Jane Austen’s Cults and Culture, Claudia L Johnson, The University of Chicago Press, Pp 224, $ 35.00
JANE Austen, like William Shakespeare, is a pre-eminent instance in the English literary tradition of beloved but fundamentally absent authors, about whom quite little is actually known. What is more, the non-existence of manuscripts in their own hands makes them seem distinctively more remote. However, her talent is now on display everywhere – her novels are still prominently displayed on bookshelves at the local bookstores and new film adaptations and TV serials are seen very often in Western countries.
This book under review is, to quote the author, about “Jane Austen’s afterlives” and how this quiet author became the modern-day celebrity. It begins by exploring the most important monuments to portraits of Jane Austen, in some ways as crucial as the novels in forming her legends. By their very nature, these artifacts stage the peculiar problem of an author who is apparently invisible and disembodied and yet whose image is inseparable from those of her character in the seemingly social/fictional world she creates.
Written by the Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University, this book traces how the very concept of Jane Austen has changed over time and shown itself open to contradictory ideas and feelings about a lot of things, including history, taste and manners and language.
The book opens with a scene in which Jane Austen is pondering the precise placement of an errant comma in her book, Mansfield Park. This is as much an illustration of the cultural circumstances surrounding the books and their author as is an examination of the novels themselves. In this first chapter, titled ‘Jane Austen’s Body’ and which is presumably the most memorable of all the other chapters, the author examines how representations of Jane Austen’s body have developed alongside the public perception of her art and how her family may have played a role in all of this. She talks of the different visual and textual representations that have come down to us – all of which are lacking in some crucial way.
In the second chapter, the author explores the reception of Austen during the Victorian period, how she was used to relieving anxieties about modernity by a placement within a context of fairies and enchantment.
The third and fourth chapters place Austen against the backdrop of the First and Second World Wars and explore the vastly different reasons for what she meant to the Victorians and why she was read by both soldiers and the larger public.
In the last chapter, the author explores the almost obsessive relationship Janeites have with objects that have had both a direct and indirect relation to Austen with a specific look at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton. This chapter helps to invoke Austen’s characters like Fanny Price and Anne Eliot to give shape to the reader’s relationship with the author, successfully demonstrating that the best way to invoke Austen is, not through objects that may or may not have held significance to her, but through the result of actions that we know she highly valued, that is, her writings.
While we tend to think of Jane Austen as a timeless great – a kind of literary constant which provides a direct glimpse into a past – Cults & Cultures shows how far from the truth this is. Austen’s meaning and significance has really never been fixed.
The book is richly informative and clearly outlines the ways in which Austen has been constructed and her writings interpreted by readers from the Victorian period till today and how it is both scholarly and accessible and playful with such delightfully accurate lines as “the Austen they adore has more to do with their world of wonder than with the world of reason” and “to be a Janeite is really a form of possession with a profound contentment in being thus possessed”. What is absolutely fascinating are the insights into Austen’s reception that make us re-assess our own positions. Take for example, the author’s reminder that while ‘Janeism’ these days is usually seen as a kind of a very feminine obsession, mostly afflicting either Bridge Jones types desperate for their own Mr Darcy, or old-maidish types who like dressing up in period costumes and probably surround themselves with cats to boot, a love for Austen was once a badge of honour for a very masculine set of late 19th-century writers.
The appendix to the book contains three folk-tales known to be told by Edward Austen Knight and possibly heard by Jane Austen herself as a child and a collection of Austen-related images throughout the book.
(The University of Chicago Press, Chicago-60637)