JANE AUSTEN'S CULTS AND CULTURES by Claudie Johnson, Reviewed by Deidre Lynch
 

JANE AUSTEN'S CULTS AND CULTURES
By Claudie Johnson
(Chicago, 2012) xii + 224 pp.
Reviewed by Deidre Lynch on 2013-05-18.

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The topic of Jane Austen's popular reception has sparked increasing interest over the last fifteen years. Multiple scholars have now explored the vicissitudes of the novelist's canonization, the frictions among her readerships, and the kinds of cultural currency that those readerships have invested in her increasingly hyper-canonical name. Last year alone (2012) witnessed the publication not just of Claudia Johnson's long-awaited book on Janeism but also of Juliette Wells's Everybody's Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, Katie Halsey's Jane Austen and her Readers, 1786-1945, and Gillian Dow and Clare Harman's edited collection, Uses of Austen: Jane's Afterlives. In a stunning chapter of The Silver Fork Novel, also published 2012, Edward Copeland likewise addressed Austen's afterlife by suggesting that for the reading public of the 1830s "familiarity with Austen's work [was] so complete that an author [could] take a colour or trope, as in a box of crayons, and use it at will" (p. 45). One might also mention earlier studies of Austen's afterlife that Johnson herself, a bit mystifyingly, hardly ever notices: the opening chapter of Emily Auerbach's Searching for Jane Austen (2004), for example, or John Wiltshire's Recreating Jane Austen (2001), or the essays forming my own edited collection Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees (2000). But no one before Johnson has so explicitly taken as his or her subject the fabulousness of the Janeites' Jane Austen. This book makes it the key to the practices of literary appreciation that it traces: "Jane Austen," writes Johnson, "is not and has never been any old great author . . . but a fabulous figure" (11).

In their colloquial senses, the words "fabulous" and "fabulousness" are terms seldom encountered in seriously researched books issued by academic presses. Campy and/or slangy, the terms suggest the insider languages defining queer subcultures and fan communities or the lingua franca of teenagers like those who populate Clueless, Amy Heckerling's modern-day film version of Emma. Heckerling's teenagers, one imagines, would regularly and hyperbolically use "fabulous" for any old person or thing that they found pleasing. Johnson, however, salutes the "fabulousness" of Jane Austen with an intent both playful and serious. On the one hand, Johnson concedes her own involvement in the Janeism that is her subject. Now and then adopting the idiom of overvaluation that is the hallmark of the fan rather than of the scholar, she dares to use words such as "fabulous." One of the many strengths of this book, in fact, is the panache with which it carries off the tricky task of at once studying love for an author and (without excessive gush) enacting it. But in calling Austen "fabulous," Johnson also has a serious, academic intent: she aims to exploit the term's long-standing associations with feigning--with fables, legends, and other such egregiously fictive fictions that stray, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "beyond the usual range of fact." Since the nineteenth century, readers have celebrated Austen for her realistic portrayal of everyday, mundane life. But how, Johnson asks, could these same readers have credited her with powers of enchantment? By answering this question, Johnson seeks to show how Austen's work solicits readers' belief and in particular their faith in things unseen.

Acclaimed for her "uncanny gift" for creating characters, for "creating a sense of the living presence of otherwise utterly insubstantial beings" (7), the Janeite's Austen is a kind of miracle-worker. The author enjoys that divine status in part because, as Virginia Woolf wrote in 1923, Austen of all the great writers is "most difficult to catch in the act of greatness" ("Jane Austen at Sixty"). In striving to behold what is elusive, Janeites are also ghost-seers, so that in Johnson's book, the word "afterlives" connotes phenomena more supernatural and gothic than are usually found in discussions of the reception of Austen's work. "To be a Janeite," writes Johnson, " . . . is precisely to be able by virtue of a special, privileged relation to the divine Jane, to see what is invisible to others [including, presumably, that act of greatness mentioned by Woolf]. . . In some ways, then, being a Janeite is already in some sense to see a ghost" (p. 9).

The protocols of Janeism change over time, to be sure, just as the demographics of the cult's adherents have. Johnson's book mainly surveys three phases in this history of Austen-veneration: first the late nineteenth century; then the period of World War I, the era of Rudyard Kipling's story "The Janeites," of R. W. Chapman's Oxford University Press edition of the novels, and, as this juxtaposition suggests, of new schisms within Janeite fellowship; and thirdly the period of World War II, when Austen's afterlife became entangled in new ways with the fortunes of academic English studies. (Here Johnson repeats some of her own arguments about the re-gendering of the novels and their readers: arguments first made in the 1997 essay that she contributed to The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen and in her 1996 article "The Divine Miss Jane".) Two additional chapters book-end these richly researched historical chapters. At one end, a long chapter on "Jane Austen's Body" treats the author's persistent disembodiment: tracking the shifting fortunes of various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraits that might or might not image the real Jane Austen, it reveals her admirers' evident reluctance to give substantial form to the object of their worship. (Though we want to see her, we don't want to see her immaculateness undermined, and for Johnson this helps explain why other people continue to balk at counting the so-called Rice portrait of a young Jane Austen as a genuine likeness.) At the other end of the book, a chapter on "Jane Austen's House" -- Chawton Cottage, now known officially the "Jane Austen's House Museum"-- explores the kinds of make-believe that Janeite pilgrims blithely practice at the house. Wishfully venerating its rather motley collection of furnishings and relics, some only tangentially Austen-related, the pilgrims behave as though these things really could convey them into the author's presence.

As I have indicated, the topic of make-believe permeates Johnson's study, for the devotees she treats adore an Austen who, she states, "has more to do with the world of wonder than with the world of reason" (5). In her second chapter, accordingly, Johnson describes at length the late Victorians' surprising readiness to see her as a wonder worker. In homage to the novels' uncanny powers of verisimilitude, they link her with fairy-land and the fairy tale. (Indeed Austen's nephew and nieces recollected that she told them fairy tales, and Austen's grand-nephew Lord Brabourne -- the first editor of her letters -- published his own collection of such stories under the title Queer Folk [1874].). Johnson specifies better than any one else could the odd mixed tone one encounters in the late Victorian style of encomia to Austen. "What do we call this whimsy," she asks, "that can describe hallucinations of what never existed in the same breath as the driest and most scrupulous antiquarian research into former building sites or social practices? . . . I think we call it fay" (p. 77).

In immensely suggestive ways, Johnson's reconstruction of the Victorians' response to what they self-consciously called Austen's "magic" realigns the usual arguments about this novelist's relationship to realism. This reconstruction prompts us to re-examine with some new and needed skepticism certain influential accounts of Austen from the 1970s and 80s. In those decades, scholars like Marilyn Butler and Mary Poovey argued that Austen wholly committed herself to anti-romance and to the discourse of the probable, so as to help her female readers realistically assess their lives and resign themselves to diminished expectations. But as Johnson demonstrates, many Victorians saw no need to choose between romance and realism. Unlike most of us now, it would appear, they were intellectually capable of locating the novels simultaneously "in the mundane and in the marvelous" (p. 89). Among the Victorians, in other words, it was not a truth universally acknowledged that Austen was a realist, categorically devoted to the natural rather than the preternatural. Johnson's annotations of the wilder side of Austen-love thus allow her account of the reception to carry us back to the work with renewed curiosity. They open up ways of reading her novels that tend to be foreclosed by the critical dicta of our own age.

As this example may already have suggested, Johnson's argument complicates literary history. In explaining how successive generations of Austen lovers have tried to re-cast her as their own contemporary, Johnson problematizes Austen's relationship to her own time and to the conventional literary-historical narratives through which we gauge it. For Johnson, one infers, Austen's status as an early-nineteenth-century writer is no longer a given, except in the most mundane, chronological sense. In her third chapter, for instance, Johnson shows at some length how the modernists' experience of the First World War informed the way they remade Austen in their own image-- as someone whose serene and merciless iconoclasm made her their contemporary in spirit. Other early-twentieth-century commentators on Austen's novels insisted, in the words of Kipling's mess-waiter Humberstall, that there was both "nothin'" to them and "nothin'" "in them." Their comments also challenge literary history, Johnson argues, because they remind us what we can gain "by seeing Austen not as the first Victorian novelist, the inauguratrix of the Great Tradition, but as the last of the eighteenth-century novelists, committed to the protodeconstructive potential of formal parody rather than to realism" (103).

Yet Johnson's own version of literary history raises questions. While contesting and complicating the ways in which nineteenth-century specialists have defined Jane Austen, Johnson herself seems to take as self-evident a narrative about periodization that other scholars have begun to view more suspiciously. She reiterates without hesitation the premise that until 1870, Austen was admired by only "a few" (68). As Edward Copeland wryly observes, this timeline presupposes that Austen's "popular reputation lay quietly sleeping until . . . the fairy touch of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh's Memoirs [published in 1870] awakened it for posterity" (Copeland 43). In other words, the timeline that Johnson uncritically accepts turns the middle years of the nineteenth century into a period of near-oblivion for Austen. Even now, critics are just beginning to understand how she was known to the British public from 1820 to 1870.

Johnson's book is also disappointing in failing to take a more comparative approach to the veneration of authors. To ignore the overlap between the rites of Austen-devotion and, say, the pilgrimages to Haworth Parsonage made by Brontë-lovers, or to ignore the magic that the Victorians also ascribed to Austen's contemporary and rival Sir Walter Scott, the Wizard of the North, may well be to imply that as a literary goddess and cult, Austen and Janeism had no peer. But on the other hand, this book's contribution to the history of literary reception suffers from Johnson's refusal to compare the reception of Austen with the reception of authors such as Brontë and Scott. I may commit Janeite heresy in mentioning this, but it is high time someone unpacked the complaint that Kipling's official biographer Charles Carrington made about "The Janeites": "the story," he wrote, "would have the same point if it had been called 'The Trollopians' and the password had been 'Hiram's Hospital' instead of 'Tilneys and trap-doors.'" (Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works).

That said, I finished this book grateful for its research and concurring wholly with Johnson's conviction that we have much to learn from Austen's past admirers. Like her, I believe that the histories of readerly ardor she has assembled will inspire twenty-first-century audiences to return to Austen's novels and find them re-enriched by their reception history. In almost all senses of the term, the gifted yarn-spinner who wrote this book is pretty fabulous herself.

Deidre Lynch is Chancellor Jackman Professor in the English Department of the University of Toronto.


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