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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 119-123

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Book Review

Recent Scholarship on Jane Austen

Devoney Looser
Louisiana State University

Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Pp. 267. $54.95 cloth. $17.95 paper.

Deidre Lynch, ed. Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). Pp. 248. $55.00 cloth. $17.95 paper.

Barbara K. Seeber. General Consent in Jane Austen: A Study in Dialogism (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000). Pp. 170. $42.95 cloth.

David Selwyn. Jane Austen and Leisure (London: Hambledon, 1999). Pp. 374. $45.00 cloth.

Mary Waldron. Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. 204. $54.95 cloth.

A philosopher friend emailed me recently to ask if I had heard the exciting news, reported on National Public Radio: that the suppressed 'nasty bits' of Jane Austen's novels had been uncovered. When I informed her that she had been taken in, a la War of the Worlds, by a fictional parody titled Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen (2001), she was surprised but amused. Hadn't it seemed strange to her, I asked, that the literary scholar who purported to have verified the authenticity of these sexy passages was described as studying Jane Austen's rhetorical strategies, chiefly her use of punctuation? Wasn't that detail over the top? To my dismay, my friend replied, "Isn't that what all of you do?" She then informed me that not just she, but her entire department, believed the story to be factual. So much for the reputation of scholarship published on Austen--and, perhaps, so much for the future staying power of the 'gentle Aunt Jane' persona.

Even without the discovery of racy new material, it is an exciting time to be studying Austen, a truth that must be acknowledged (though not universally) after reading the works under review here. Interest in Austen's reception has seemingly never been higher, with both scholarly and mainstream articles and books troubling over the question of her reputation. "Why Austen, and why now?" has been transformed into scholarly studies that ask, "How did Austen then lead to Austen now? Which Austen and why? Whose Austen?" These questions might be posed about any author, of course, but Austen seems to hold an unusual, visible, and controversial place in the British literary pantheon. As Deidre Lynch writes in the introduction to Janeites, Austen has long been compared to Shakespeare, "but there are few signs in Shakespeare's reception history of any counterpart to the disputatiousness that distinguishes Austen's" (10). Austen's "popularity and marketability" causes anxiety among critics and readers, Lynch argues. She concludes that there are many reasons why Austen "must be the heroine (or villainess) of the stories that readers tell about their relations to the literary tradition or to house and home and nation and history, and why they so often adopt the example of her novels in order to do that telling" (20). [End Page 119]

Janeites is a groundbreaking book. Two of its essays have been previously published: Claudia L. Johnson's "The Divine Miss Jane: Jane Austen, Janeites, and the Discipline of Novel Studies" and Susan Fraiman's "Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism." Reprinting Johnson's 1996 Boundary 2 essay as the collection's lead-off piece is the more defensible choice. Several of the original essays that follow reflect directly or indirectly on "The Divine Miss Jane," and Johnson's essay was the trailblazer in studies of Austen's twentieth century reception, her canonical positioning, and her relation to queer studies. Fraiman's piece, also an important one, was first published in 1995 in Critical Inquiry, but her essay seems more out of place in the collection. It is as much about Said as it is about Austen, and it deserves updating in light of the spate of recent work on Austen, colonialism, and gender.

The collection ruminates over the word "Janeite," placing itself squarely beyond--or...


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