nor a brilliant intellectual and have trouble understanding all the pedantic puffery about Jane Austen that passes as literary criticism these days. Moreover, do I really need 33 great writers making me feel inadequate? Secondly, if these great minds explain to me why I read Jane Austen, the last veil will have fallen and the party will be over. After years of awe and admiration, do I really want to see the wizard behind the curtain? 

My apprehension was softened after reading Bloom’s foreword. I smiled deeply when he expressed why we read Jane Austen. This was a promising beginning. “[S]he seems to know us better than we know ourselves, and she seems to know us so intimately for the simple reason that she helped determine who we are as both readers and as human beings.” He makes her sound like she sits on the right hand of God! He is definitely on to something. The balance of essays are from a wide range of Austen admirers: contemporary and classic authors, movie directors, literary critics and scholars. Some of the essays are newly commissioned from contemporary writers such as Anna Quindlen, Jay McInerney, A.S. Byatt and Amy Heckerling. Others are from deceased literary giants such as C. S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and W. Somerset Maugham and previously published in the last century. The editor Susannah Carson has also contributed her own slant on Austen’s current appeal from her essay Reading Northanger Abbey. Here is a memorable passage. 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that Austen’s novels are about marriage: they all end with at least one successful match, and sometimes as many as three. Dating guidebooks have been compiled from advice culled from her novels, suggesting that much of Austen’s current appeal lies in her treatment of romance plot. If we read Austen, will we improve our chances of finding the right mate? Perhaps, but such instruction is incidental: Austen does not set out to describe ideal relationships. Her interest is in flawed characters who achieve a greater level of self understanding throughout the course of each novel and who are rewarded at the end with the relationship which, although never entirely perfect, are perfect for them.”   

Carson hit the nail on the head for me. Austen’s characters and plots are indeed perfect imperfections. That is why I am so drawn to them. There are also many other tidbits of wisdom and insight throughout the book, along with some pure folly and nonsense. Some still think Fanny Price is a prig. (C.S. Lewis defends her bless his heart). One felt that the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet’s appeal is diminished by accepting Mr. Darcy who is a dud and not her intellectual equal. Another had mixed feelings about Austen’s masterpiece Emma. And those in the Henry Tilney camp will need a strong dose of aromatic vinegar after reading that he and Catherine Morland are ill suited for marriage; his acerbic wit quickly growing tired of her vapid naivety. The upside of a book containing essays is that you’re not stuck for very long with an author you’re not enjoying or learning from. The downside is when the majority fall into that category. Happily, opinions on Austen vary as greatly in this book as her enduring appeal to readers. There is something here for every level of adulation, Janeite or scholar; even some “Till this moment I never knew myself” epiphanies. 

Like Austen’s characters, this book does have its endearing flaws. To understand the context of the essays, you must have read Austen or seen a movie or two. Hopefully the former. Unfortunately, the essays are not dated, so the reader is left to peruse the biographies of the writers in the back of the book to understand the timeframe of when the essay might have been written. It also suffers from some wobbly bits of unevenness in cohesion as a whole. 33 great writers enthusiastically enlighten us on why we read Jane Austen, wander a bit, individually entertain, but do not always directly address the primary theme. Honestly, in their defense, I do not think the question of why we read Jane Austen is answerable to everyone’s satisfaction. It is far too personal, and therein lays Austen’s brilliance and success. In actuality, what should be asked is why we continue to read Jane Austen? There is big a difference. Many read Austen for the first time in school because they were required to. Those who return to re-read her offer the greatest compliment that an author can receive and a testament to her enduring appeal. After nearly two hundred years of complements queuing up in support of her works it is no wonder that she is the literary and pop media phenomenon that many of the essays expound upon. 

Regardless of my quibbles with the semantics, if you are enthralled by Austen’s alluring prose and are intrigued to learn what great writers have said about her over the last century, this volume is the most accessible and enjoyable ensemble of Austen essays I have read. Kudos to editor Carson (who by-the-way is herself a doctoral candidate and literary scholar) for having the foresight and ingenuity to pull together a collection of writers who do not all look down at Janeites from an ivory tower and are not afraid to show a personal side of their adulation. This everyman Austen reader is most grateful, and happy that in conclusion, Austen is as enigmatic as ever. 

4 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson
Random House (2009)
Hardcover (288) pages
ISBN: 9781400068050

Further Reviews

Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury, by Rebecca Dickson – A Review

An Illustrated Treasury, by Rebecca DicksonHas Jane Austen risen to a major pop-culture presence? Author Rebecca Dickson confidently thinks so, and her thoughtfully researched and beautifully illustrated new edition Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury is quite a persuasive testament. Any doubting Thomas’ will be hard pressed to argue against the evidence skillfully presented in this volume. Not only are the carefully chosen Regency era images complementary to her expertly written text, the overall friendly and visually appealing design and its incredible value place it as my number one choice of Jane Austen inspired books of 2008. 

Surprisingly, this volume is not just a fluffy image gallery packed with pretty pictures. Rebecca Dickson is an Austen scholar and instructor of writing and literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder with a doctorate in English Literature with a specialty in eighteenth-century writers. A professed Austen enthusiast since reading Pride and Prejudice in High School, Dickson has written an inspiring tribute to her favorite author geared to the everyman reader. Her style is open and engaging and I never once felt the scholarly mantle descend to befuddle the text. The opening introductAn Illustrated Treasuryion and short biography are followed by six chapters devoted to each of Jane Austen’s major novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Within each novel chapter, Dickson not only discusses the novel’s plot, characters, highlights and impact on classic literature, but places it in context to Jane Austen’s life and her times. In the chapter on Pride and Prejudice for instance, she has included its publishing evolution from first draft in 1797 as First Impressions, to Austen’s father’s failed attempt at publication, to its final acceptance and publication sixteen years later in 1813, interweaving the changes in Austen’s life and her financial situation adding impact and interest. Interspersed throughout the chapter are quotes from the text acting like ‘fact bites’ emphasizing important points. The images selected stunningly present illustrations from Austen’s novels by the late Victorian artists Hugh Thomson, C.E. and H.M. Brock, vintage paintings and contemporary movie stills. The surprise bonus is removable reproductions of actual documents ranging from copies of handwritten letters by Jane Austen to a page of the rough draft of Persuasion

An Illustrated Treasury (2008)

My one disappointment (and it is a trifle) is in the cover design which is adequately pretty, but has nothing to do with Jane Austen, nor adds any Regency era feel or interest to entice buyers to open, explore and purchase this book. Given the length of thoughtful research and numerous images included in this glorious edition, one hopes that buyers will truly not judge its value by its cover. Highly giftable as an introduction to Jane Austen or as a tribute to the indoctrinated Janeite, reading this lovely volume will leave few in doubt of Jane Austen’s position as pop-culture icon and literary genius. 

5 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Jane Austen: An Illustrated Treasury, by Rebecca Dickson
Oversized illustrated hardcover (157) pages
Metro Books, New York (2008)
ISBN: 9781435104686

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Two Guys Read Jane Austen, by Steve Chandler and Terrence N. Hill – A Review

Two Guys Read Jane Austen (2008)“Jane’s got more adoring female fans than Brad Pitt, and my guess is they’re more intelligent too!” Terrence Hill 

Given the choice of reading Pride and Prejudice or watching a football game, which do you think the average all American male would choose?  If this is a no brainer, you have recognized the male/female divide of how men and women think and feel differently, and the reason why the “Two Guys”, Steve and Terry were lured by their wives into writing their new book Two Guys Read Jane Austen in the first place. 

Lifelong friends for over fifty years, these “Two Guys” are a perfect pair to chat about a subject where most men fear to tread. Both professional writers with impressive resumes, Steve Chandler is a best selling author, business coach and corporate trainer, and Terrence Hill, award winning adman, poet, short story and stage play writer,  adding clout and experience to their observations. This is their third book in the critically-acclaimed “Two Guys” series and may be their biggest challenge yet – Jane Austen, who the guys admit is a hot property and hope might garner big royalties ala best selling author John Grisham! They are of course only kidding between themselves, typical of this epistolary missive that is formatted like an e-mail in box with actual correspondence between the two authors as the read Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park together. What evolves is not only an insightful and funny male perspective of two typically female favorite classic books, but their views on Jane Austen’s impact on modern culture, and pretty much all around story swapping guy style. 

What I found most enjoyable about this book was their open attitude to read and understand Austen without prejudice. They give honest opinions of her strengths and weaknesses in her plot, characters and style, but do not bash or berate her because her themes of marriage, romance and view of her society appeal mostly to women. Instead, she has become androgynous, and enjoyed for her brilliant style, biting wit and memorable characters. Add to that the “Two Guys” special anecdotes and personal stories from their lives and modern media, and you have a hilarious and ‘Austentatious’ combination. A quick fun read, this book would be an excellent gift for any Austen fan, or Austen fan who wants to prove to their significant other that their admiration of all things Austen is not just a girl thing! 

4 out of 5 Regency stars 

Two Guys Read Jane Austen
By Steve Chandler and Terrence N. Hill
Trade paperback (126) pages
Robert D. Reed Publishers, Brandon, OR
ISBN: 978-1934759172 

Read my other in-depth review, Two Jane Austen Fans Review Two Guys Read Jane Austen, Part One & Part Two with my co-blogger Vic (Ms. Place) at Jane Austen Today.

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