the making of jane austen feature

The Making of Jane Austen – A Book Review

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ON OUR BOOKSHELVES

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NOVEL: The Making of Jane Austen

AUTHOR: Devoney Looser

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2017

I bought this book on a whim. I had a few hours to kill in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and after window shopping and getting something to eat, I found myself, as I often do, at a bookstore. Books on the Common was an inviting place, and so of course I had to make some purchases, partly out of self-indulgence, and partly out of a genuine desire to support small businesses generally, and independent booksellers particularly. I ended up with a few gifts for others, and The Making of Jane Austen for myself.

As is typical for me, I left the volume in a teetering pile of other impulse purchases on my nightstand, forgot all about it for months, and then rediscovered it and read it quickly.

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The Making of Jane Austen tells the story of the cultural history of Jane Austen, and how this author, obscure during her lifetime, became the phenomenon she is today. It covers how her novels over time have been interpreted, adapted, illustrated, excerpted, taught, turned into plays, movies, podcasts, and so on, and how all of these various influences created and altered the reputation and image of the novelist.

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When Jane Austen’s portrait was chosen for the British ten-pound note in 2013, an activist who had advocated for this honor received anti-feminist death threats, which seemed at the time to be strikingly bizarre. But politicization of Jane Austen, Ms. Looser explains to us, is nothing new…Victorian literary men revered Austen, and considered her conservative, conventional, safely domestic, a defender of traditional gender roles. But the suffragettes were also great admirers of Austen, and used her work, and her strong, sensible, memorable female characters to inspire and attract supporters to their cause. The argument as to what the novels mean, politically, is nothing new, and remains quite unsettled. As Looser puts it toward the end of the book, “Austen’s mass popularity, political divisiveness, and high literary reputation aren’t on some new collision course. If it is a collision course, it’s a very old collision course.”

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Devoney Looser is quite good company—she’s an academic and an enthusiastic fan, as well as a sometime skater who has played roller derby under the name of “Stone Cold Jane Austen.” She dug up all kinds of obscure information for this book, including biographical descriptions of Austen’s first English illustrator, Ferdinand Pickering, a slovenly eccentric with a violent family history, who haunted the Royal Academy Schools for decades. The first student to write a Jane Austen dissertation, George Pellew, who died a young man in 1892, was believed by many to have come back from the dead, supposedly through a human medium, and to go on to further discuss Jane Austen in the afterlife. A gender-bending Austen-inspired play staged in New York in 1932, Dear Jane, included a flirtatious, single actress playing Jane Austen, with her female lover performing as her dear sister, Cassandra. (It sounds fascinating, but it was not a critical or a commercial success. Perhaps it is due for a revival.) My guess is that Ms. Looser would be a lot of fun at a party…she sure knows how to ferret out good stories from forgotten bits of history.

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If you’re a Jane Austen admirer and are interested in learning more about the history of such enthusiasms, you will find this an entertaining, and quite original, book.

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best: 3 1/2 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com.

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press

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