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Archive for December 7th, 2019


A photograph of the wall at Lyme from the water side (contemporary) — see my review of Lucy Worseley’s JA at Home, book & film

Dear friends and readers,

I finally unsubscribed from Janeites on this past Sunday night, and will no longer be putting any postings on Austen-l — after being on the first list for more than 20 years and the second some quarter of a century. A sad evening. I asked myself if I learn anything about Austen on Janeites, now at groups.io (after considerable trouble and work) and previously at yahoo; do I experience any pleasure in ideas about her, gain any perspective on her era, contemporaries, the books or authors or people or places she was influenced, and the sad answer was no. Often just the opposite. I faced up to the reality that the listserv space is one Arnie Perlstein’s playground for preposterous sexed-up and male-centered (he is ever finding famous white males like Milton or more modern males in Austen) theories and from others who support him semi fan-fiction postings (such as the idea that Mr Knightley wrote or dictated Mr Martin’s letter to Harriet). The latest very long thread was once again about how Jane Fairfax is pregnant in Emma (I’m not sure if Frank Churchill or John Knightley was the candidate this time) and the idea the full fantasia of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is central to Austen’s Emma.

I felt bad about deserting the list-moderator but it seemed to me the latest series went beyond previous in a tone of triumph and enjoyment which suggested one motive was to show contempt for the purpose of the listserv (and mockery of the helpless membership), which disdain and exultation the moderator (in effect) replied to by writing (as she has so many times before) with the purpose of the list:  its terrain was to read Jane Austen’s actual texts, discuss them, her era, and her real life. She has said also repeatedly how she dislikes these sexed-up “shadow texts” and how what is said about Austen, their content ruins her enjoyment of the books. A couple of people then told me (through the message mechanism on face-book) how they laugh at such threads — that reminded me of the way people enjoyed Scottie Bowman on Austen-l years ago (he had a gift for needling malice). One person had the courage to onlist explain she stayed only for sentimental reasons — remembering what was. Maybe it was the latter sentiment that determined me to face up to the demoralization and aggravation this particular kind of debasement of Austen the money- and career-making cult leads to.

Lest my last phrase be misunderstood what I am referring to is that part of the reason Jane Austen (as a name, a picture, a set of titles) has spread so widely is the pair of words makes money for many people and has been used by many to further their careers — from getting tenure, to heritage businesses, to touring oneself, to selling objects, to setting up tours for others (at a price), from business as far apart as the hotel industry (JASNA is kept expensive in order to keep the meetings smaller), to toy and knick-knack manufacturers and (at one time) séance mediums, to running sites de memoire.

It matters that while the secondary literature on Austen has grown exponentially, her oeuvre remains tiny and easy to read through in say less than two weeks. Yet I’ve met people at these JASNAs who at best have read 2 of the novels. And yes many of these participants will say they “hate” Mansfield Park; lately participants I’ve met suggest Mr Knightley is “really” in love with Jane Fairfax; they get this from some of the Emma movies. JASNA having finally “allowed” in panels on sequels is now not just flooded with them — you see it in the shop — one of the years the very topic was in effect these sequels and movies. JASNA grew to its present size after the first of the contemporary Jane Austen movies in 1995/96.

Maybe now with so many vying to publish about her, it’s not so easy to be published in journals, and fan fiction is no longer a publisher dream of an easy sell, but an essay on her, an umpteenth film adaptation of Emma will get further than than any essay on a “minor” (obscure) woman writer? Who has heard of Margaret Oliphant? Charlotte Smith? The situation may be similar for Sherlock Holmes as a name and set of titles — as well as a literal place Holmes lived in — as if the character actually existed. Readers can invest whatever they want into these post-texts (or sequels).

I find very troubling how reputable scholars have argued in print that it’s okay to tell lies, it’s okay if the printed material or what is taught is all wrong, is the product of political censorship, or if what is on display is salacious, misogynistic, just plain stupid. I objected to this supposed neutrality in Devoney Looser’s latest book. She implied it’s elitist to insist on accuracy and truth and explicitly undervalued the difference between knowledge and illusion, credible evidence and lies.

Group and social dynamics in cyberspace work differently than in real space, so one or two people can take over and ruin a listserv, silence everyone else; scapegoating is easy. So one of the things some site-owners (face-book moderators, listserve owners and moderators) whose platforms survive do is early on or soon enough establish parameters on what is somehow pernicious nonsense — Hardy Cook had a hard time at first with his Shaksper-l and now just forbids all stupidity over the idea that Wm Shakespeare did not write his books; these kinds of ideas circulate among lots of (foolish snobbish) people; or (as I have seen many times now), you say this face-book page is for this author and no other authors; discussions about contemporary politics are out; this is not the space to talk of movies or your favorite star-actor. Today Shaksper-l is a sober discussion of Shakespeare’s plays, the productions, real cruxes in the scholarship &c Athurnet years ago is another place where setting boundaries on theories of where the Arthur matter came from finally worked. I’ve seen this on face-book fan pages — more than one determined moderator is sometimes needed. Most of these kinds of posters fall silent without an audience to triumph over.

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On the Janeites list I had been trying with the list moderator to agree on a book of literary criticism or history about Jane Austen where each chapter would bring us to the text or her life again. We would try to post weekly on Austen through such a text. I had tried posting on the essays in the most recent Persuasions (as a text many members might own) starting in summer but few people were interested in serious analysis or any discussion at all, in reading such writing.

I have been having a difficult time keeping this blog going — with all the literary and film and other study (for teaching and classes I go to) I do in the other parts of my life, and had proposed to go back to series: of actresses, fore-mother poets, women artists, serial dramas based on the 18th century or film adaptations of historical fiction based on the early modern to early 19th century European cultures. But I know this excludes Austen. So now I’ll have an alternative thread if I can manage this: once a week or so, blog on a chapter on a book genuinely engaged with Austen’s texts, life, era. I’ll begin with Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Long range I’d like also to try for one of the books on the relationship of Jane Austen’s texts to the plays or theater of her time.

Accordingly, I have changed my header picture to a picturesque illustration found in one of the older handbooks for Austen, F. B. Pinion’s A Jane Austen Companion. Pinion’s is a beautifully made book (sewn, heavy paper, a lot of rag content in the boards). It’s filled with various kind of pictures (plates, photos, vignettes) where the material is written as clear essays critically surveying Austen’s life, the early phases of her writing, a chapter each for the major novels, topics like influence, her reputation. Places, character studies. Dulce and utile is a phrase that is rightly applied to this book. Manydown house is now gone: it was the Bigg-Wither home where Austen bravely went back on a weak moment where she said yes to an unsuitable man for her as an individual; and it was the place where assembly-type balls were held in her time. Thus it seems to me appropriate.


Susan Herbert’s parody of Adelaide Labille-Guiard’s Self-portrait with Two Pupils (1785)

Ellen

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