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Jane Austen and Her Readers, 1786–1945 by Kate Halsey (review)
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Katie Halsey combines reader-response criticism, book history, and literary close reading in her study of an author for whom reading is a particularly apposite theme. Jane Austen’s novels emerged from her family’s close and affectionate reading community, at a time of public concern over women’s reading, and their style and content encouraged readers to create an imagined reading community with the author.

Using a battery of methods too rarely combined, Halsey ably examines some major ideas to produce a successful and stimulating example of the benefits of a holistic, “book-historical” approach to an author, her texts, and her readers. Close analysis of the novels as texts and material objects helps make sense of some reader responses, while, conversely, acts of historical reading help our understanding of the texts. The first part of the book focuses on “Jane Austen’s reading” (the texts and the circumstances of their production) while the second, longer part looks at her readers, including the material qualities of successive editions and contemporary opinion about novel reading, Austen’s changing cultural capital, and the status of female novelists.

In the introduction to part one, Halsey acknowledges the scholars whose work she develops: for the hypothetical reader, she uses ideas from Bakhtin, Jauss, Iser, Fish, de Certeau, Barthes, and feminist theorists (reflecting her primary orientation) such as Fetterley, Felman, Harris, Mezei, Pearce, Mills, Flynn, and Schweikart. For the historical reader, she builds on the scholarship of Darnton, Chartier, Rose, Vincent, Eliot, Grafton, Hammond, Murphy, and Flint. Halsey argues that the tension between these two paradigms of the reader occurs in any act of reading, between the ideal reader and “the actual reader who may or may not be prepared to meet the demands made of the ideal reader, and whose responses are outside textual control” (8). The book covers British responses, from those first recorded to the point in the mid-twentieth century when Halsey believes that print culture was overtaken by other media.

Chapter 1, “Jane Austen’s Reading in Context,” establishes the important point that Austen was reared in a physical and geographical interpretive community of friends and family, who were both producers and consumers of texts and who wove their reading, enjoyment, and criticism of each other’s writing into their relationships. This community believed that one’s choice of reading revealed one’s character, but was not bound by contemporary attitudes to women’s reading, which saw novels as potentially challenging women’s subordinate status.

Chapter 2, “Jane Austen’s Negotiations with Reading,” studies Austen’s responses to her reading of conduct books (offering advice on behavior to young women), histories, and novels to position her within contemporary debates on reading and to show how she “read and used other types of reading matter” (35). Austen identified with many of the values of conduct literature, while subverting others. I suspect that the longest chapter, chapter 3, “Jane Austen’s Games of Ingenuity,” was the one that Halsey most enjoyed writing. The whole book is well written, but this chapter flows particularly smoothly, with Halsey in complete control of her material. Close readings explore “three ways in which Austen plays with and manipulates her readers’ expectations: . . . free indirect discourse, her use of the feminine blush, and her deployment of allusion” (59). Austen’s free indirect style, particularly her use of parodic narration, makes readers feel complicit, in on the joke, while literary allusions to “spectral texts—literary works that hover in the margins of her novels” (75) create “ghostly and unsettling voices in our memories” (85).

Halsey’s introduction to the second part of the book includes a useful summary of the concepts behind the history of reading and a meditation on the nature of reading itself. Chapters 4 and 5 provide context for reading Austen across the period, with chapter 4 addressing the material qualities of successive editions of the novels (a valuable summary) and noting how even the most intellectual of readers, such as historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, were influenced by supposedly peripheral aspects such as illustration. Chapter 5 broadens the context to discuss changing “cultural stereotypes about reading,” about fiction, and about Austen that affected readers’ responses...

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