You all know who I’m talking about in the post title, right? One of the essays in Jane Austen in Context talks about the “canonization” of “Jane” — no last name needed — as a kind of saint. It’s an essay on the “Cult of Jane Austen,” and what a cult it can be. I was amused to read that for some of the most devoted Jane fans (descendants of the late 19C “Janeites”), reading the novels is merely equal in importance, or maybe even less important, than participating in other activities such as visiting places Austen lived, having Jane Austen tea parties, dressing like Austen’s characters might, viewing Austen “relics” (she IS a saint, really), and even visiting sites where movies were made of Austen’s novels. This, as you can imagine, makes some Austen scholars unhappy, enough that they often begin articles trying to rescue Austen and her work from this industry that’s grown up around her. But the essay’s author, Deirdre Shauna Lynch, writes that this attempt to “rescue” her:
appears guided by an unattractive logic of exclusivity that runs like this: since she is my Jane Austen, she cannot be yours too.
Lynch talks about how Austen gets compared to Shakespeare in terms of her popularity and her cultural influence, but Austen’s fans have a characteristic that Shakespeare’s tend not to: they like to believe that they can see something in Austen others can’t, that they belong to a small, exclusive club of people who really get her. I’ll admit that I’ve felt this way now and then — surely no one else reading her novels feels quite like I do when I read them? This has to have something to do with genre; drama, even though it can be read alone, is public in its nature, while reading a novel is very private. So when reading novels it would be easy to feel that our private, personal experience is unique.
The funny thing about this phenomenon — and the related phenomenon of fantasizing that you know her like you know a close family member — is that it began right at the time Austen became popular and has increased all along as Austen gains more and more readers. Hundreds of thousands of people believe they have a special relationship with Austen and her works that no one else shares.
The essay on the early critical responses to Austen’s novels is fascinating too; it covers the reviews that appeared during Austen’s lifetime and shortly after her death. Early reviewers did not know what to make of her. Compared to other novels of the time — gothic novels and novels full of action and adventure — her work sometimes seemed bland. In the absence of anything better to say, they tended to comment on the moral lessons one could glean from them; of the sisters in Sense and Sensibility one reviewer says:
[Readers] may learn from them, if they please, many sober and salutary maxims for the conduct of life.
Exactly how we read the book today, right? They also expressed the uncertainty about the value of novel reading that was very common at the time; one reviewer wrote that “a good Novel is now and then an agreeable relaxation from severer studies.” This uncertainty about novels is alive and well today — the condescension in that reviewer’s tone is not so different from the people we know who say they have more serious things to read than novels.
It was Walter Scott who finally began to get it; in a review of Emma, he describes how her work differs from other novels of the time. Austen is writing a new kind of novel, one that:
present[s] to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.
Jane Austen in Context is so interesting that I’m tempted to go on and on about all the fascinating things in it; rather than doing that, though, I’ll suggest that if you love Austen’s novels you will probably love this book.