Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Interview with Janine Barchas and Devoney Looser about Jane Austen


Palladian bridge at Prior Park, Bath, England

Interview with Janine Barchas and Devoney Looser, guest editors of “What’s Next for Jane Austen?”, a special issue of TSLL: Texas Studies in Literature and Language 61.4 (2019). Interview conducted by Frida Trevino.

Jane Austen has slowly become one of the great English literary figures, and her popularity seems only to grow. To what does she owe her success?

[JB] Well, just to start with the obvious, Austen wrote some really good stuff. Her success is owing to the quality of her writing—six novels with witty and inventive manners of expression and memorable characters. Her language and people continue to appeal to a great variety of audiences—with her plots and turns of phrase so much adopted and adapted by others that to those who come to her anachronistically (i.e. having started with her heirs and modern derivatives) she can look clichéd and familiar. No amount of marketing or movie making could have made Austen rise so high in the literary firmament if her works were mediocre. That said, I think she owes her initial and most crucial boost to the emergence of the cheap reprint—the inexpensive nineteenth-century book that put her stories in reach of the masses. Cheap reprints, in turn, were made possible by the technologies of stereotyping, pulp paper, and the steam engine. If all that we had were first editions and so-called “fine” and “authoritative” reprintings, Austen would not have been able to saturate popular culture. Lucky timing.

[DL] I agree with Janine in part, but I’d add that Austen’s lucky timing also coincided with the advent of middle-class and women’s education, the struggle for women’s rights, and the popularization of her stories and characters in illustration, textbooks, anthologies, spoken-word performances, and stage adaptations, leading to film and TV adaptations. Is there anything we’re leaving out? Ha! I think what we’re both saying is that Austen as an author wouldn’t be everywhere today if she hadn’t previously been taken just about everywhere before, each time a new popular medium emerged and grabbed that era’s mass audiences.

Emma, family tree

What was Austen's popularity like during and just after her lifetime? Have there been periods of more, or less, attention to her novels since that time?

[DL] Jane Austen was a moderately popular novelist in her lifetime. She had good success, in that she published four novels with great publishers, most of which went into second editions in her lifetime. Those novels got good reviews from anonymous critics. So, it’s a myth that she was an obscure novelist in her own day. That said, she wasn’t a bestseller either. She’s always had a readership. We used to think that in the 1820s—the first decade after her death—she had no readers. One critic even suggested the 1820s were Austen’s period of obscurity. As we’re learning, that just wasn’t true either. Janine’s work in The Lost Books of Jane Austen and my own in The Making of Jane Austen have set out to track the ways in which nineteenth-century readers and critics from a variety of economic backgrounds were gaining access to Austen’s characters, stories, and novels, from editions of all sorts and of many price points, in pop culture repurposing, in illustrations, in schools, on the stage, and even in political speech. She has never been obscure or unpopular, although she wasn’t always a household name.

Jane Austen house, Chawton, England

How would you explain these fluctuations?

[DL] Austen has enjoyed periods of more and less attention, like many authors who’ve endured over centuries. That said, we’ve told her history in a partial and prejudiced way until quite recently. Critics used to say that Austen’s afterlife was largely spent with her authorship and books flying under the radar—appreciated only by a select few—except for two periods of time. We used to say she first gained wide popularity in 1870, when the first full-length biography of her was published, and that she then became popular again in 1995, with the BBC Pride and Prejudice’s Colin Firth in that white shirt. This version of things is just completely wrong. There’s no doubt that 1870 and 1995 were amazing, transformative moments for Austen’s popular reputation. I think we’re still trying to get a handle on why Austen also “popped” in US and UK during the 1830s, the 1860s, the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1960s, and the 1970s. We can point to things like Austen’s reprintings, cheap editions, textbooks, gift editions, political movements, dramatizations, films, and television shows as partial explanations. But there’s just so much more evidence to mine and more to learn about how various kinds of readerships, viewerships, critical acclaim, and fandoms took hold.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England

Film and television have been effective at bringing attention to novels, with examples including the multiple adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Would Austen’s work would be as popular today if there weren’t filmed adaptations of it?

[JB] On this score, Hollywood has been working for us English professors for some years now, filling our classrooms with eager students who already declare they “love” Jane Austen by virtue of having enjoyed a particular movie adaptation (Clueless, Pride and Prejudice, and Lost in Austen are some of the biggest lures). We are duly appreciative!  As teachers, it then becomes our job to redirect the puppy love of adaptation to Austen’s original printed page and show how the movie industry’s versions, however fun and deliciously clever, are not half as witty and satisfying as the real deal. The books, in other words, are even more compelling than the best of these wonderful films! As we explain in our TSLL issue, just as Shakespeare at his 200th anniversary benefited from entertainment innovators such as David Garrick and John Boydell, whose public spectacles garnered unprecedented attention for The Bard, so too has Jane Austen benefited from the attentions of Hollywood. From Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in 1940 to Colin Firth and that wet shirt in 1995, Austen and movie celebrities have mutually reinforced each other’s fame.

But to what extent can a filmed adaptation of an Austen novel do justice to her beautifully and carefully structured sentences? In your opinion, which screenwriters have done her words most justice?

[JB] Searching for false equivalencies between films and books sets everyone up for disappointment because it compares apples to oranges.  As scholars and fans, we should not be too precious or too literal when a beloved literary text is refashioned in a new medium. Take the controversial nosebleed scene in the most recent Emma (2020) film, directed by Autumn de Wilde. Did Austen write that her heroine has a nosebleed? No. But, she did write one of literature’s most adorably awkward proposal scenes. The film found a marvelously unexpected and endearing visual to convey Emma’s heart-racing shock and relief at Mr. Knightley’s offer of marriage. The film strays from Austen’s words in order to capture for a modern audience her original mix of comedy and heartfelt relief; if Austen could witness this, she would surely approve and laugh heartily.

Wilton House grounds, Wiltshire, England

What do you think Austen’s response would be to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and even more so to the increasing popularity of her work?

[DL] My standard answer to this question is that Pride and Prejudice’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet is said to have had a lively, playful disposition and delighted in anything ridiculous. I agree with those who suspect that Austen herself shared some aspects of that disposition, so I think she’d delight in P&P&Z. I also believe that she took her work as a professional author very seriously. What author wouldn’t be pleased to see her writings are still relevant, read, and repurposed, long after her death?

What was the first parody of an Austen work? And what message does it convey about her writing?

This is a tough question to answer, because it depends on how narrowly we define parody. If we define the term widely, then the answer is “Almost right away.” The first piece of fiction to use Jane Austen as an author—as send-up of and homage to her novels—was published in 1823, in The Lady’s Magazine. (I had the pleasure of unearthing this piece and writing about it in the Times Literary Supplement.) It describes the thoughts of a young woman author who desperately wants to write as well as the late Jane Austen. The aspiring author dresses up like Austen, stares at her portrait, and waits for inspiration to strike. Despite Austen’s ghost showing up and practically kissing her, her plan fails. To call that story a parody might be pushing the definition of the word too far, but this 1823 work is a kind of fan fiction. It’s a piece of real-person fiction. I think it’s poking fun at Austen’s family’s 1818 representation of the novelist’s personal perfections in the first biographical notice. At the same time, I think the writer of that Lady’s Magazine piece also completely buys into the idea of Austen’s genius. 

[DL] Interestingly, one of the first copycat Austen novels was published by James Fenimore Cooper, titled Precaution (1820). It was Cooper’s first novel, usually described as an unsuccessful one. It begins with a baronet, Sir Edward Moseley, who’s in debt and embarking on a system of economy, in order to provide for his three daughters. There’s a great deal of evidence of further influence, too—not all of it appreciative—in those early years after Austen’s death in 1817.

Your introduction addresses the urge to monumentalize Austen. Where does this desire to erect appropriate monuments for Austen–or any author–come from? What pitfalls should such a desire seek to avoid, perhaps in relation to Austen in particular?

[JB] Fandom borrows freely from the language of religious devotion, with David Garrick terming Shakespeare “the God of our idolatry” and American critic William Dean Howells coining the phrase “the divine Jane.” Literary fans make “pilgrimages” to Stratford or Chawton and bid for author “relics.” The impulse to build dedicated monuments—statues, museums, or monumental luxury editions—may stem from this same self-perpetuating impulse to demonstrate the fervent nature of devotion and show the importance of a beloved author with a fixed shrine. In the TSLL issue’s introduction we heed the example of Sir Walter Scott as a warning to complacent fans of Austen and would-be monument builders. Once favored as “the Shakespeare of the novel” with exhibitions, celebrations, and a great big spire in Edinburgh—Scott is today, sadly, past praying for in terms of popularity.  Immortality for authors may require the opposite of fixity, namely that every generation of readers remake and reread in their own style. In that sense, some of the most effective monuments may be the films, theatrical riffs, parodies, spoofs, adaptations for children—including travesties that we love to hate. All mimicry or quotation is in a sense homage.
Jane Austen Centre, Bath, England

Austen seems interested in female independence and empowerment. How might Austen respond to contemporary feminism?

[DL] I see Austen as writing fiction that we might call “feminist” avant la lettre—before the term came into being in the second half of the nineteenth century. So, given that interpretation of her works, I think she’d be thrilled to see the ways that contemporary feminism continues to seek greater rights and opportunities for women. I think she’d be proud that her work continues to inspire feminist literature and thought. At the same time, I think anyone who read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), as Austen must have, would be depressed that the conversations and debates we’re having today echo so closely so many of Wollstonecraft’s criticisms of two centuries ago.

Austen is sometimes understood as a “women's author” because of the strong female leads in her novels. Is this reflected in the demographics of your classrooms? What surprises the young men who read Austen with you about her works?

[JB] The notion that Jane Austen’s novels are “chick lit” is a relatively recent myth-turned-reality, solidified by the plethora of paperbacks that “pinked” her in the 1950s and 60s, leaving behind an unintended gendered legacy. At a time when co-education at universities was brand new, publishers gave the covers of the most canonical female writer the pink treatment in order to identify Austen’s books as products ideal for the new female student (think of the pink cars in the 1950s that were only cosmetically “for women”). The powerful pink marketing tactic worked so well to attract female buyers that its legacy now ironically narrows Austen’s perceived appeal.  Some of my Jane Austen classes are about 90% female. This imbalance differs radically from her readers in the late 19th century, when heaps of her books were awarded to both boys and girls as school prizes and bought by men and women alike—across class, gender, and economic boundaries.

Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, England

What factor most influences people of all ages to read or reread Austen?

[DL] I think most people first read Austen because someone—a parent, a teacher, a friend, a film director, a video game designer, an actor—either inspired or forced them to. Those of us who reread her do so because we realize her stories are (to repurpose her own words in Northanger Abbey) works in which “the greatest powers of the mind are displayed” and “conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” Her novels display what she called “the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, and the liveliest effusions of wit and humour.” She was talking about novels in general in these lines, but to my mind, hers are the happiest, liveliest, and greatest. Period.

Has Austen affected the way you select new novels to read? What about how you respond to novels by contemporary authors?

[DL] I love to read accounts of contemporary authors who admit that they were inspired by Jane Austen. That brings me pleasure and makes me want to see what Austenian touches they’ve brought to their own works. I’m somewhat more skeptical when it’s a reviewer telling me that so-and-so is “the next Jane Austen”! So, in that sense, yes, my response has been shaped, but I have to admit that I read shockingly little fiction that was published after 1900. Sorry-not-sorry!

Pride and Prejudice seems Austen’s most beloved work. Why do you think this novel maintains such popularity? Is it mainly the screen adaptations?
[JB] P&P may be the darling among Austen’s novels now, but that was not always the case. In Austen’s first ascendency, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility were just as popular in cheap reprints—if not more so. Brace yourself, but I think that Pride and Prejudice is the most popular today not because it is truly outstanding among her works but because it has the lowest bar to entry of the six finished novels. Elbowing aside the famous, wry, opening sentence, P&P is the only one of the six that starts as dialogue. All the others begin with fairly complex family histories—the start of Sense and Sensibility being the most challenging for a reader new to Austen. With the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet a reader is quickly and effortlessly “pulled in” to the story and its humor. It is the only Austen novel that starts in medias res. I think that modern readers expect to be passively pulled across the threshold of a novel’s imagined world and are less prepared to read closely and attentively at a book’s start. Pride and Prejudice offers the modern reader that type of ease.

Stanage Edge, Peak District, England

Are students surprised if they like another one of her novels better than Pride and Prejudice? In general, how have your students ranked the novels?
[JB] Just as a parent should not nurture favorites among their children (Mr. Bennet errs because he does!), I never ask students to rank the books on my syllabi. But I will admit that sometimes a stray editorial comment reaches my ears to suggest that not all her novels are equally appreciated. Mansfield Park is usually the dark horse. I remember how one male student proclaimed in surprise during a class discussion that Mansfield Park was proving for him the “most difficult book” he’d ever read. Although a bit back-handed, he meant the remark as a great compliment to Austen and as a sign of her book’s worthiness and depth.

Are you teaching or reading Austen differently in the time of COVID-19?

[JB] Actually, yes. As I write this, the needs for social distancing may lend new meaning to Austen’s etiquette-bound world—whether or not her popularity revives the curtsey or hat-tip. Not only does re-reading a great work of literature (and by “great” I mean one that withstands interpretive pressures from multiple generations and also rewards repeat encounters by the same reader) provide solace during times of stress, but Austen’s humor now stands out as an essential perk. I just launched a Twitter project called “Pride & Plague” (@PridePlague) in an effort to use humor to cope with our coronavirus angst. “Pride & Plague” logs daily tweets from William Shakespeare and Jane Austen as the celebrity couple practices social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis. Although our TSLL issue includes discussion of social media as “what’s next for Jane Austen,” this is not what I thought was next for me as a scholar (who’d never used Twitter before). Jane Austen remains full of surprises and still capable of lifting our spirits in dark times.

[DL] In late April, I had the chance to help create the first episode of Penguin Classics Crash Courses, part of its new online content efforts to highlight how books connect us at this difficult time. [] In that four-minute video, I talked about Sense and Sensibility, which I introduced and wrote seven essays for, for Penguin. I read one of the novel’s moving passages about illness and recovery. I’m grateful every day for the ways that reading Austen brings me, and so many of us, through silence to greater strength.

Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen

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