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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.3 (2006) 397-405
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The Importance of Being Austen
Linda V. Troost
Like Mr. Worthing, who is Jack in the country and Ernest in town, Jane Austen suffers from dual identities. Critics have argued that she is a moralist or that she is a revolutionary, an Augustan or a Romantic, a satirist or a realist, gay or straight, a timeless author or a writer grounded in her time. College students have written essays arguing that she is a feminist or that she is a traditionalist, that she is sympathetic to Mary Wollstonecraft or else a staunch supporter of Edmund Burke. Even the film adaptations have displayed the binary oppositions that make up her image: Austen as icon of England (Davies's Pride and Prejudice), Austen as critic of England (Rozema's Mansfield Park); Austen as writer of earnest sensibility (Wright's Pride and Prejudice), Austen as writer of satirical sense (Davies's Emma). Critical books about Austen used to follow a standard pattern. One side of one of these ideological takes on Austen would be developed through six chapters, one on each published novel. More recent criticism, however, has begun to vary that formula and has started to see her in less dualistic terms, shifting her from a novelist of ideas to a novelist of culture.
There has always been a tendency to historicize Austen. R. W. Chapman's 1923 edition for Oxford University Press included historic illustrations and information, but much of the material was relegated to the back of the volumes. In contrast, the new 2005 Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen, under the general editorship of Janet Todd, titles its introductory volume Jane Austen in Context, which includes a series of essays on topics from "Agriculture" to "Transport" as well as a biography and a history of Austen's critical reception. While the influence of cultural studies may explain some of these developments, much of this recent criticism has its eye on an audience beyond the academy. Unlike most classic authors, Austen has an enormous readership outside the ivory tower, a readership that, in a time of shrinking library budgets, is eager to buy and read scholarly criticism and social history. But that audience has generated another ideological polarity: Austen as object of scholarly concern versus Austen as object of popular consumption. While highly theorized works about other authors have been commonplace in academic writing, theory has been late in coming to Austen studies, partly because the Janeites have been resistant to both jargon and anything that looks like a slur on their beloved Jane, with whom they strongly identify. Old Historicism is the favored approach: biographies, editions of letters, family records, and, of course, works on history and culture sell briskly. Some theoretical developments, however, have been welcomed by the non-academics. Scholars have opened the canon of Austen studies...