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“There are some revealing passages that show how changing culture invites reinterpretation of Jane Austen and her works.”
Jane Austen completed only six novels, but enduring passion for the author and her works has driven fans to read these books repeatedly, in book clubs or solo, while also inspiring countless film adaptations, sequels, and even spoofs involving zombies and sea monsters. Austen’s lasting appeal to both popular and elite audiences has lifted her to legendary status. In Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, Claudia L. Johnson shows how Jane Austen became “Jane Austen,” a figure intensely—sometimes even ...
Jane Austen completed only six novels, but enduring passion for the author and her works has driven fans to read these books repeatedly, in book clubs or solo, while also inspiring countless film adaptations, sequels, and even spoofs involving zombies and sea monsters. Austen’s lasting appeal to both popular and elite audiences has lifted her to legendary status. In Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, Claudia L. Johnson shows how Jane Austen became “Jane Austen,” a figure intensely—sometimes even wildly—venerated, and often for markedly different reasons.
Johnson begins by exploring the most important monuments and portraits of Austen, considering how these artifacts point to an author who is invisible and yet whose image is inseparable from the characters and fictional worlds she created. She then passes through the four critical phases of Austen’s reception—the Victorian era, the First and Second World Wars, and the establishment of the Austen House and Museum in 1949—and ponders what the adoration of Austen has meant to readers over the past two centuries. For her fans, the very concept of “Jane Austen” encapsulates powerful ideas and feelings about history, class, manners, intimacy, language, and the everyday. By respecting the intelligence of past commentary about Austen, Johnson shows, we are able to revisit her work and unearth fresh insights and new critical possibilities.
An insightful look at how and why readers have cherished one of our most beloved authors, Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures will be a valuable addition to the library of any fan of the divine Jane.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the aisles of Winchester Cathedral were dug up to install pipes and cables, laborers had to remove and rebury the human remains that had long rested beneath—except, one workman remembered, for Jane Austen, whom they managed to move gently to one side. This workman, who related the story in 1999 when he was eighty-six, was, if not the last person to have touched Jane Austen, then the last to bear witness to what is (in the manner of all things Austenian perhaps) the quiet miracle of her reposing singularly undisturbed since 1817, save for what was probably modernization's tenderest nudge. This story resonates with a sense of Jane Austen's enduring presence. Many English readers consider their understanding of Austen sounder than that of, say, North Americans, or Australians, or New Zealanders because—cultural and national differences quite aside—they are closer to that presence, to the ground Austen touched, the air she took in, the landscape that met her eye. And within England itself, there is some jockeying for the pride of place closest to her. Visiting Chawton Cottage one summer, I overheard a Janeite from Bath bragging about acquisitions to the Jane Austen Study Centre there, but her enthusiasm was crushed when a Janeite from Winchester rejoined, "But we have her bones." Clearly, the cult of Jane Austen is not merely—or even primarily—a book club, but rather retains an affiliation with habits of veneration rooted in the devotion to local saints and their relics. As we shall see, Austen's things—and there are precious few of them—have the status of sacred remnants: the lock of her hair, her writing table, her autograph. They serve as instruments of presence that, in closing the gap created by her loss, give lovers of Jane Austen what they want, a closeness to her that is imagined to confer insight and authority and, more profoundly, to heal and to cheer. But Austen's bones trump all other relics. To possess them is to have the best part of her. Better than any autograph letters, trinkets, or Regency fashion displays, better by far than the novels themselves—which give rise to ceaseless disputation—they evoke her real presence because they are that presence, and they are potent on this count.
Such anecdotes about Austen's bones, even as they testify to her etherialization via a process of secular canonization—one 1902 essay about her is aptly titled "Legends of St. Jane"—at the same time remind us of something that feels impertinent to remark even as it has always been in one way or another the foundation of Austenian appreciation: her body. Literary history is downright avid for the bodies of male authors; their oddities or even deformities present no necessary obstacle to their appreciation. Ever since Boswell, loving Samuel Johnson involves vividly reimagining scenes of his at once grotesque and sublime embodiment—Johnson's forehead perspiring and his veins swelling as he ate, Johnson's face and legs twitching, Johnson "rolling his majestick frame in his usual manner" on the beach at Harwich as Boswell's boat sails away, and even, as Helen Deutsch so brilliantly shows, Johnson's autopsy. Understanding his prose style, dubbed elephantine, entails inhabiting that body for a moment and feeling how he huffs and puffs through a maze of subordinate clauses and parallel phrases before resting at an end stop that turns out to be all-too-provisional and preparing again for another effort of strenuous qualification. Johnsonians in this manner think and breathe through the body of their master, and in the process their very love keeps that body alive. In his own Lives of the Poets, Johnson leaves a space of discreet indeterminacy between the work and the life, yet his powerful evocations of Pope dressing or Pope eating clearly promote his sense of Pope as a poet of discipline and fastidiousness, much as appreciative as well as derogatory readings of Keats would emerge from and return to an apprehension of his body as robust, hale, and coarse on one hand or as delicate, sickly, and effeminate on the other. For the most striking test case, consider, for example, as Susan Wolfson has shown in her brilliant discussion of Byron's iconography, "images and imaginations of Bryon liberated (exhaustlessly, it seems) male as well as female swoons" throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. If the literary marketplace became more impersonal in the late eighteenth century, and if, furthermore, as Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant have argued, the public sphere during this period developed as a site open only to abstract, generic "men," the public itself compensated for the abstraction of print culture through a process of personalization, working on and through the bodies of beloved or despised celebrity authors.
The bodies of women authors were never easily or unproblematically assimilated into the structure of literary appreciation, however. To put oneself forward as a specific body into the sheer publicity of print entails risks, embarrassments, and vulnerabilities that can threaten to discredit rather than describe or intensify female authority. Some female authors, most notably Charlotte Smith, consciously managed their portraits as an element of their literary personae and in the process attempted proactively to control their representation in the public eye. Still, a work such as Polwhele's The Unsex'd Females (even allowing for the customary satirical ploy of hyperembodiment during an intensely polemical period, as in his infamous description of Wollstonecraft as a "hyena in petticoats") puts even the bodies of women authors not under attack squarely on the line, making their writing redundant, just as, much later, allusions to George Eliot's "equine face" would imply that her prose was too lumbering to bother with, a poor substitute for the attractions her body supposedly lacked. Jane Austen eluded such embarrassments because she seemed to her readers to possess no body at all by virtue of a retirement that—whether by accident or by design—rendered her serenely invisible. For this reason, she is a particularly compelling case for testing Catherine Gallagher's contention in Nobody's Story. At the same time that the emerging novel, as distinct from previous narratives, represented vividly imagined but purely fictional characters, no-bodies, rather than actual characters along with their scandalous political or sexual intrigues, the increasingly disembodying and depersonalizing effects of the literary marketplace—as distinct from earlier systems of literary patronage—enabled women novelists themselves to perform "vanishing acts" in expansive and enabling ways.
In this chapter I shall discuss how notions about Austen's body or nobody developed through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries alongside ideas about Austen's novelistic art, and I will suggest that the belief in Austen's uncanny textual power has for the most part depended on the vanishment of her body, that one's presence has required the other's absence. George Henry Lewes, preeminently, makes his inability to imagine Austen's body at all the basis of his pathbreaking critical assessment of 1859. Playing off Samuel Johnson's witticism about the man who "managed to make himself public without making himself known," Lewes writes that "Miss Austen has made herself known without making herself public" (CH1, 150)—as if, of course, making oneself "public" could possibly imply the same things for male and female writers alike. Picking up on Hazlitt's praise of Shakespeare and anticipating Stephen Daedalus's ideals of authorship, Lewes celebrates Austen as more than merely modestly retiring, but as essentially unseeable: she is "a great actor off the stage" stunning us with her "dramatic ventriloquism" (CH1, 157) but always remaining just outside our view. Austen's bodilessness has a corollary in Lewes's sense of the vivid but strikingly unvisual character of her fiction, which, even as it attests to a triumph of dramatic method, derives from a concomitant failure of descriptive art.
What accounts for Lewes's sense of Austen's invisibility? Not only the possibilities and the problems of vanishment attendant on the modern novelistic marketplace. To a degree hard for us to reimagine, early Victorian admirers of Jane Austen found her bodiless in part because they simply had no idea what she looked like: "There is no portrait of her in the shop windows," Lewes remarks in evidence of Austen's status as a connoisseur's rather than a popular writer, "indeed no portrait of her at all" (CH1, 150). In part, Lewes is simply referencing the fact that the 1833 Bentley edition of Austen's novels, like the editions of Austen's novels published during her lifetime for that matter, did not carry a frontispiece of the author. In saying so, however, Lewes is implicitly absorbing and reproducing Maria Jane Jewsbury's 1831 article on Austen published anonymously in the Athenaeum, the first publication about Jane Austen by a woman. There, Jewsbury maintained that even as Austen's ladylike seclusion shows that "literary reputation is attainable" without any "sacrifice to notoriety" incompatible "with female happiness and delicacy," in Austen's case the seclusion proves so rarified as to verge on disappearance, a point Jewsbury underscores by alluding to lines 5–6 of Wordsworth's "Song" ("She dwelt among th'untrodden ways"): "So retired, so unmarked by literary notoriety, was the life Miss Austen led, that if any likeness was ever taken of her, (and the contrary supposition would seem strange,) none has ever been engraved; and of no woman, whose writings are as numerous and distinguished, is there perhaps so little public beyond the circle of those who knew her when alive—A violet by a mossy stone / Half hidden from the eye." As it turns out, virtually all we know or think we know about Austenian iconography—or, to be more precise, about the apparent nonexistence of "likenesses" of Austen drawn from her life—derives from this puzzling statement, and it deserves close attention. On what basis does Jewsbury aver that no "likeness" was ever taken of Jane Austen? There is no evidence that she corresponded with Austen's brother Henry on this matter—and the many inaccuracies throughout her article (Jewsbury often wrote quickly to meet weekly deadlines) confirm that she did not go out of her way to get facts straight, much less to vet them with Austen's family. Some of Jewsbury's discussion here surely is developed from Henry Austen's "Biographical Notice of the Author" prefixed to the 1818 edition of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, but this text has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of likenesses, averring only that Austen shrank from notoriety and "in public ... turned away from any allusion to the character of an authoress" (BN, 330). To make matters more puzzling, when Henry Austen does say something about likenesses of his sister in his later "Memoir" in October 1832, he actually quotes Jewsbury's article (published more than a year earlier), rather than speaking in his own voice and out of his own knowledge: "So retired, so unmarked by literary notoriety, was the life Miss Austen led, that if any likeness was ever taken of her, none has ever been engraved."
Because Jewsbury, then, and not the Austen family, is the source of the public's impression that Austen shyly retreated from any artist's gaze, we would do well to query what compels her to describe Austen in this matter to begin with. Her account seems to come to us as a disinterested, even quite tentative, statement about biographical fact ("if any likeness was ever taken of her ... none has ever been engraved"). This is only her assumption, however, and a personally motivated one at that. An urban, professionalized, and ambitious writer who despite a posture of general anonymity wanted important people to know who she was and what she wrote (she sent her work to Wordsworth, for example), Jewsbury plays up the distinction between herself and Austen, who exemplifies a particular kind of woman writer Jewsbury emphatically is not. As a feminist woman of letters, inclined toward emancipation and craving fame in the literary marketplace, however ambivalent she was at times about her ambition, she challenges what seemed to her to be the via Austeniana, the idea that women writers negotiate their "careers" through withdrawal. Jewsbury's appreciation is thus implicitly oppositional; Jewsbury's likeness was taken (though not with the same play that Hemens and Smith managed), and so it follows as a matter of course that Austen's was not: "the contrary supposition would seem strange," as she puts it. The enlistment of Wordsworth's "Poem"—not an association that would likely spring to the minds of modern Austenians—underscores the stakes in establishing Austen's reclusiveness. Austen is deemed a mistress of "light literature," and Jewsbury renders her weightless indeed by absorbing her into Wordsworth's anonymous, phantasmatic "she," a placidly unselfconscious, airy figure without biographical specificity, not available for view, someone withdrawn from the public notice so remotely that she seems finally to disappear into sheer transparency, or perhaps even a "she" who never existed at all, a pretext for the poet's elegy that takes her place. Sequestration by this account is a secularized version of St. Jane's monastic isolation, as Austen is imagined as denying herself the worldly pleasures and stimulations of the city and submitting to the spare but redemptive rituals of country life before passing away without leaving any material trace, except the novels. In some ways, then, the logic of Jewsbury's presentation dictates that Austen must be "half hidden from the eye." There is no "likeness" of Jane Austen because there cannot be one, testifying as it would to a protrusion into bodily publicity that Jewsbury denies the better to demarcate her own.
Whether Austen's uneasiness with notoriety was genuinely her own, or whether it was to one degree or another foisted on her by her family, Jane Austen—as distinct from "Jane Austen"—surely did not dwell among untrodden ways. Among literati, she was far from anonymous, and her letters show her to be extremely gratified by her developing reputation as a novelist. So it is with a mixture of irony, self-mockery, and sheer fantasy that this self-described admirer of portrait exhibitions in London describes her growing fame in terms of portraiture: "I do not despair of having my picture in the Exhibition at last—all white and red, with my Head on one Side" (L, 250, 3 November 1813). Her early writing—exercises in excess that have never been popular, perhaps not coincidentally—is intensely physical and raucously oral: in the madness scene of Love and Freindship, repressed appetites return with hilarious vengeance when, after the death of her impecunious lover, the sentimental but famished heroine hallucinates first a leg of mutton and then a cucumber; in the gothic spoof "Henry and Eliza," as the heroine begins to feel what no hyperconventional heroine worth her salt ever feels—that is, "rather hungry"—she concludes "by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were in much the same situation" (J, 43); and in (my favorite) "The Beautifull Cassandra" the spirited young lady goes to a pastry shop, devours no less than six ices, knocks down the pastry chef, and runs away without paying, returning home to the maternal bosom with more ecstatically unalloyed satisfaction than Austen's later heroines would ever achieve: "Cassandra smiled & whispered to herself 'This is a day well spent'" (J, 56).
Excerpted from Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures by CLAUDIA L. JOHNSON Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Jane Austen’s Afterlives
1. Jane Austen’s Body
2. Jane Austen’s Magic
3. Jane Austen’s World War I
4. Jane Austen’s World War II
5. Jane Austen’s House
Afterword: Jane Austen’s Ubiquity
Appendix: Austen Family Folk Tales