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Dear friends and readers,

Since I summarized Devoney Looser’s daring key-note address to the JASNA meeting held this past fall (2017) on this blog, “After Jane Austen,” I thought I’d add as appropriate my review of her book (upon or from which her speech was elaborated):

This review has been published in The Eighteenth Century Intelligencer, Newsletter of EC/ASECS, NS, 32:1 (2018):37-41, and I had thought to leave only a copy at academia.edu;  but since that site has been reconfigured so that unless you pay for a premium subscription, it comes with interrupting ads, I transfer it here. For the same reason (interrupting ads) I will be placing other short papers, reviews, and proposals having to do with Jane Austen or the 18th century from that site to this blog over the next couple of months.


Lily James as Elizabeth and Sam Riley as Darcy fighting over a gun, guns are regarded as good ways of remaining safe in Burt Steer’s film (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)

Looser, Devoney. The Making of Jane Austen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2017. pp. 291. ISBN 1421422824 (hardcover). 978214222831 (electronic).

Devoney Looser’s latest full-scale contribution to Austen studies is an original, important and well-written book. It is valuable for the highly unusual areas she studies, for information about and clear descriptions of texts probably unknown to many Austen scholars and/or Janeites alike (this is a feat), for the critical intelligence and close reading she applies to some of these; and, for her tales of poignant lives of a few people who ought to be remembered with respect for the significant contribution they made to the ways many people read Austen’s texts today. For example, George Pellew, who wrote the first dissertation on Jane Austen, was a sensitive depressive man unable to support himself or navigate the fiercely competitive commercial world which appropriated his book. He allowed himself to be drawn into debates with parapsychologists, and a half-mocking suggestion he seems to have argued weakly against that he might return from the dead then enabled an unscrupulous fraudulent spiritual medium to claim to bring him regularly back from the dead for the amusement of audiences which in order to make a profit from such material since a respectable celebrity had begun to attach itself to anyone who could be attached to the name Jane Austen (Chapter Ten, 185-96).

Unlike some reviewers, e.g., Amy Bloom, John Sutherland and Ruth Bernard Yeasley (see “Which Jane Austen,” New York Review of Books, 44:14 [2017];63-65), I will not against Looser’s “doggedly populist stance” (Yearsley’s phrase) fall into the trap of taking her or others to task for her many refusals to evaluate evidence and assertions about Austen. I will, though, take exception to her blaming repeatedly as culprits the world of scholarship presented as a monolith elite, irredeemably “haughty, highbrow” (Looser’s words) snobs, dense in our relentless determination to erase or ignore the powerless fan, malign the popular funny film, published sequel, widely-attended-to blog or YouTube, or mock as hopeless those inventing fantasy Austens in order say to appease schoolboards. In Austen’s famous sentence, let us not desert one another, we are an injured body: de- or unfunded, derided, part of humanities departments “swept away” with the “useless rubbish of past centuries” (I quote the Reverend Obadiah Slope interviewing Mr Harding in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers). We are made instruments of privately-supported corporations, and, when kept, most of us by no means overpaid or over-benefited. Devoney Looser is herself a privileged member. The strength of her book derives from following the standards of hard research into primary documents, paying meticulous attention to minute detail, using empirical methodology, closely reading accurately and researching into how a particular text, image or event came about. She honors a humane politically liberal, feminist, progressive (pro-LBGTQ) agenda, evidence for which she a tad too cheerfully (“Stone-throwing Jane Austen”) finds among force-fed and imprisoned suffragettes and in early stage plays which anticipate late 20th century film adaptations and some Austen sequels.

Indeed the more popularly-aimed (non-academic) reviews, e.g., Jane Smiley’s (“The Austen Legacy: Why and How We Love Her, and What She Loved,” New York Times Book Review, for July 11, 2017, on-line https://tinyurl.com/ycvw2ab5), pass over the first half of Looser’s book, as academic di rigueur, which “plod forward in their necessary way.” Looser begins with the three initiating (“first wave”) framing books (“Introduction,” “Part One”). Sliding over James-Edward Austen-Leigh’s sentimentalized A Memoir of Jane Austen, and Edward, Lord Brabourne’s edition of carefully selected, rearranged letters by Austen, she moves to dwell with praise on Constance and Ellen Hill’s time-traveling idyllic fantasy, Jane Austen: Her Home and Friends for its invention a magical “Austenland,” where the Hills repeatedly find nothing but safety, kindness, and relics suggesting contented activities. Looser dismisses as not influential Margaret Oliphant’s acid reaction to this kind of thing (8). I suggest Virginia Woolf’s demonstration of how the Hills’ pseudo-biographies “license mendacity” should not be dismissed, even if we cannot be sure how many people were influenced by The [First] Common Reader (it does contain the often-quoted essay, “Jane Austen”).

This picturesque legacy gives way to book illustrations done in a darker mood, much less well-drawn than Ellen Hill’s and poorly printed. The unfortunate Ferdinand Pickering (another depressive drawn to Austen, himself coping with an impoverished violent family) chose and drew solemn, serious, melodramatic linchpin moments in the six stories, often the same ones that serve as hinge-points in contemporary filmed dramatic romance mini-series and cinema hits (Chapter One). From a welter of other hitherto ignored or undiscussed images unearthed by Looser, we can see how Hugh Thomson’s at the time innovatively comic drawings achieved prominence: in debt, and professionally known in other areas of life, Thomson was hired to draw many more illustrations per volume than had been done before; and, in comparison to most of went before (in whatever mood), his are filled with alert life-feeling energy. These volumes sold and other competent illustrators imitated his (Chapter Three, 50-62). Unfortunately, Looser’s identification and innovative close readings of other particular illustrators’ lives and pictures is undermined by a paucity of reprints. She wants us to believe in the special loveliness and period romanticism of A. F. Lydon’s landscapes for Mansfield Park, but we are given only one (Chapter Two, 39-47), not enough to judge. David Gilson in the Cambridge Jane Austen in Context (ed. Janet Todd [2005], provides two more (137, 139-42).


J.F. Lydon, Mansfield Park


Anonymous, Mansfield Park (in the same tradition)

In all this Looser is doing what scholars have done for a long while: in areas of conventional scholarship most people recognize, describing accurately what she has chosen for mapping her Austen tradition. In the dense chapters on “Austen, Dramatized” (Part Two), she again identifies new texts, fearlessly corrects false information and wrong conclusions. She congratulates herself: “we can now identify” the “connection” another recent critic has seen between the MGM Pride and Prejudice and Thomson’s illustrations” (131), and sometimes extrapolates on thin evidence, as when she claims pervasive influence for Rosina Filippi’s Austen-derived dialogues for expensive English and American girls’ schools and private colleges (83-88). In these all-strong-girl scenes, Looser finds early woman-centered proto-feminist scenes similar to those in professionally staged plays by, for example, Mary Keith Medbury McKaye and Margaret McNamara, a feminist-socialist-pacificist (Elizabeth Refuses is still in print). She even turns up two lesbian stage plays. We learn of how Eva Le Gallienne played Jane to her partner-actress, Josephine Hutchinson’s Cassandra; Eleanor Holmes Hinkley (who, we are told, attended Radcliffe) called her “gender-bending” biographical play, Dear Jane, which, while it may have “veered sharply away from … the perfectly pious Christian heroine,” also included the hilarity of the inane. Hinckley is said to have enlisted her cousin, T. S. Eliot to play the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse” in a “stand-alone dialogue” (Chapters Four through Six, 83-96, 113-23). Some intriguing histories of actors and playwrights’ lives, are followed by a full-scale book history-type and film study of the famous (though not initially commercially successful) 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice and a never realized (seriously lamented by Looser) 1970s screenplay for a satiric Pride and Prejudice that seems a blend of burlesque, TV situation comedy, and crudities in the vein of the recent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016). A deleted scene from one of the many draft MGM scripts, would have had Laurence Olivier, already associated with Heathcliff, act out some “Bronte-brutal” (136), complete with metaphoric rape (Chapter Seven).


Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in the 1935 Tale of Two Cities

Since frankness and personal reaction are the order of the day, I’d like to emphasize, as Looser does not, how many women she names as centrally active in different phases of these appropriations of Austen (passim). Read any history of 1930s and 40s “classic” films and plays, illustrations for the 1860s, or early TV, it is just about all men all the time. Not here. Still, Looser does fall into Darcymania (Chapter Five). Her question often is: does a given actor or scene or plot-design emphasize Darcy or anticipate a gothicized Olivier, who is said to anticipate the “swoon-worthy” Colin Firth of Andrew Davies’s super-best known sociological event of a mini-series (the 1995 A&E Pride and Prejudice). I read differently one critic’s “extreme disappointment” (100-2) with a beloved stage actor’s Darcy because he “incomprehensibly” resembled another actor playing Sydney Carton. I suggest for Firth’s archetype one would do better to look at how Ronald Colman performed Carton as “somber dignified” “costumed romance and melodrama.” Colin Firth comes out of that kind of gentlemanly masculinity in melodrama; and after him so too Matthew MacFayden (Joe Wright’s 2004 Pride and Prejudice), and most recently Matthew Rhys (Juliette Towhidi’s 2013 Death Comes to Pemberley). These are part of the Austen tradition too. By contrast, Looser has little use for Greer Garson (“affected, silly” 137) and we hear nothing of the tradition of Elizabeth Garvie, a favorite for Elizabeth Bennet (from the 1979 BBC Fay Weldon Pride and Prejudice).


Elizabeth Garvie and Moray Watson playing Elizabeth and Mr Bennet playing backgammon together (1979 P&P, scripted Fay Weldon)

The material reviewers have been most attracted to, and where Looser does her best to regale us with what she finds “amusing,” includes the later and most problematic parts of her book, “Jane Austen, Politicized (Part Three, Chapters Eight and Nine”) and “Jane Austen, Schooled” (Part Four, Chapter Eleven). Her central contention that Jane Austen has been framed from a political viewpoint and used in political debates almost since she was first written about and discussed is incontestable. As she says, how one defines politics matters, and as long as we don’t define the word narrowly (unrealistically), and include art which “comments on the exercise of power, status, and authority,” and in Austen’s case, “particularly in regard to families, economics and gender roles,” Austen is a political writer. Nonetheless, in these chapters what she goes about to demonstrate is we can find Austen discussed politically and used in political discussion in the British parliament in 1872 (141-42) and in” tony private men’s clubs” when it’s a question of an image or name in banners and posters (which she insists were taken seriously) in suffragette marches and feminist pageants. She cites critics and authors overtly political in the narrower and broader senses who defend or attack Austen and differ considerably in their philosophical and other views, among the better known, G. K. Chesterton, a political reactionary, William Dean Howells, a socialist (151-52, 161-63) and among women, Annie Gladstone (159-61) and Cicely Hamilton, once an important writer (169-74). Looser studies widely-distributed schooltexts since the mid-19th century for readings, handbooks for tests, abridged (gouged-out) Austens and discovers they “reinforce social structures at the time, especially in terms of class, taste, and culture” (199). That’s still true (220-21). Jane Austen is made to stand for whatever is the mainstream view, and her texts explicated to support these in the blandest ways, e.g., Emma needs to learn “each of us has his own life to live; we cannot make ourselves dictators of the lives of others” (206).

The trouble is Looser says more than once it doesn’t matter if none of these purveyors of Austen or her books ever read about her for real or in decent unabridged texts. What are we endorsing, “celebrating” or “studying [for] historical nuance and cultural scope,” if ignorance and misunderstanding are its basis and these texts produce opposed and contradictory readings or responses (221)? When she says Samuel French handles “an astonishing 332 Austen-inspired school and community theater productions from 2012 to 2017” I don’t see how she can conclude a “performed Austen” is globally prevalent (220). She enters earnestly into imbecilic abuse (a reprint of a menu depiction of a clueless maid in tattered uniform peering guiltily at the broken bits of a bust of Austen for a rich men’s club, 154-56), and ill-natured anti-intellectualism (a National Lampoon mock-ad featuring as simpletons an earnest male supermarket employee and smiling leisured housewife, 212-14) in the same spirit as she complains that a non-condescending non-exploitative educational engagement with Austen’s texts by Josephine Woodbury Heerman (a 1908 edition of Pride and Prejudice for Macmillan Pocket Classic, 203) has not been as distributed or valued as Chapman’s 1924 first scholarly texts based on a study of the first printed editions and (where they exist) manuscripts.

This is a book mostly about social, political, and economic behaviors, personal lives, book and film and stage history, all of which can be connected back to a group of texts written by a woman named Jane Austen. In her “Coda” Looser pleads with her reader to “recognize” “please” that Austen’s “critical and popular legacies” move happily in tandem (217-18), that “popularity” (celebrity might be better word) is “not killing” Austen (219). She has apparently written this book to deny that Jane Austen or her texts (she does not distinguish between the biography and the texts) are being made “ridiculous,” and ends on the confession that she is “part of the problem” (222). Why? Because she is an Austen scholar who is also a professional roller-derby skater “under the name of Stone-Cold Austen” and because a number of her significant life events happened and continue to happen (e.g., an “Austen-scholar husband” and this book) as the result of an early and continuing personal engagement with Austen’s novels. To combine such experiences is “preposterous” (222). I confess I find her to be boasting and wrestling with a non-existent bugbear and mortification (if she is mortified). Powerful and high status members of societies have always used and will continue to use exclusion and stigmatized descriptions to control and marginalize and keep from less powerful people not just genuinely subversive and transgressive texts and pictures but anything they value unless they own some version of the object or experience they can conspicuously consume. Because this is so is no reason to stigmatize the academic profession (let us now remember Johnson’s couplet, “There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail/Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron and the Jail,” Vanity of Human Wishes, lines 158-59) nor, in this year, explicitly undervalue the difference between knowledge and illusion, credible evidence and lies.

Ellen Moody
Independent Scholar


Isobel Bishop (1902-88) imagined image of Jane Austen laboring over a manuscript of a book

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