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.

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