Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures
by Claudia L Johnson (University of Chicago Press, £22.50)
What Matters in Jane Austen
by John Mullan (Bloomsbury, £14.99)
The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After
by Elizabeth Kantor (Regnery, £16.99)
The most entertaining episode in western literature’s 200-year-long fight over who loves Jane Austen most took place in 1940, when a psychiatrist and literary critic named DW Harding published an essay called “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen.” His argument was simple: “[Jane Austen’s] books are, as she meant them to be, read and enjoyed by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked.” Whether this is an accurate description of Austen’s own feelings towards her imagined readership (I don’t think it is), “regulated hatred” is a perfect name for the feelings Austen lovers often bear towards one another. “Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen,” said Virginia Woolf, “is aware… that there are 25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their Aunts.”
Almost a century has elapsed since then, but Austen lovers have not grown thicker skins. They accuse one another of “misreading” Austen, of failing to appreciate her subtle engagement with social history, or of twisting Austen’s own necessarily perfect novels to suit some selfish political or professional need. In August 1995, the London Review of Books ran an essay by the Stanford professor Terry Castle which may or may not have implied that Austen harboured homosexual feelings for her sister Cassandra. They were publishing angry letters about the piece until the end of November.
The year 1995 also saw the first airing of the BBC’s now-canonical television adaptation of Pride And Prejudice, setting off a renewed mania for “Janeism” that has not let up since. Now we have a new slate of books: Elizabeth Kantor’s extended dating advice column, The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After; Claudia L Johnson’s rigorous history of Austen fandom, Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures; and John Mullan’s gentle and appreciative What Matters in Jane Austen? It is a varied set of works, in subject, tone, and quality alike. What accounts for all of them?
The last quarter century has seen the novel’s cultural importance dwindle dramatically, and not just new novels. In Britain and America, the number of university students enrolled in English Literature departments has plummeted, as novels find themselves competing with new subjects like film, television, and digital media for the attentions of those students who continue to pursue humanities degrees. And yet Jane Austen remains not only well-read but culturally present and alive to an extent that other classic novelists (excepting Dickens) do not. It is worth understanding why, not so much in order to appreciate Austen more deeply but in order to see what cultural life the novel may still have in it.
Claudia L Johnson’s thoughtful and surprising history of Austen study and appreciation makes it clear just how long people have been making Jane Austen their own. In the Victorian era, Tories who felt queasy about the cultural effects of industrialisation praised Austen for documenting a time of quiet, domestic triumph, when England’s best families “vegetated quietly on a fixed income.” In 1900, the Church of England tried to memorialise this domestic and pious version of Austen by installing a stained glass window honouring her in Winchester Cathedral, where she had been buried years before. After its unveiling, the Winchester Diocesan Chronicle announced that the “object of the figures and text was to illustrate the high moral and religious teaching” of Austen’s writing. The “moral” part is plausible, but as for “religious,” apparently nobody told the editors of the Winchester Diocesan Chronicle that Mr Collins, the stupidest person in Pride and Prejudice and one of the great figures of ridicule in English fiction, is a clergyman. In any case, the Victorian era’s Austen did not last long. After 1914 the emphasis shifted, and suddenly it was Austen’s detachment and glinting irony that people admired, as Britain’s sensibility was reshaped by horrors nobody had previously imagined.
Running alongside this persistent interest in Austen as a model of English character has been an obsession with the habits, houses, opinions, clothes, and mysteries of the author herself. In 1901, Constance Hill published Jane Austen: Her Homes and her Friends, a kind of extended literary pilgrimage to the places where Austen lived and worked. It set off such a frenzy of Janeism that within a few years Henry James would be complaining about “the body of publishers, editors, [and] illustrators… who have found their ‘dear,’ our dear, everybody’s dear, Jane so infinitely to their material purpose.”
The original, early-20th century outburst of Janeism may well have faded into historical obscurity were it not for an English tutor named Robert William Chapman, who, in 1923, published Jane Austen’s novels in a scholarly edition. A major event for Austen’s works as well as for the novel in general—it was the first scholarly edition of any novelist’s works published in English—Chapman’s five-volume set made Austen academically respectable. A novelist’s public popularity may wax and wane, but universities can ensure that a writer’s long-term reputation weathers periods of disregard. It is thanks to Chapman that we can consider Austen’s works, as Henry James put it, “shelved and safe for all time.”
In recent years, mainstream academic interest in Austen has focused more closely on her literary technique than anything else. “Her brilliance is in the style,” John Mullan writes in the opening pages of What Matters in Jane Austen?, “not the content.” Many critics, James Wood most prominent among them, now ascribe Austen’s primary importance to her invention of “free indirect discourse,” whereby the voices of a novel’s characters are allowed to inflect or even take over the narration itself. Take the section in Emma where we are told that Emma is considering how she can influence Harriet Smith: “It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers.” That self-regarding voice is not the narrator’s but that of Emma. Today it can be hard to recognise particular instances of this literary technique, simply because free indirect discourse, for many people, is just what novels sound like.
Mullan’s book is divided up into 20 self-contained chapters, each of them asking a very particular question about some aspect of Austen’s fiction: “What Do The Characters Call Each Other?” “Why Is The Weather Important?” and so on. Mullan’s close reading of little, everyday events in Austen is helpful for readers unversed in 19th century social mores. In “Do Sisters Sleep Together?” Mullan spells out the standards for sibling intimacy against which Austen’s characters would have been judged at the time, so that readers can learn something about Elizabeth and Jane Bennett from the fact that they share a bedroom. And in “Why Is It Risky To Go To The Seaside?” Mullan explains that seaside towns were viewed as places of license in the 18th century—make an ill-advised trip to one, and you might come back married to a scoundrel like Mr Wickham.
Mullan is mildly insightful when it comes to Austen’s technical skill, but he has nothing to say about why Austen’s appeal should be so much more widespread and durable than any other canonical English novelist. He is more of an appreciator than a critic, which is to say that he is the latest in an illustrious line of kindly, harmless Austen appreciators.
So why do people still love Jane Austen’s novels quite so much? For something like the beginning of an answer, we’ll have to turn to a rather bad book about Jane Austen and dating advice.
Elizabeth Kantor, the author of The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, is also the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, one entry in an unpleasant little series of American books offering conservative versions of various academic topics. Her latest is a collection of perfectly obvious romantic advice weighed down by Republican talking points and bad readings of Austen’s novels. “I set out to analyse what’s missing from modern women’s lives, but all over Jane Austen,” she writes in the introduction.
“[Austen’s] men have a particular kind of respect for women that’s nearly forgotten today,” Kantor writes, as though chivalry hadn’t been society’s way of gilding the lifelong imprisonment of women in the domestic sphere. Elsewhere, walking through some examples of women who failed to strive for happiness in love, she mentions “the story of Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the wanna-be singer, real-life prostitute at the centre of the Eliot Spitzer scandal.” You feel that someone should have told Kantor that “happiness in love” wasn’t what Dupré was trying to get from the former New York Governor. To improve the chances of finding love, Kantor recommends that Dupré (and you, if you are a woman) seek out a man at church or on Match.com.
And yet The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After really does get at something that Mullan and even Johnson missed. What’s worth noticing about Kantor’s book is the way it instinctively links Jane Austen to the genre of self-help. The one thing that ties all of Austen’s major characters together, the one habit they all share, is the habit of constant and conscious social evaluation. Over the course of six major novels, Austen created a universe in which little judgements, reflections, and re-evaluations, both of oneself and of others, make up the very fabric of life. Emma is full of significant looks, innuendoes, and flirtations, but the moment where you know for sure that Emma and Mr Knightley are in love—the moment when Jane Austen proves their compatibility—is the scene where they talk through and evaluate a letter of Frank Churchill’s. (The same thing happens between Elizabeth and Darcy towards the end of Pride and Prejudice.) In other words, Austen’s major characters do exactly what self-help books ask their readers to do: pay careful attention to their own lives, and acknowledge the role their decisions will play in shaping them.
Austen doesn’t do much out-and-out moralising—certainly not as much as Dickens or Eliot. Her irony leaves a lot of room for argument about a particular character’s habits and actions. But the necessity of making the judgements, of thinking and talking them through, could not be more explicit, nor more timely. Our cultural climate is dominated, in part, by two forms of entertainment which only make sense in the context of constant social judgement. One is the self-help book, which asks readers to judge themselves. The other is reality television, where the viewing pleasure comes from judging the people on screen. Jane Austen could not be a better fit.
It is no coincidence that the most exciting English-language novel of the last 12 months is also explicitly inspired by self-help. Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? is a novel which combines fact with fiction and, like Austen, hazards occasional accusations of preciousness for the sake of directly addressing this question: what kind of a life should one decide to live? (The emphasis being on the word “decide.”) This kind of evaluative introspection remains one of the few areas in which the novel retains something of a competitive edge over rival narrative art forms. For pure entertainment value, television and film left novels in the dust some time ago. The excitement has long gone out of modernist formal innovation and experiment. But novels can still suggest habits of living in the ideal setting, which is to say in private, with words the reader only hears in his or her own head
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