The Buried Afterlives of Jane Austen

Kristina Booker
University of Oklahoma

There is so much hand wringing over the status of Jane Austen in the twenty-first century that we tend to overlook the ways in which she has been an embattled figure throughout her entire afterlife.1 In The Making Of Jane Austen (Johns Hopkins, 2017), Devoney Looser offers an important corrective to our collective sense of Jane Austen as primarily our Jane Austen, an Austen who roared into being when Colin Firth jumped into Pemberley pond and launched a thousand scholarly anxieties about unserious adoration and oversaturation. On the contrary, Looser contends, we cannot understand “our” Jane Austen without understanding the twists and turns of her public image in the years between her immediate descendants and the Austen boom that (we imagine) began in the 1990s. Readers have been fighting over Jane Austen since the mid-nineteenth century, and high-brow literary types have been lamenting her ubiquity at least since Henry James decried her reproduction “in every variety of what is called tasteful.”2 In other words, Austen has always been everywhere, and she has always been contested.

To uncover the buried years and forgotten texts of Austen’s fascinating pre-1990 afterlife, Looser leads the reader through four cultural zones that employed Austen for various purposes: book illustration, dramatization, political discourse, and education. In Part I: Jane Austen, Illustrated, Looser explores the ways that book illustrations before the 1940s shaped readers’ sense of what Austen’s novels were about. Austen’s first English illustrator, Ferdinand Pickering, for example, presented Austen’s novels as Victorian melodramas (chapter 1). In contrast, after a wildly variant middle period characterized by uncertainty about how to illustrate Austen (chapter 2), the “Golden Age for Illustrated Austen” between the 1890s and World War I shifted the author’s image towards comedy and satire (chapter 3). If twenty-first century Austen fans recognize any Austen illustration, it is Hugh Thomson’s so-called “peacock edition” of Pride and Prejudice, which appeared in 1894. (In one of her delightful asides that seem to speak directly to Austen scholars who are also Austen fans, Looser quips that Thomson “might be called the Colin Firth of Austen-inspired book illustration” [52].)

Concluding this section on book illustration with the emergence of Austen film and television adaptations may seem out of left field, but that is actually the point. Looser connects the two as shapers of Austen’s public image; before there were three-dimensional Austen characters for us to quarrel over, there were two-dimensional Austen illustrations that interpreted her work for viewers. One particular illustration, Alfred Skrenda’s cover image for a 1931 Pride and Prejudice, serves as a clear marker of the transition from the latter to the former. Skrenda’s cover appeared in the trailer for the 1940 Pride and Prejudice film, and Looser explores how the later film tie-in cover of the novel featuring the film’s stars, Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, seems to echo the Skrenda illustration. Looser draws a prescient conclusion from these materials: Austen has a history of moving seamlessly from old media to new media, which should assuage our fears that she will be destroyed by video games or graphic novels (73).

In Part II: Jane Austen, Dramatized, Looser traces the ways that stage and screen politicized Austen, particularly in the realm of gender. The first dramatizations date to the 1890s and align Austen with the era’s progressive New Woman. Early schoolroom and amateur theatricals, particularly Rosina Fillipi’s Duologues and Scenes from the Novels of Jane Austen (1895), presented scenes of female domestic protest, eschewing romance plots for failed proposals and confident self-determination (chapter 4). In contrast, professional stage adaptations of Pride and Prejudice (chapter 5) shifted attention from the growth of the heroine to the “sexy, misunderstood hero” (99). Early stage Darcy was not a great role, but that all changed with Helen Jerome’s 1935 Broadway production, which rendered Darcy heroic and desirable. Jerome’s brooding and utterly deserving Darcy became so central to our cultural understanding of Austen as driven by heterosexual desire that it eclipsed a fascinating rival vision of queer Austen (chapter 6). A 1932 biographical dramatization, Dear Jane, featured a lesbian couple, Josephine Hutchinson and director Eva Le Gallienne in the roles of Jane and Cassandra Austen, but this provocative, gynocentric version of Austen was no match for the “hot Darcy” industrial complex. The final chapter of Part II moves deftly through the fits and starts that ultimately led to the 1940 Pride and Prejudice film starring Garson and Olivier. The details are too delicious to spoil here, but Looser demonstrates compellingly that the studio followed Jerome’s lead in presenting Austen as the champion of traditional romance plots and “expressive, passionate” heroes (137). Looser contends that, post-Jerome, Pride and Prejudice is less about the “self-actualization” of the heroine and more about “opportunities to identify with, or just gaze longingly at, Austen’s once less-conspicuous hero” (140).

As Looser explores in Part III: Jane Austen, Politicized, between 1870 and 1920, Jane Austen was an in-demand political prop for a variety of causes and positions, though those who invoked her favor were always careful to label her as apolitical. As in the other sections of the book, questions of gender recur. While we tend to conceive of Janeites as female, Austen’s earliest fans were stereotypically male, members of elite men’s clubs (chapter 8). Reading and appreciating Austen was a marker of manly, literate sophistication and an indulgent nostalgia for a simpler time of traditional courtship and marriage. In contrast, suffragists claimed Austen for feminism (chapter 9), invoking her in demonstrations like A Pageant of Great Women, in which Woman argues before (female) Justice in opposition to (male) Prejudice by parading the great women of history. Suffragists presented Austen as a “demure rebel,” an image calculated to attract sympathizers to their cause and an example of Austen’s flexibility in political discourse. With this material, Looser supplements our history of political Austen, whose use by first-wave feminism has been largely unexplored.

Austen first emerges in educational materials and curricula as a classic author endorsed by Great Men, as Looser recounts in Part IV: Jane Austen, Schooled. The first Austen dissertation (in this case, a long essay, not the culminating work of a doctoral degree) was written by a male Harvard undergraduate and endorsed by Henry James (chapter 10). The story of this undergrad, George Pellew, and his own afterlife—he was believed to communicate from beyond the grave through a famous medium, Leonora Piper—is a bit of an outlier in Looser’s book. As interesting as the story is, it tells us less about Austen’s afterlife than the other examples. In contrast, the history of textbook Austen (chapter 11) demonstrates how the author was conservatively institutionalized in a proliferation of excerpts in readers and elocution textbooks, abridged volumes, and scholarly editions of her novels meant for classroom use. A highlight of this chapter is Looser’s discussion of an edition of Pride and Prejudice edited by Josephine Heermans that actually predates R. W. Chapman’s so-called “first scholarly edition” of Austen. Finally, as in the section on book illustration, Looser shows us how shifts into new media only enhanced Austen’s appeal and reputation. Twentieth-century educators used Austen’s popular appeal to draw students into literature, as Looser explores with tie-ins to the 1940 Pride and Prejudice film and advertisements in National Lampoon magazine. She draws this same point into her Coda on twenty-first century Austen, demonstrating that the newest forms of illustrated, dramatized, politicized, and educational Austen are neither so variant nor so dangerous as they may seem.

Indeed, The Making of Jane Austen sustains its contention that the battle for Jane Austen is as old as the novels themselves. In the second half of the book, especially, Looser draws illuminating connections between the various images of Austen that competed for dominance between 1820 and 1990, drawing our attention to overlooked texts and people. She deliberately highlights the many women and groups of women who have been left out of our Austen reception histories. The framework of reception, while illuminating, does come with its own set of issues. In the first section on book illustration, Looser is plagued by what she describes as a notorious problem in reception studies: how can we “prove” that readers received or interpreted illustrations in a particular way (20)? She laments the dearth of first-hand accounts from readers of their impressions of Austen illustrations and is careful to qualify her interpretive claims about the images (53–54). Including more illustrations in the book for the reader’s consideration may have mitigated this concern about proof; the few that are present certainly enrich the argument and the volume itself. In the second half of the book, Looser is more satisfied with the evidence of popular reception provided by printed reactions to political Austen invocation and the sales figures of Austen classroom texts. This concern with proof all but disappears from the text after the section on book illustration, but its brief appearance highlights a potential next direction for Austen studies.

The Making of Jane Austen participates in a fascinating conversation regarding Austen’s literary and popular reputation that includes work by Kathryn Sutherland, Rachel Brownstein, and Claudia Johnson.3 Austen scholars have progressed in the last two decades toward a willingness to consider Janeite culture (and fandom more generally) a legitimate object of our scholarly attention, but we continue to think of the interpretive work of fans as separate from our work as scholars.4 Looser pushes Austen scholarship forward in an important way by suggesting that the very dichotomy of critical scholarship and popular devotion deserves more scrutiny. Her work signals the ways that fan studies might enrich our understanding of Austen’s reputation by framing the “makers” of that reputation as participants in and producers of culture rather than simply receivers of it.5 As Looser demonstrates, the productions of Austen fans, whether clubmen or suffragists or dramatists, had more far-reaching effects on Austen’s image than the work of academic gatekeepers. If it is the work of fans that made Jane Austen, then perhaps we should throw open the gates.

NOTES 1 A few examples from only the past five years: In The Hudson Review (“Associations of Thought” [winter 2018]), Alexandra Mullen reflects that “even Jane Austen devotees might have reached peak saturation in 2017” at the end of six years of Austen novel bicentaries, with two more to come in 2018. Jodi Wyett raised the question of Austen overexposure in a 2014 review article in Eighteenth-Century Fiction (“Too Much is Never Enough: Austen’s Texts and Contexts,” 26, no. 3 [spring 2014]: 455–63), and readers may remember or have attended the 2013 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference panel asking “Has Jane Austen Jumped the Shark?.” Alongside scholarly despair, popular writers and publications join the trend of Austen pearl-clutching. In July 2017, Howard Jacobsen published an op-ed in the New York Times, “No, Jane Austen is Not Your Bestie,” that implored readers to “get our noses out of Jane Austen.” This year, Ted Scheinman sheepishly recounts his summer spent among crazed Janeites in his memoir, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan (New York, 2018).

2 Henry James, The Lessons of Balzac (Boston, 1905).

3 See Kathryn Sutherland, Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood (Oxford, 2005); Rachel M. Brownstein, Why Jane Austen? (New York, 2011); and Claudia Johnson, Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures (Chicago, 2012).

4 See Deborah Yaffe, Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom (Boston, 2013); Sarah Raff, Jane Austen’s Erotic Advice (Oxford and New York, 2014); and Laurence Raw and Robert G. Dryden, eds., Global Jane Austen: Pleasure, Passion and Possessiveness in the Jane Austen Community (New York, 2013).

5 Emerging from media studies, fan studies prioritizes participatory fan cultures rather than reception. This framework is especially relevant to Austen studies in its focus on the ways that fandom is often gendered female and its concern with transitions between old and new media. For an overview of fan studies, see Matt Hills, Fan Cultures (London, 2002); Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York, 2006); and A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies, ed. Paul Booth (Oxford, 2018), especially the essay by Alexandra Edwards, “Literary Fandom and Literary Fans” (47–64)