Jane Austen inspires vicious feuds among her hordes of admirersby Richard Beck / September 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
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…