Luckington Court as Longbourn in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice (scripted Andrew Davies)
Dear friends and readers,
I’m not quite as behindhand on reporting on those papers and panels I heard and participated at the recent Eastern Region, American Society for 18th Century Studies, at the University of Delaware as I was completing the Burney/JASNA conferences in Montreal. The EC/ASECS panels and papers show the central focus of study today often become once and still disvalued texts, visibilia and people crowding into valued texts. So not Jane Austen but fan fiction became the preoccupation; learning about her, her texts and her era through fan fiction. I include sections on Death comes to Pemberley (film and book), Baker’s Longbourn, and other Jane Austen-derived texts (Cindy Jones’s My Jane Austen Summer; Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones &c&c). This is the first of 2 or 3 reports on the EC/ASECS conference, and topics beyond Austen include other pre- and post-texts in the new historicism; problems using ECCO (too many unevaluated, unedited texts!), innovative periodicals and studies in 18th century pornography and politics and printers/publishers.
I had spent the previous day at the Winterthur Museum, some of it gazing the costumes worn in the mini-series Downton Abbey, which might be called a sequel to the many Edwardian mini-series adapted from 19th century books on British TV, with pointed allusions to Anthony Trollope; on Friday night the whole conference went to a local church used as a theater to see excerpts from 18th century staged adaptations (changed texts) of some of Shakespeare’s plays. So it seemed fitting that among the first panels of the first of two days was “Jane Austen Fan Fiction.”
See my The Way We Watch TV Now
There were 2 papers, and a 3rd panelist brought 4 of her students to report on their findings in their classes studying P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley and Jo Baker’s Longbourn. In “‘If a book is well-written, I always find it too short': Fan Fiction and Teaching the Novel,” Kathleen Stall said teaching contemporary fan fiction “puts the emphasis on the students’ reaction to the text” instead of the text itself; students have to “read valuable information about the period and they relate to the characters” more readily, so such books are “useful as an instructional tool.” She thought these “escapist” books are part of a “collective narrative” and summarizing Amanda Gilroy’s paper in Persuasions On-Line, “Our Austen: Fan Fiction in the Classroom” by grouping fan fiction together as “post-texts” and going over Henry Jenkins’ work on fan fiction (10 ways of rewriting a text); Ms Stall explained what she saw students learning when she had them write their own fan fiction following a few rules (e.g., it must fit in with the content of the original work, its era, they must dramatize not just recite events). I strongly recommend my reader stop here and read Gilroy’s findings after she read a large body of Austen fan fiction.
The cast of Robin Swicord’s film adaptation of Karen Joyce Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club (see The Conversations)
Marilyn Francus (“Wanting More: Desire and Fan Fiction”) suggested the urge to read fan fiction derives from Austen readers’ desire to have more texts by Austen herself, faute de mieux (so to speak); the Internet has provided a place to participate in, and reach and belong to this creation of Austen culture; even big sums of money can and have been made. Studying the products of the Derbyshire Writers Guild, Ms Francus came up with a number of assumptions she felt underlie this material: Austen’s texts are universal, can be transposed to any other time, class, genre (though romance is the most common kind of sequel), culture. Some conventions of repetition (things repeated) show readers and writers derive pleasure from the same paradigms and enjoy their kind of analyses of Austen’s texts: they derive a psychic security from repetitions like these. They obey conventions of their communities: codes which bind and regulate the different groups; the people want to interact and each person gains an identity of her own by engaging in this way. Henry Jenkins calls this convergence culture. These works articulate a set of desires: the authors want to be Austen; they use female heterosexual narrators, but they put Darcy and Elizabeth into almost every profession and change Austen’s characters’ status easily. Austen is herself seen as a Guide and use her to resist modern society. A strong dislike of what readers perceive as the modern world is at the center of many Austen fan fiction writers and readers. (I’d say such a dislike actuates many people, scholars and ordinary readers alike, who read Austen over and over.) Elizabeth Bennet (P&P is the central used text) is seen as pretty, but not beautiful, loved for her “strong” character, intellect. Ms Francus concluded on the note that desire is central, giving continuous satisfaction in making works in progress and commenting or just thinking on other people’s writing inside this community.
Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin do make love as Darcy and Elizabeth in the film adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley
In “Experiments in Austen” Melissa K. Downes introduced her 4 students by telling of the group project she designed in which her students had participated: the students had 15 fan fictions from which to choose; they collected, researched and discussed them. Unfortunately I was not able to pick up her students’ names, and the congenial conversational manner of delivery allowed me only to record a few points. Of Death Comes to Pemberley the the first 2 students agreed that James had used minor and new characters to avoid involving “our favorite” characters (by which she meant Elizabeth and Darcy) in sordid doings; James didn’t want to offend her readers by changing the main characters too much. They said a number of students in their group did not like Death Comes to Pemberley. It later became clear that both of them would have preferred to have Darcy and/or Elizabeth personally involved in the murder. The students who discussed Jo Baker’s Longbourn were taken by the new perspective which made us see what happened in the original novel differently; for example, that when Elizabeth runs across the fields and gets mud all over her dress, the novel’s central long-suffering lowly status housemaid, Sarah, has hours of hand-hurting work to get the stains out. Suddenly it didn’t seem so glorious for Elizabeth to have defied conventions and run athletically. These students seem to assume most readers must dislike Austen’s Mr Bennet, so when Baker has Mr Bennet have an illegimate son by Mrs Hill and does not take responsibility for him, one student offered the idea Baker’s text thus thickens our knowledge of the original character’s potentials (not allowed in Austen’s more repressed text). They said they became aware of a whole world in the original house they had not taken into account. One of the four students said she would never read P&P in the “innocent” (she did not use that word but it’s what she meant) way she had again.
There was much engaged talk from the audience and with the panelists and students afterwards. Here is just a bit of it: Linda Troost said she had heard James speak about Austen once, and she talked worshipfully; that you need to twist and distort the original novels to make them more available. It was agreed by many Austen’s wit was lost in much of these post-texts. Kathleen Stall felt that fan fiction that departed too radically from Austen’s assumptions and characters should not be seen as fan fiction (she cited as examples modern crude sexual attitudes in some of the sequels). Marie McAllister asked if Austen scholarship was at all affected by fandom and post-texts; it was implied that it was not, and yet an emphasis on Austen on romance has become dominant in recent scholarship. I tried to start a dialogue on how we can distinguish fine post-texts which can be categorized as historical novels in their own right as opposed to fictions which remain fan fictions because they are rooted in the limited terrain of the Austen worlds in her texts, and only in minor ways move outside. So Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, which retells R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a semi-original historical novel in its own right so full and suggestive of the later 19th century world is it, so successful Martin’s creation of an appropriate style, with ramifications well beyond the original texts. Longbourn reaches out to this with its section on the Peninsula war, but does not achieve it by not realizing that war fully enough; James’s novel, Death Comes to Pemberley remains an often inert retelling of the original novel combined with a disorganized meandering mystery thriller; but the film, scripted by Juliette Towhidi, and much rearranged, developed, and made witty and intellectually interesting in its own right (and unusually based on the assumption we are to empathize with Mr Bennet) comes close, but Towhidi’s lack of real examination of the values of either Austen’s original or James’s intermediary text leaves the film without any serious moral critique of life (I do not reject F.R. Leavis’s criteria; it’s such criteria that led to D. W. Harding’s rightly influential, “Well Regulated Hated” essay on Austen’s fiction).
I think it important to distinguish the good and occasionally perhaps great books which are post-texts (before the 19th century use of copyright and theories of originality, such texts themselves are regarded as masterpieces in their own right, like Malory’s Arthurian Tales, a translation, adaptation, redaction of earlier medieval French texts). To see them as just teaching us about Austen, and demand that they stay within Austen’s point of view (let’s admit a limited one in a number of ways) is to dismiss them as non-serious. Alison Light in her Forever England, a book on neglected and good women writers of the 1930s, discusses Mrs Miniver (a pseudonym for Jan Struther) as an important sign or site for a working journalist and poet in her own right; Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones diaries descends from this kind of writing for and about women; and then there are worthwhile sequels, books with a genuine feeling about our contemporary world, something to say about it, which contribute to new subgenres of romance, such as Cindy Jones’s My Jane Austen Summer. It’s one of the jobs of the literary scholar to evaluate the texts we read and write about. See my blog on Cleland and Andrew Davies’s Fanny Hill.
A typical reprint from ECCO (on sale at Amazon)
On Saturday, the 10:30 session, Jim May’s panel on “Research in Progress” offered a series of papers on the kinds of scholarship people are doing today. Tonya Howe discussed “Corpse Humor On and Off the 18th century Stage:” corpses had become a commodity in the era; they were everywhere and farces provide a perspective on wide-spread death practices, beliefs in ghosts, anxieties, confusions and class hierarchy in undertaking/burial practices which included communal “rejoicing” in festivities at death ceremonies. Melissa Wehler has returned to a research project she began many years ago on Charles Macklin, which centered on a tragic play (a flop?) on Henry VII; the context contested by scholarship includes the question of Macklin’s Irishness, his use of a Scots identity (the Scottish Peg Woffington was in a production); the 1745 rebellion. Macklin himself made himself disliked. One has to ask what were the actualities of the time, stage, production, a more sophisticated historicism is needed. Rodney Mahler is another professor who brought a student doing research for and with him to discuss their efforts to decipher the bad handwriting of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson (the standard biography by Anne Ousterhout and Graeme’s work as an American writer was described); Kasey Stewart, the student, showed how he used computer software to create a code. (It was later remarked if you had never learned cursive writing, you would not be able to begin to make a code.) (See Graeme Park the Encyclopedia Britannica on-line article); Matthew Vickless put before the audience and panelists the problem of having too many texts available to us through ECCO and other on-line sites: working on George Dyer, a scholarly highly learned polemical writer and poet (gently satirized by Charles Lamb; see online Dyer’s Disquisitions on Poetry; enotes); Mr Vickless found himself moving to texts within texts, and asking the question, if he was studying underappreciated important or good texts or “going down rabbit holes” of intertexuality. What does one do about all these available ancillary and auxiliary texts? His conclusion was paradoxically we need scholarly evaluative tools and edited texts more than ever.
The Athenian Mercury, February 28, 193
The perspectives of this session and the Jane Austen fan fiction panel were continued (in effect) using other texts in two papers on Eleanor Shevlin’s “book history” panel after the business lunch and presidential address. Peter Briggs seems to have discovered a version of writers interacting with audiences (analogous to people commenting on texts on websites and then on another another’s comments) in John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury. Dunton’s periodical was radical, an innovative experiment in which questions sent in by readers formed the central focus; he felt Dunton and his associates were surrrendering editorial control at least to some extent (they choose what questions to print). Readers’ questions poured in and Mr Briggs discussed the specifics that one can find in this magazine’s run. Beyond entertainment value, one learns what was on many individual’s minds (bothered by apparitions, dreams); what they had questions about (animal behavior; earthquakes); what they saw as significant (does gunpowder or printing cause greater mischief?); we see real people’s lives in process (conventions of marriage, courtship). Readers were fooled by the pretense of a panel of “12 worthies.” Perhaps Charles Gildon overpraised its value, but it is true you cannot predict what could be the results of these conversations in print. Mr Briggs conceded that the tone of the medium was calm reasoning, and the intent often to reassure and make the readers feel they were co-participants in knowledge. The Athenian Mercury provided a public space for them to experience intelligent conversation.
Mr Brickner mentioned the above text in his talk
The other paper that delved what goes on in readerships and human behavior behind and surrounding texts was Andrew Bricker’s “Title Pages, Imprints and Other Deceptions in the 18th century English book trade.” As today, 18th century gov’ts and their agents employed people to stop and control what was printed; ijn reaction about subversive texts printers published, they would claim I didn’t read or understand the text, just printed it. Libel laws were unclear and hard to use against writers and printers; nonetheless, printers were dragged into trials, pilloried, and the trade self-censored itself a good deal. Pseudonyms and anonymous were ways of protecting authors (Junius an example); certain kinds of buzz phrases would alert readers to subtexts; pornography was mostly disguised as art or comedy, e.g., the “Curious Maid” was a bestseller — she tries to see her gentilia in a mirror and finally succeeds; Mr Bricker discussed a fictionalized author calling himself Roger Fuckwell. (See 18th century pornographic verse; erotic fiction; where wikipedia assumes writings by prostitutes are by prostitutes; a book review of one of Robert Darnton’s books and a NYRB review by Darnton himself). He also discussed sycophantic texts: a fake identities like Roger Moore writing fulsomely about Walpole; and Michael Currey who was blacklisted by fellow stationers for giving information away that it was understood one would not. Woodcuts offers a way to understand what a printer intended. Mr Bricker routinely comes across entries in the ESTC that are wrong, or offer misinformation, so difficult and complex is this area.
In the discussion afterwards Mr Briggs later said of the Athenian Mercury that “social visibility” is what we are talking about here, ordinary people becoming visible. These later panels seemed to me to bring up pre-computer attempts for those left out of hierarchies of access to become socially visible and reach other people as well as the post-texts surrounding valued texts and coming out of unacknowledged disvalued communities.
For myself as a woman scholar I know that women memoirists have been denigrated and dismissed as “whores” and their books misrepresented in slurring ways as erotic, pornographic (or just stupid); and I wonder what is the relationship between older pornographic texts (which I often find distasteful) and 20th and 21st century ones (violent, intensely misogynistic); then as now men are the main readers of such books; what is the difference between salacious kitsch and biting political writing and images (e.g., Nelson’s Naked Truth for the images)? See finally Julie Peakman’s essay in History Today.
A telling cover illustration; see a review of Peakman’s now classic work (deserves to be as widely known as Darnton’s).