Devoney Looser, The Making of Jane Austen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 291pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-2282-4; £22 (hb).
A celebrated spiritual medium known as the ‘human telephone to the spirit world’ is not the sort of character one anticipates being discussed in a book about Jane Austen. Neither is a mid-nineteenth century anti-suffrage Welsh MP who turns out to be a poor literary critic. Nor Harpo Marx, for that matter. But they are all here, among a cast of other extraordinary characters and situations, in Devoney Looser’s equally remarkable book, The Making of Jane Austen.
The medium in question was Leonora Piper who was asked in 1892 to communicate with George Pellow, the author of Jane Austen’s Novels, the first dissertation written about the novelist, published in 1883. Pellow—who was something of a prodigy by all accounts, and died at the age of thirty-two in mysterious circumstances—had told his close friend, the parapsychologist Dr Richard Hodgson, that if he died before him, he would try to speak to him from beyond the grave. Hodgson, and eventually various other professors from Harvard, went to see Piper regularly and were convinced that through Piper’s ‘automatic writing’ Pellow had made contact with them. The evidence? Piper’s written references to Jane Austen. As Looser goes on to observe: ‘the world of academia and the world of popular culture for Jane Austen were sometimes not so very far apart in the late nineteenth century’ (p. 186).
Indeed, this tension between academia and popular culture is evident and dissected throughout Looser’s extensively researched book, which can be characterised by its exceptional clarity, humour and insight. Looser, in choosing to focus on the ‘little-known or unknown individuals’ (p. 12) and their impact on the ‘making of Jane Austen’, as opposed to the ‘elite caretakers of her image’ (what John Lennon would sardonically call the ‘experts, textperts’) and their ‘hyperfocus on words’ (p. 11), has created a fascinating epistemological intervention in Austen studies. Like Shakespeare, to whom, as Looser points out, she is often compared, Austen generates and continues to generate meaning outside of the period in which she was writing. As each successive chapter powerfully demonstrates, these meanings, and Austen’s position in our culture today, has very little to do with academia and, instead, can be attributed to many women and men who, through their own creativity and intelligence, utilised Austen’s words for their own artistic and political purposes.
Take, for example, Rosina Filippi, Austen’s first dramatist, whose abridged duologues from Austen’s novels ‘emphasized—and celebrated—female domestic protest’ (p. 79); or Cecily Hamilton, who, along with Edith Craig, featured Austen in her hugely popular suffrage play A Pageant of Great Women (1909)—‘an indoor political extravaganza’ (p. 169). Then there is the fascinating story of theatre director Eva Le Gallienne, her lover (the actress Josephine Hutchinson) and the staging of the play Dear Jane in the early 1930s, where Hutchinson played Jane and Gallienne her sister Cassandra. This is not, of course, to say that Austen has always be used for radical purposes—as Looser writes, ‘Jane Austen has been and remains a figure at the vanguard of reinforcing tradition and social change’ (p. 3)—but it does indicate that if we scratch beneath the surface of the familiar Austen narrative (that, for instance, Austen and pop culture only existed post-1995 with the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice), then we begin to reveal the cultural, political and social circumstances of how ‘Jane Austen’ was invented in all her nuance, complexity and richness.
Nowhere do these concepts intersect more rewardingly than in Looser’s chapter on Austen’s illustrators and book illustration. The chapter begins with a discussion on the first English illustrator to work on Austen’s novels, Ferdinand Pickering, who was commissioned by the publisher Richard Bentley to produce ten illustrations for Austen’s six novels in the early 1830s. Pickering is another one of those characters in the book who led an unconventional life: after his work for Bentley he won a ‘life studentship’ at the Royal Academy, where he remained for years and became a target for students’ jokes. Nevertheless, his Austen illustrations would go on to have significant impact on the way readers understood the novelist’s works until the late Victorian period, when the market became saturated with illustrated editions of Austen. By identifying illustration, which has historically always been neglected as a field of study, as an important area for the critical analysis of Austen, Looser has opened up the potential for exciting new research. As she writes in an endnote, ‘only a dozen essays—some very brief—on Austen and book illustration make up what we’ve had to go on to make sense of the subject’ (p. 239). Moreover, Looser’s own research into the subject is revelatory. First, she has correctly identified that it was Ferdinand and not George Pickering who had illustrated these novels, whereas previous scholarship had attributed them to George, a landscape painter in the period. Second, Looser’s close readings of the illustrations provide us with a deep understanding of how Austen’s mid-nineteenth-century audience may have read (or misread) the novels. By emphasising particular scenes, incidents and characters, Austen’s illustrators necessarily neglect other ones, influencing a reader’s response in the process.
The Making of Jane Austen is not just a book for Janites, however; it is, and will become, a key study for anyone interested in undertaking research that explores the interplay between texts and how they generate meaning across different time periods and genres. Furthermore, by paying attention to those areas and people that have not traditionally been part of the ‘Austen narrative’, Looser shows us how to produce successfully research that is engaging, exciting and important. As she warns: ‘It’s incredibly important that we not keep intoning the limiting stories about Austen, her fiction, and her cultural legacy’ and ‘I worry about our ability to see her beyond the established critical voices and author-celebrities that we’ve so long cited and repeated’ (p. 221). These statements could apply to any author and the way we study their work, which is often, reductively, stuck in the period in which that author was writing. The Shakespeare scholar Terence Hawkes once wrote that ‘Shakespeare doesn’t mean, we mean by Shakespeare’. On the basis of Looser’s superb book, the same could be said about Jane Austen.