THE MAKING OF JANE AUSTEN by Devoney Looser, Reviewed by Carolyn Dever

By Devoney Looser
(Johns Hopkins) viii + 291 pp.
Reviewed by Carolyn Dever on 2018-04-04.

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Was she or wasn't she? Radical subverter of gender and class relations, or arch-conservative doyenne of the English countryside? Spinster dull as dishwater, or canny social sophisticate? Poster child for Tory respectability, or icon behind roller derby queen "Stone Cold Jane Austen"?

To these questions Devoney Looser--aka, "Stone Cold Jane Austen" herself--replies yes, and more. In Looser's dazzling and capacious book, Austen emerges as the construct she has needed to be on any given occasion. "She was not born," writes Looser, "but rather became, Jane Austen" (1). Each historical period, each mode of adaptation, gets the Austen it deserves. Looser's Austen is a cultural phenomenon: less the woman writer who died in 1817, more a mirror of history, reflecting the instabilities of meaning that have charged important concepts such as "woman writer," "marriage plot," and "politics" over the two centuries and more in which Austen and her work have enriched the historical record, literary and otherwise.

Following the invention of "Jane Austen" as a cultural icon wheeled out to serve wildly divergent causes across two centuries, Looser deliberately takes the "back roads" (10) to tell her Austen story. She seeks the uneven, unwieldy, messy, and often lowbrow Austen rather than the author canonized by the "prevailing cultural gatekeepers, by relatives or literati" (10). Wickedly fun to read, Looser's book engages us on every rigorously researched and documented page. It is also an important book. The Austen shaped by different media at different moments always offers new insights into the novels and their meaning. But even more importantly, the weaponization of Austen in diverse contexts reveals the stakes of engagement as well as her stunning capacity for adaptability, which is perhaps her greatest legacy.

Looser turns a laser beam on Jane Austen as a para-historical figure. She foregrounds neither analyses of Austen's novels, nor their histories in critical and theoretical context, nor even their histories in adaptation, which as we know reach across a truly mind-boggling array of media. Nor does she do what many would welcome: show how novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion have fared in light of changing cultural and critical sensibilities over the years. The true significance of her critical intervention lies rather in the historical tale she weaves in order to complicate, infinitely and decisively, the concept of a single "Austen." In its place she reveals a cluster of Austens that tell us more about what any given moment and medium have at stake in the critical categories Austen represents. The staying power of Looser's book will spring from its rigor; at every turn, she resists the impulse to treat her occasionally arcane subject lightly. In probing a rigorous archive, the book suggests hundreds of new pathways and tributaries for future researchers.

And its history is very much of the present. The book has its own website, which includes--a first in my experience!--a "Mantlepiece Classic" video trailer for The Making of Jane Austen itself. Is it churlish for a reviewer to admit being a tiny bit envious of an author clever enough not only to think of making a book trailer, but to do it? Perhaps, but at the same time the entire critical community should celebrate the creativity of a colleague who has thus embraced the pleasure of her topic, quirks and all. By finding joy in The Making of Jane Austen, Devoney Looser offers as powerful a gesture on behalf of the public humanities as any I have ever seen.

Between a robust introduction and a coda on twenty-first century Austen, Looser's four sections treat Austen illustrated, dramatized, politicized, and "schooled," or translated into academic media. For a start, the introduction challenges contemporary assumptions that we have only now modernized Austen, only just invented the Austen of film adaptations or "girl-power feminism" (3). Instead Looser exposes an uneven but continuous history of significant social engagement with Austen and her legacy. "It sounds impossible," she writes, "but Jane Austen has been and remains a figure at the vanguard of reinforcing tradition and promoting social change. . . . Austen has been an inspiration, role model, and mascot for groups that have otherwise had little in common" (3).

Austen is indeed a household name, but her legacy--her persona and literary reputation--was created posthumously. In creating it, her nephews James Edward Austen-Leigh and Edward, Lord Brabourne originated the persona of "Aunt Jane." As Looser writes, "These men, naturally enough, referred to Austen as Aunt Jane. She was their Aunt Jane" (7). This framing, however, made her an exclusively domestic figure working on small topics of private concern, a spinster disengaged from the cares of the world. In a first-year seminar I recently taught, students noticed immediately the marginalization of young children in Austen's novels. Having come to associate her with a certain type of domestic femininity, they were surprised she had so little time for infants. Yet Looser shows that unlike certain aspects of her novels, the two books by her nephews (the first authored by any of her relatives), make Austen domesticated, even "Victorian." The nephews, Looser writes, "promoted their author-ancestor as a very particular kind of aunt--the cheerful, pious, domestic, polite, maiden aunt. She was, as readers were assured at every turn, the opposite of the sour, jealous, busybody old maid" (7). As a domestic figure in the Victorian sense, she was both familiar and of the family, and as such she was a known and comfortable quantity. Perhaps ironically, this is what makes Austen so eminently borrowable by, and adaptable to, so many different uses. The Making of Jane Austen, Looser explains,

begins with the premise that Austen's posthumous journey to becoming an icon looks very different when we take the back roads. It looks different when it's not narrated by protective collateral descendants or prevailing cultural gatekeepers, by relatives or literati. We get a different history of Austen--author, woman, and works--from perspectives of literary populism, moments of commercial opportunism, or political and cultural clashes. All of these standpoints mattered to Austen's making. (11)

Looser chiefly aims, then, to retell the familiar story of Jane Austen from non-elite as well as posthumous viewpoints. She answers the questions "Why Austen? Why now?" by "turning to the history of [Austen's] afterlife, taking seriously the notion that past is prologue" (11).

This story of author making begins with the history of Austen's nineteenth-century illustrators, who played a formative role in Victorianizing her novels.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. London: Richard Bentley, 1833.
Frontispiece by William Greatbach after Ferdinand Pickering

When Richard Bentley, for instance, published her novels with illustrations by Ferdinand Pickering engraved by William Greatbach, Looser asserts that they not only furnished a visual preview of what was to come but also presented her novels "as familial, female focused, and sensational" (20). "Over the course of the nineteenth century," writes Looser, "thousands of new readers would have been invited to approach Austen's novels through Pickering's images, expecting a focus on put-upon young women, villainous-looking rivals, and sensationalized domestic conflict. It may well have led early audiences to downplay or misjudge the importance of humor, irony, sociality, or social criticism in [Austen's] novels" (28). Through Pickering and later through the landscape-intensive renderings of Thomas Lydon, Austen's works were privatized and also psychologized against patterns of female decorum in the nineteenth century:

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park. London: Groombridge & Sons, 1875. Illustration by A.F. Lydon

Yet unlike the Austen illustrators of the twentieth century, writes Looser, these nineteenth-century artists also infused her books "with images of social criticism, overt physicality, war, and death" (49). Other innovations followed. In 1892, the ten volume edition of Austen published by J.M. Dent offered not only copious illustrations attributed to William Cubbitt Cooke but also an introduction--a semblance of scholarly apparatus--by R. Brimley Johnson. In the same decade, the lavish "Peacock edition" of the novels--illustrated by Hugh Thomson in the 1890s--introduced a sense of humor as well as gentle social criticism:

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. Illustrated by Hugh Thomson. London: George Allen,1894.

So by the time Hollywood adaptations of Austen's novels were lending images to book jackets, earlier illustrators had fully established visual codes of interpreting them. "Artists' images of Austen's fiction," Looser writes, "have served to shape each generation's sense of her material and thrust, her tone and politics. These images inevitably propelled weightier conversations about her fiction and its legacy to wider audiences" (73).

Austen's legacy in visual history extends from illustrated editions of her novels to dramatizations of the books, in all or in part, in drawing rooms and on stages and screens worldwide. Indeed, as Looser notes, "Jane Austen today enjoys far more viewers than readers" (75). In her richly informative analysis of Austen dramatized, Looser pinpoints the mid -1930s as the peak of her commercial and popular success in this genre. Publicity for the first film version of Pride and Prejudice (1940) even capitalized on its theatrical history. The less prominent history of Austen dramatized, however, must start with the fin de siècle "duologues" of Rosina Filippi, which put scenes and outtakes from scenes in Austen's novels into the hands--and mouths--of amateur actors, mostly women. Their performances recast Austen as a New Woman. "Romance is not at all the point of these dramatic texts," writes Looser. "Women's self-confident voices, in the face of domestic and familial conflict, are" (90). Since voices of this kind are epitomized by Elizabeth's rejection of Darcy's first proposal in Pride and Prejudice, Looser thoroughly surveys portrayals of him. Before he was played by Laurence Olivier and then Colin Firth, he was not only portrayed in a rich succession of pro- and anti-Darcy adaptations but was also played by women.

In the 1920s and 30s, Austen herself was queered in Dear Jane, a bio-play by Eleanor Holmes Hinkley, when the director and actor Eva Le Gallienne cast herself as Cassandra Austen and her lover, actress Josephine Hutchinson, as Jane. Dear Jane, writes Looser, "puts forward a portrait of the author that veers sharply away from the stereotype of the perfectly pious Christian spinster. The play offers audiences the novelist as feminist flirt, testing and throwing over her male suitors. She actively chooses a writing life at the side of her beloved sister" (115). Yet the dramatization of Austen turned heterosexual again when MGM optioned Helen Jerome's Broadway adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. After many false starts, the exceedingly odd combination of Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier finally made it to the screen, leaving behind many other scenarios that did not. "These once imagined but never-made film versions," writes Looser, "demonstrate the dangers of our arguing that Austen was being repurposed for some kind of Hollywood-initiated ideological plot" (126).

By the midpoint of Looser's book, Austen clearly becomes a figure of transference for the needs and desires of later generations: of those shaping her legacy within their own media of biography, illustration, stage, and screen. Who Austen was and what her novels mean are questions of interpretation. She is so endlessly adaptable that the stakes of adaptation seem to matter more than the novels themselves.

As "a touchstone in institutions of the modern state," in Looser's words, Austen speaks across the political spectrum. "At signal moments of political debate in the past," she writes, "especially debates over gender roles, it sometimes seems as if everyone wanted to claim Austen for his or her side" (144). Austen was adopted not only by men's club conservatives but also by feminists, especially when suffragists proudly toted a banner emblazoned Austen's with name, dates, and a quill pen in the Great Procession of Women's Suffrage Societies held in London on June 13, 1908. Viewing her as both a "poster child" and a "problem child" for feminism (177), activists divided--and divide still--on how much quiet political intention can be found in Austen's work.

As for the history of Jane Austen in schools, writes Looser, it "is rife with the endorsements of Great Men. . . . Austen was taught to schoolchildren as a great author whose greatness was time tested because Great Figures said she was great" (181). To back a fascinating and credible claim on behalf of Austen's canonicity for its own sake, Looser notes that George Pellew (1859-92) turned his Harvard undergraduate dissertation on Austen into a book titled Jane Austen's Novels, published in 1883. As interesting as Looser finds Pellew's book to be, she is just as interested in its afterlife--literally. As a passionate advocate for female suffrage, Pellew explicitly links Austen to his anti-sexist analysis of her fiction. And in an odd but somehow apt twist, Pellew is said to have communicated from beyond the grave with parapsychologist Richard Hodgson by means of the "human telephone," a medium named Mrs. Piper. "It's an odd fact of literary history," Looser writes,

that the first published full-length study of Austen . . . led to the author making an appearance in paranormal history. In recent years, scholars have written eloquently about Jane Austen's being imagined as a ghost and what that might mean to her celebrity and legacy. But we tend to forget how tightly the scholarly and the pop-culture paranormal, like the scholarly and popular-education Austen, were once intertwined. . . . When we talk metaphorically about being haunted by Austen--when we imagine her speaking beyond the grave or ask, 'What Would Jane Do?'--we might keep in mind that there was a time in the 1890s when professors set out to test whether their star student had returned to mention Jane Austen from beyond the grave, through another woman's pen. (195-6)

This book prompts many questions. Is Austen a humorist on the level of the National Lampoon? A quiet, placid lady writer appropriate for the edification of schoolgirls? In contexts ranging from textbooks and study guides to penny novels and movies, Austen stood for education itself, for what it means to be an educated person. In Bollywood film adaptations, in zombie novels and fan fiction, and most notoriously as the cover girl for the new £10 note, "Austen's literary legacy proves," writes Looser, "that you can't both be a popular and a highbrow author in the way that Ronald Reagan proves that an actor can't become president. Holding the attention of scholarly and popular audiences alike is precisely what Austen has done through two centuries of images, stages, screens, schools, and soapboxes" (218). In this brilliant new view of Austen, Devoney Looser tells us as much about what we want and need from our literary celebrities as it does about "Aunt Jane" herself.

Carolyn Dever is Professor of English at Dartmouth College.

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