The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser
Johns Hopkins University Press (2017), 295 pages
Paperback (2019), $19.95
First published in 2017, I am reviewing the 2019 paperback version with a new afterword. For those interested in reception history and Jane Austen reception in particular, this well-researched book contains much that is original and highly thought provoking, as well as wonderfully detailed. Dr. Looser treats readers to fresh ways to think about how Jane Austen became JANE AUSTEN! Looser included numerous endnotes and source lists for those who want to continue reading on the topic. Sources include archival material and period specific analysis, as well as her own informed original analysis. Her meticulous research allowed her to uncover an error in the identification of Austen’s first illustrator with convincing evidence that it was Ferdinand Pickering, not George.
Looser argues that Austen was not made by the literati alone. Though the literary establishment had its share of Austen lovers (and haters), public interaction with her work contributed to her renown. Long lasting worldwide engagement with Austen belongs to casual readers, illustrators, dramatists, political movements, and school teachers. Her argument may sound familiar to Janeites; recent JASNA conferences included many presentations on this theme, most notably Janine Barchas, author of several talks about the forgotten editions of Austen. However familiar the story of how Austen’s books went out of print and were “rediscovered” and reissued by Richard Bentley in the 1830s, only to experience a Victorian surge in popularity among literary elites in the 1870s, recent research goes beyond critics and collectible first editions.
Part I begins with the illustrations commissioned by Bentley. She examines how the illustrator’s choices–the focus of the action, who is in the illustration, even the captions–frame reader reception. Pickering, Austen’s first illustrator, mostly depicted the heroines and female characters in domestic scenes (23). Later illustrators often followed Pickering’s lead, even down to choosing the same scenes to illustrate (51). She helpfully places the illustrations in conversation, so the reader can see how they evolved and influenced reader reception, making Austen’s work recognizable to many people who may only have seen the illustrations.
In “Part II” Looser discusses the dramatization of Austen, including professional, college and school adaptations. One striking trend that emerges from these chapters is the evolution of the dramatizations from female centric to male centric. She includes a brief discussion of implications of this trend for film adaptations as well. I will never watch the 1940 Olivier P&P with quite the same condescending attitude as I have in the past.
“Part III: Jane, Politicized” demonstrates that politicians of all ilks have co-opted Austen to further their causes, from Suffragettes to second wave feminists to Conservatives to Marxists. Looser comments, “Whatever party Austen may or may not have affiliated with during life, her legacy puts her all over the political map…your sense of whether that would have pleased her or left her nonplussed, may hew more closely to your own political beliefs than to anything we can prove about hers.” (145)
“Part IV: Jane Austen, Schooled,” delves into the many and varied ways that Austen’s texts were used and taught in schools and out of schools. Looser begins with George Pellew’s dissertation–the first written about Austen, and continues through Austen’s inclusion on reading lists, in readers, and in college courses–Lionel Trilling turned away students when too many signed up for his Austen course (212). Unafraid to examine less scholarly views of Austen, such as a 1971 mock-ad in National Lampoon (213), Looser handily makes her argument.
According to Looser, Jane Austen became Jane Austen! because she could hold the “attention of scholarly and popular audiences alike.” (218) Reception does not have to be a zero sum, it can be both and. While frustrating to the literary establishment, ultimately Austen’s adaptability is what makes her great. In the afterward, Looser adds that perhaps we should take Austen’s declaration that she does not write except for those with great ingenuity, as a sign of her confidence in her readers (227). All readers, great and small can find meaning in Austen.
Austen lovers of all types will enjoy the reference in Looser’s final words. “I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend haughty, highbrow exclusivity or celebrate uncritical adulation.” (223)