Pleased to Be Loony

Alice Spawls

  • Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures by Claudia Johnson
    Chicago, 224 pp, £22.50, June 2012, ISBN 978 0 226 40203 1

Claudia Johnson begins with a ghost story. One summer morning, as she sat by the leaded gothic windows of her Princeton study editing the Norton Critical Edition of Mansfield Park, she was stumped about where a comma ought to go. In the second sentence of the eighth chapter there is a discrepancy between the first and second edition of the novel: did Mr Rushworth’s mother come ‘to be civil, and to shew her civility, especially in urging the execution of the plan to visit Sotherton’ or, as the later version has it, to ‘shew her civility especially, in urging the execution of the plan’? Both editions were published in Austen’s lifetime, and she was involved with the re-editing of the second. Should Johnson follow the tradition of using the last edition overseen by the author? What if the comma was the work of an errant typesetter? ‘So: there I sat, that fateful summer morning in my office, wrapped in silent concentration, pondering small discrepancies … Again and again, I read the two sentences aloud … until … a startling thing happened: I heard Jane Austen breathe.’ She reeled around but saw nothing – she was ‘quite alone’. The brief visitation proved significant, though, because the breath had revealed the right place to put the comma: after the adverb. ‘This placement is just too odd, too distinctive, too ineffably good to be anyone’s but Jane Austen’s’; the fact that she had ‘inadvertently invoked Austen’s ghost’ confirmed it.

It’s the right place to start, Johnson tells us, because her book is about Austen’s ‘afterlives’. It’s also right because the Janeites take great pleasure in being ‘a bit loony’ and Johnson too is a bit loony. Janeites favour the ‘world of wonder’ over the ‘world of reason’ and Johnson is no exception. If this seems ‘inconsistent with the cool rationality we associate with academic scholars or, for that matter, with Jane Austen’, it can be explained, she tells us, by the fact that most of the writers she discusses are ‘not academics’ and ‘the Austen they adore’ – and for Janeites it is a sort of worship – ‘has more to do with the world of wonder.’ The reader who is not a Janeite has been warned.

The Janeites don’t want to think of Austen as being dead: instead they imagine her gossiping with Lizzy Bennet or scolding Catherine Morland. Johnson says her ‘presence’ is always there; she ‘never properly died’: she simply slipped from our world into the ‘eternal present’ of her books, a world whose ‘reality surpasses that of our own’. ‘In some ways,’ Johnson says, ‘being a Janeite is already in some sense to see a ghost.’ Austen ‘charms’ her readers, she ‘haunts’ texts and closes the gap between ‘the dead and the living’. This is not as mad as it seems. From the start readers indulged in strange fantasies to sustain the impression of intimacy with Austen that the novels create. George Saintsbury, who coined the term ‘Janeite’ in 1894, made a point of his readiness ‘to live with and to marry’ Elizabeth Bennet and serve as ‘a knight (or at least a squire) of the order of St Jane’. In 1949, after writing two books about Austen, Sheila Kaye-Smith had a conversation with her about electric lamps and radios.

Inevitably there have been squabbles over whose Austen is the real one. Lionel Trilling warned the new reader of her novels that ‘Jane Austen is to be for him not only a writer but an issue … he is being solicited to a fierce partisanship … he is required to make no mere literary judgment but a decision about his own character and personality, and about his relation to society and all of life.’ Johnson’s Jane, for instance, is ‘in some secret, perhaps not fully definable way’ a ‘bad’ girl. She is not immaculate or ‘anorectic’: she once wrote a story about a girl who ate six ices and knocked down a pastry chef, and talked about sponge cake with ‘every intention of eating it and keeping it down’. Her admirers are possessive: they want her work to be valued the right way – their way. As Austen’s fame increased, many Janeites began to feel that their personal Austen was at odds with the public Austen, and defending one’s Austen became part of the Janeite’s devotional duty.

Austen’s own attitude to fame was equivocal. Her books were published anonymously (by ‘a Lady’ or by ‘the author of …’) and she was determined to keep her identity hidden, if not from London circles (her brother Henry couldn’t resist boasting), then at least from the circles she moved in. Propriety was a factor, of course, but she doesn’t appear to have been constrained by it. Her letters show that the money was useful and the success of the books gratifying. Congratulated on Emma by the Countess of Morley, she wrote of her relief at having received early approbation in her ‘present state of doubt’ as to Emma’s ‘reception in the world’, but she had her own, not unpriggish, standards: when the Prince Regent, notorious for his philandering and profligacy, conveyed his ‘permission’ for Austen to dedicate any future works to him, she asked whether it was ‘incumbent on me to shew my sense of the Honour’. It transpired, of course, that it was, and Emma bore the inscription.

Emma has never been thought less of for this, but since her death Austen’s character has become so intricately bound up with the way the novels are read that it has sometimes seemed that their merit might rest on whether Austen was lively or demure, silly or grave. Early in the book Johnson remarks that ‘Janeites … are censorious of other readers, aiming their most pointed barbs … at other Janeites who fail to love Austen in the right way.’ Janeites can be as vicious as they are sensitive (hence Woolf’s famous line about the 25 gentlemen who ‘resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their Aunts’), particularly when protecting Austen from popular misrepresentation as the spinsterish writer of happy-ending romances. Austen doesn’t seem to have worried about this, though. When concerns were expressed about over-subtlety in Pride and Prejudice she wrote: ‘I do not write for such dull elves/As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.’

One of these dull elves was Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, whose 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen captured the public’s imagination with its portrayal of Austen as the masterful miniaturist. Like her novels, Austen has always been read in different ways and Austen-Leigh took full advantage of the reading that seemed likely to sell most copies of his book. He worked hard to gather reminiscences from family members, examined the surviving letters (Jane’s sister Cassandra had chopped and burned the best ones), then created the fairy tale of the Austen family (the book features some especially romantic engravings), with Austen fixed at its centre as the sweet-tempered genius. He repeatedly emphasises the seclusion and modesty of her life. He dwells on her intimacy with women and their world of ‘little difficulties and doubts’ and ignores her angry letters to publishers and worries over money. The memoir is an advertisement for the novels – and for the family, who did pretty well out of her legacy. Further family reminiscences continued to appear well into the 20th century. Naturally Austen-Leigh insists that family meant ‘so much [to her] and the rest of the world so little’, though the family he sketches is not entirely like the one she had. Personalities are softened and details expunged: Austen’s difficulties with her brothers, especially Henry, who was useless with money (he went bankrupt in 1816: Austen was dependent on him from 1805 until her death in 1817) and whose temperament and ambitions were very different from hers. Austen-Leigh forgets to mention her disabled brother, George, sent to live with a family in the village, and her aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot, who caused a scandal when she was briefly imprisoned for shoplifting a bit of lace.

More reprehensible is the impression he gives of Austen the writer. He describes her working ‘upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper’ and keeping a creaky door unoiled because ‘it gave her notice when anyone was coming,’ which hardly fits with what Johnson and others have written about the novels being discussed openly with her family and the impossibility of hiding her work (she wrote in the sitting room). Austen certainly wished to keep her work private from some, but the fact has often been distorted to imply that she was a mousey sort of person (rather than a grand author) and that her works are simply replicas, albeit very good and funny ones, of everyday life. If Austen was in danger of seeming a bit too clever for her readers, possibly even of making fun of them, Austen-Leigh fights back with ‘Aunt Jane’. He writes with all the condescension of a man of his time towards a woman of hers. That her works were the natural product of an artless virtue was as obvious to him as the delicate childishness of her letters, which he says ‘resemble the nest which some little bird builds … curiously constructed out of the simplest matters’. The memoir quickly sold out, a major reissue of the novels followed and Austen became a phenomenon.

When she is most angry with Austen-Leigh, Johnson slips into mimicking his tone in a kind of baby-talk, bridling at his portrayal of Austen as what she calls a ‘fairy aunt’: ‘The fairy aunt is a modest little person whose homely and unpretending miniatures are for the amusement of little people.’ She is less provoked by the adventures of Janeites like Constance and Ellen Hill, who at the beginning of the 20th century made a pilgrimage to the places associated with Austen. They ran into trouble before they even reached Steventon: no one had heard of the nearby hamlet of Clarken Green where they had planned to spend the night. When they eventually arrived at her birthplace they found the innkeeper about to leave – he advised them to seek lodgings in the nearby village of Deane. With the Janeite dottiness one has by now come to expect, the Hills, far from deterred by this tiresome detour, were elated: ‘The name struck our ears, for Deane has its associations with the Austen family … by all means let us go to Deane!’ Nor were their spirits dampened by the discovery that nothing remains of the rectory in Steventon where Austen was born. They questioned a local man, who, it transpired, was the grandson of a servant of James Austen, the eldest brother. The rectory where the family lived was demolished not long after Austen’s death, but he pointed them to the spot:

‘Maybe you’ve seen the field at the corner where the church lane cooms out o’ Steventon Lane? Well, if you saw that, did you notice a pump in the middle o’ the field?’

‘Yes, yes!’

‘Well, that pump stood i’ the washhouse at the back o’ the parsonage.’

Johnson’s book is dutifully illustrated with Ellen’s neat drawing of the pump, titled ‘The site of the Old Parsonage, Steventon’. Johnson describes Constance sitting while Ellen sketches, imagining the vanished parsonage and fancying that she can see ‘two girlish forms … those of Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra’ walking across the fields.

Johnson doesn’t mind the Hills, though their book, Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends, contributes to the myth of Saint Jane as surely as Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, because they don’t patronise Austen. They are Janeites, as surely as Austen-Leigh is not. The growing nostalgia for an imagined pre-industrial England was reflected in their creation of a world between fact and fiction, history and fantasy: they called it Austenland. Johnson contextualises these inventions but her criticism is constrained by ‘that secret handshake that Janeites exchange as they indulge their flights of fancy with an equal consciousness of their absurdity and their seriousness’. Non-Janeites might not savour the absurdity as much as Johnson does. In Rustic Sounds and Other Studies the naturalist Francis Darwin describes how both he and a friend ‘inexplicably’ fell down at the Cobb at Lyme Regis where Louisa Musgrove falls in Persuasion. Johnson decides that the ‘slippery character of the surface’ – Darwin’s explanation – is not sufficient: they had ‘strayed momentarily into the fay world’ of the Janeites. But the ‘fay world’ can be overwhelming and one longs to slip away from the fervour and return to the clarity and control of the novels.

The vexed question of Austen’s character received increased attention in the early 20th century, as a new school of thought, popular with the Bloomsbury group and scholars, which saw Austen as a cool, detached and wonderfully ironic writer, diverged from the warmer popular portrayal. Woolf said that ‘she is impersonal; she is inscrutable’; Frederic Harrison called her ‘a heartless little cynic’. In response to such charges, Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh, James Edward’s daughter, published at the age of 82 her Personal Aspects of Jane Austen (1920). Katherine Mansfield stood apart from the tussle:

Can we picture Jane Austen caring – except in a delightfully wicked way which we are sure the author of this book would not allow – that people said she was no lady, was not fond of children, hated animals, did not care a pin for the poor, could not have written about foreign parts if she tried, had no idea how a fox was killed, but rather thought it ran up a tree and hissed at the hound at the last – was, in short, cold, coarse, practically illiterate and without morality. Mightn’t her reply have been: ‘Ah, but what about my novels?’

The novels were not quite forgotten, however. Johnson sees the First World War as crucial in rescuing Austen from the ‘Aunt Jane’ tradition. In 1917 the travel writer and horticulturist Reginald Farrer published a centenary essay in the Quarterly Review, marking the transition from Victorian Janeism to a modernist version that saw Austen as a subversive writer whose rigorous social criticism was a model for his own time. His description of Austen’s comic powers in Emma (he compares her to Shakespeare and Molière) is still one of the best and most interesting: Johnson calls it, quite rightly, ‘an extraordinary and influential effort of literary reflection’. The nostalgic tendency of Victorian readers did not disappear altogether, though. For R.W. Chapman – editor of the first authoritative edition of the novels in 1923 – it was reshaped into what Johnson describes as ‘philologically oriented conservatism’. The eccentricity remained: stationed in Macedonia during the First World War, Chapman had kept his upper lip stiff by meditating on the two great symbols of English civilisation – Jane Austen and spoons. (Johnson quotes with relish a meditation from December 1916: ‘Spoons of my dreams lie in the windows of little old shops in quiet streets of English towns.’)

Chapman’s edition, the first scholarly edition of any novels written in English, quickened Austen’s critical reception and the establishment of the canon. He did not advance the modernist position, but he corrected the many errors introduced by Victorian printers, appended important background material (such as The Mysteries of Udolpho for Northanger Abbey) and elucidated the texts with detailed, if selective annotations. The following year Hearst’s International published Kipling’s short story ‘The Janeites’. Its inspiration seems to have been a meeting with George Saintsbury in Bath. According to Kipling’s biographer Andrew Lycett, the pair discussed the ‘sense of fellowship felt by people who had shared a powerful joint experience – whether fighting in war, or membership of a Mason’s lodge, even familiarity with the works of an author such as Austen’. Kipling decided to combine all three. At the Lodge of Instruction, Private Humberstall tells two of his fellow Masons how a shared passion for Jane Austen in his World War One battalion created a bond that outweighed class and rank. In the trenches they argued over whether Austen had children – ‘she did leave lawful issue in the shape o’ one son; an’ ’is name was ’Enery James’ – and tried to work out the peculiar nature of their attachment: ‘they weren’t adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you’d call even interestin’ – all about girls o’ seventeen (they begun young then, I tell you), not certain ’oom they’d like to marry; an’ their dances an’ card-parties an’ picnics, and their young blokes goin’ off to London on ’orseback for ’air-cuts an’ shaves.’ Shellshocked and dejected as the sole survivor of enemy fire, Humberstall is smuggled to safety by a nurse when he utters the magic words ‘Miss Bates’. The story has become part of Janeite folklore, if not of the Kipling canon. But like the tales of most Janeites it had a personal significance: before the war the Kipling family visited Austen’s grave at Winchester and enjoyed reading the novels aloud to each other; in 1915 Kipling’s son Jack died at the Battle of Loos.

Austen’s wartime success was remarkable: during the Second World War the novels sold out again and again, as parents sent them in parcels to their sons and daughters. ‘It is as pleasant to be told … that the young men and women in the Forces want to read Miss Austen’s novels,’ one newspaper reported, ‘as it is harrowing to learn that they cannot get them.’ In 1940 a letter writer boasted in the New Statesman that he was ‘the only man in London who has been bombed off a lavatory seat while reading Jane Austen’ during the Blitz. ‘She went into the bath … I went through the door.’ The same year saw the release of MGM’s Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier as Darcy. Its success was not hampered by its complete lack of regard for historical accuracy and plot (Lady Catherine confides in Elizabeth that she admires her bluntness and is sick of everyone being so polite to her). Audiences found that for ‘two blessed hours’ they could forget that ‘the world wasn’t bounded by Longbourne, Rosings, Netherfield, and a wedding ring’.

Nowadays those two hours can be continued indefinitely. There have been more than twenty film and TV adaptations in the last 15 years, and the spin-off industry that began with the Austen family’s productions shows no signs of waning: the TV series Lost in Austen is being made into a film (Nora Ephron worked on the script) and HarperCollins is publishing contemporary reworkings of the novels – Joanna Trollope has been signed up for Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen societies flourish around the world – the Germans and South Americans are particular fans – and, of course, on the internet. Some publish journals and hold lectures; others share patterns for pelisses and hold Regency balls. You can download a font of Austen’s handwriting, take a Jane Austen walking tour, learn how to make spruce beer, or if you want something hotter, there are plenty of members-only fan-fiction sites, which fill in all the bits that Austen left out. And there is plenty out there for the more serious Janeite too. The recent annotated edition of Emma is a treat: every conceivable period detail is included, from paintings and rout cake recipes to long extracts from Locke and the status of warm baths in contemporary literature (though we don’t need each instance of free indirect speech pointed out).[*] Lovely and lovingly compiled as such works are, though, they serve better as companion pieces, because they tend to over-decorate the text. Johnson sees the proliferation of cultures as a tribute to Austen, while warning that it can ‘bewilder us into a false sense of the fullness of her being’. The 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice next year will provide plenty of diverting bewilderments. It seems the right moment for Johnson’s cautionary note: ‘Austen’s presence,’ she tells us, is to be found ‘only in reading her novels’.

[*] Emma: An Annotated Edition edited by Bharat Tandon (Harvard, 576 pp., £24.95, September, 978 0 674 04884 3).