Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures

June 14, 2012

Seventeen years after Colin Firth's Mr Darcy bewitched women across the world with the costume-drama equivalent of a wet T-shirt contest, Austen mania shows no sign of letting up. Jane Austen's face peers out from mugs and tea towels; fans travel halfway around the world to promenade around Georgian Bath in colourful Regency outfits and attend cooking demonstrations. Back in 1900, Austen devotee Lord Iddesleigh asked: "Should we ever grow weary of reading and writing about her?"

Claudia Johnson has spent the past decade grappling with the cults that have grown up around Austen. She wants to "ponder what loving (Austen) has meant to readers" and how the many different interpretations of her work have enabled us to "read through their eyes". "Jane Austen's body", by far the longest chapter in this book, is where the action is. It tackles the Austen brand and the early creation of her image in portraits and biographies. Was she ladylike and wistful, as the Austen family would have you believe? Or full of vigour, as the much-disputed Rice Portrait would indicate? Johnson shows the transformation of an 1810 sketch of a rather grumpy Austen into an unrecognisably twee 1869 version where she smiles at us passively: a world away from Austen's later description of herself as a "wild beast". Thanks to the erasings of her sister, Cassandra; a dearth of detailed description in the novels; and no extant true likeness, fans have had to work very hard over the centuries to imagine her.

The commercialisation of Austen started in the late 19th century with the 1870 edition of the Memoir, the 1884 Lord Brabourne edition of her letters, and vast numbers of novel reprints. By 1894 she was a household name in the UK and the US, and the term "Janeite" was born to describe serious fans. Johnson examines the activities of overenthusiastic Victorians, with their notions of magic ("drivel") and fairies, taking refuge in Austen from the anxieties of modernity. Constance Hill travels to "Austen-land" and finds herself imagining the Steventon parsonage while standing in a field. Even scientists were susceptible to flights of fancy: Sir Francis Darwin recalled feeling compelled to fall down the Cobb steps at Lyme Regis.

The reality of war in 1914 created a new breed of Janeites: front-line soldiers flew "for comfort and company [to]...Sotherton and Uppercross". Rudyard Kipling immortalised these unlikely admirers in his The Janeites, where the shell-shocked veteran Humberstall speaks for them all when he says "there's no one to touch Jane when you're in a tight place".

Meanwhile, by the 1920s R.W. Chapman had assumed stewardship of a "delicately civilized" Austen, applying textual scholarship to her words in the creation of his authoritative editions of her work. By the Second World War, Johnson sees key shifts in interpretation as Austen is identified with an elegiac ethos of Englishness and elegance in contrast to modernity's "proliferating ugliness". As the Home Front suffered, readers increasingly identified Austen with "feminine vulnerability and heroic endurance". This, combined with an increasingly feminised English culture, saw Austen-worship transfer from a predominantly male to female readership.

Johnson wields a wide range of fascinating sources and key texts, deftly weaving them into her argument and narrative. This falters only in an uneven final chapter, "Jane Austen's house" (which Johnson, rather disparagingly, notes "was never really [hers]"). Where is the analysis of what this museum has meant to its 30,000 annual visitors? Other (frustrating) gaps include the phenomenon of the Austen industry since the 1990s: the blockbuster film adaptations ("not that anyone really likes costume dramas") and all those biographies, zombie books and memoirs.

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures

By Claudia L. Johnson. University of Chicago Press. 224pp, £22.50. ISBN 9780226402031. Published 11 June 2012

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