Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson – A Review

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson (2012)Review by Aia Hussein-Yousef

In chapter five of Claudia L. Johnson’s new book Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, she notes that in the first Jane Austen Society Report for the years 1943 – 46, a memory belonging to an elderly village woman named Mrs. Luff was recorded in which she remembers watching Jane Austen walking across a field to a visit a family. “We called her the poor young lady,” recalled Mrs. Luff as indicated in the report, “and now she’s gone” (177). Stop for a moment and reflect on that. The elderly woman remembered Jane Austen not as “the venerable author” or “the national treasure” but, for whatever distressing reason, the “poor young lady.”

How interesting is it to think that at one point in time Jane Austen was nothing more than a woman named Jane who lived in an English village and visited families and did all the other things that women did in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries? That the sight of her did not immediately inspire admiration for her written accomplishments but, rather, recalled contemporaneous events or gossip attached to her? I certainly have to take a moment to remember that especially given that evidence of her talent is now on display everywhere – her novels are still prominently displayed on bookshelves at the local bookstore (no relegation to the dusty, shadowy corner for this author), new film adaptations and mini-series are advertised almost every year, her image and images inspired by her works can be found on mugs, tote bags, note cards, posters, you name it, it’s on it. The constant and formidable engine that drives the power of Divine Jane can be seen almost everywhere so much so that it can be hard to remember that she was once just Jane, a quiet author who probably would have parodied her commercialization if she were alive today to see it.

The question of how the quiet author became the modern-day celebrity or, in other words, Jane Austen’s “afterlives,” is tackled in Johnson’s new book, released this month by The University of Chicago Press. The Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University, and the author or editor of several works on Jane Austen, Johnson historicizes Austen’s canonization by tracing how the very concept of Austen has changed over time and how it has shown itself to be amenable to sometimes contradictory ideas and feelings about a variety of things including history, taste and manners, and language.

In the first chapter, Jane Austen’s Body, Johnson examines how representations of Austen’s body have developed alongside the public’s perception of her art and, interestingly, how her family may have played a role in all of this. In the second chapter, Jane Austen’s Magic, Johnson explores the reception of Austen during the Victorian period, how she was used to relieve anxieties about modernity by a placement within a context of fairies and enchantment (strange, because we rarely think of Austen in this context, but fascinating). The third and fourth chapters, Jane Austen’s World War I and Jane Austen’s World War II, place Austen against the backdrop of these wars and explore the vastly different reasons why she was read by both soldiers and the larger public. In the last chapter, Jane Austen’s House, Johnson explores the almost obsessive relationship Janeites have with objects that have had both a direct and indirect relation to Austen with a specific look at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton. This last chapter is extremely gratifying in the way that it invokes Austen characters Fanny Price and Anne Eliot to give shape to the reader’s relationship with the author, successfully demonstrating that the best way to invoke Austen is, not through objects that may or may not have held significance to her, but through the result of actions that we know she highly valued: her writings.

It was a real pleasure to read this book. It is richly informative and clearly outlines the ways in which Austen has been constructed and her writings interpreted by readers from the Victorian period through now in a way that is both scholarly and accessible and, sometimes even, playful with such delightfully accurate lines as “the Austen they adore has more to do with the world of wonder than with the world of reason” (5) and “to be a Janeite is really a form of possession, with a profound contentment in being thus possessed” (7). Johnson also includes in the appendix to the book three folk tales known to be told by Edward Austen Knight, and possibly heard by Jane Austen herself as a child, and a collection of Austen-related images throughout the book. This book is highly recommended for those who are interested in how Austen’s legacy has changed throughout the years.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson
The University of Chicago Press (2012)
Hardcover (240) pages
ISBN: 978-0226402031

Aia Hussein-Yousef, a proud member of JASNA, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading. She will be leaving the DC area in the fall to begin a doctoral program in Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

© 2012 Aia Hussein-Yousef, Austenprose

Giveaway winners announced for Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson (2012)41 of you left comments qualifying you for a chance to win one of three copies available of Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson. The winners drawn at random are:

  • Susanna P. who left a comment on May 14, 2012
  • sammiek25 who left a comment on May 14, 2012
  • ProfessorK who left a comment on May 17, 2012

Congratulations ladies! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by May 30, 2012. Shipment to US addresses only. Enjoy!

A big thank you to Prof. Johnson for selecting and introducing the excerpt, and to her publisher, The University of Chicago Press, for offering the giveaway copies. Congrats to the winners. Enjoy!

© 2007 – 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Excerpt & Giveaway Chance for Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson (2012)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 preview of the book before publication by the author and a generous opportunity to win one of three copies being offered by her publisher.  To qualify just leave a comment. The giveaway details are listed after the excerpt. Here is Dr. Johnson’s brief introduction and the excerpt she selected for us:

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.

Author Claudia L. Johnson (2012)Author Bio:

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

Giveaway chance for Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson

Enter a chance to win one of three copies available of Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures by leaving a comment by 11:59 pm PT, Wednesday, May 23, 2012, stating why you are a member of the cult of Jane. Winners will be chosen at random and announced on Thursday, May 24, 2012. Shipment to US addresses only. Good luck!

Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson
The University of Chicago Press (2012)
Hardcover (240) pages
ISBN: 978-0226402031

Reprinted with permission from Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson, published by The University of Chicago Press.

© 2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.