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.
10 responses to “More on Jane”
It does sound like a wonderful book of essays, Dorothy! And I love the thought of Jane Austen relics. What would they be, I wonder? Did she leave teeth behind? Or a bone from a finger in her writing hand? My mind is boggling!
I agree, the book sounds great.
I love that there are so many people who worship Jane. It’s very snobbish of those scholars who want to reclaim the works- surely they should be happy that she is so widely appreciated.
I have never heard about the Jane relics. That’s too funny! Instead of curing you of disease do they make you more polite or a better reader or something? I took a class in grad school from a prof who was a rather rabid Jane fan. She’d been to tea parties and had a costume and everything. We annoyed each other because I just couldn’t bring myself to fall in line with all of her opinions. And I think she suspected that I found her rather comical. Was I ever glad when that class was done!
What on earth would Jane think of all this? I had never really thought about the Shakespeare/Jane thing. I guess a group sharing a play–everyone watching it together–makes it sort of universal, whereas when you read in solitude you imagine it is all for yourself alone. This sounds like a great book of essays!
All right, you’ve convinced me yet again: I need to read this book.
I’m so glad you’ve written about this book – it sounds wonderful. I have added it to my list.
Can you imagine going to one of those Jane tea parties? What a hoot that would be. This book sounds so interesting.
Litlove — here’s what the book says about relics: they include “quilts, needle cases, and other bits and pieces from the Austen family’s domestic lives.” And there’s also a lock of her hair!
Jess — I agree about the snobbishness (although I’ll admit I’m not going to join an Austen fan club … ) and I liked it that the essay’s author, who is a scholar, made a point to criticize that snobbishness.
Stefanie — oh, that’s really too bad about your class! A class on Austen should be nothing but fun.
Danielle — good question! I suspect Austen would be very surprised and maybe she’d blush! I think that’s exactly it about drama and novels — plays are really meant to be public events and novels are meant to be private.
Emily — I think you’d love it!
Tara — same to you 🙂
Iliana — I’d like to see one of those tea parties, but I’d be most interested in watching the other people to see what kind of fans they are — because I’m not really a fan club or a tea party type of person!
I am a Janeite, and I have gone to tea parties, and they are just that, tea parties. Nothing weird goes on. No seances or relic worship. People talk about books (all kinds of books) and their life and families. I think writers blow the costume stuff out of proportion, maybe to draw a comical picture of the women who like Jane Austen. I’ve never read anything disparaging about the men who reenact the American Civil War. They are called “history buffs”.
The ‘relics’ are simply displayed behind glass cases in a museum in Hampshire. I’ve been to Stratford, and Shakespeare’s house looked more like a reenactment than Jane Austen’s House. The homes of other writers have been preserved, so why not Jane Austen’s?
The comparison you make between Jane Austen tea parties and Civil War reenactments makes sense, lvmg, and I wouldn’t want to criticize either, although they are not my thing. I would be very curious to see the Jane Austen house and the relics, though.