- Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination by Juliette Wells
The question “What does Jane Austen mean to you?” opens and closes this book that attempts to understand how readers, scholars, and fans of Jane Austen connect with her legacy in the twenty-first century. In 1905, Henry James disparaged “the body of publishers, editors, illustrators [and] producers of the pleasant twaddle of magazines[,] who have found their ‘dear, our dear, everybody’s dear, Jane so infinitely to their material purpose, so amenable to pretty reproduction in every variety of what is called tasteful, and in what seemingly proves to be saleable, form” (3). Wells is therefore determined to distinguish between Jane Austen’s “fans” (who generally use her first name, endearingly) and “scholars” (who refer to her by her last name, as they would any author) and focuses on “amateur” or “everyday” readers: “By investigating with open minds how ordinary people encounter Austen, we gain an unprecedented view of the significance of reading and of ‘classic’ literature” (8).
As Wells explains in her extensive introductory chapter, “Austen’s ever-growing popularity and market share” has spawned new books, screen and stage adaptations, museums and exhibits. Wells considers “how ordinary people think about Austen today, and why they find it rewarding to do so” (4), not only those who read the novels, but also those who watch films or read original fiction based on Austen’s novels and world. She studies the literary tourists who visit the various sites where Austen lived, visited, and wrote her novels, as well as those who imagine those visits. She considers the dedicated collector of Austen relics as well as the blogger and the self-publisher of Austen-inspired fiction. These constituents comprise what she refers to as “the popular imagination.”
In the subsequent chapters, Wells uses representative examples rather than trying to be comprehensive, and takes popular sources on their own terms and with their own expectations and conventions. The second chapter contains a short biography of Austen lover and collector Alberta H. Burke, whom Wells refers to as an “Austen omnivore.” Alberta’s ten scrapbooks—though they reveal the workings of a devoted amateur reader of Austen—are, “in their idiosyncratic way, manuscript works of amateur scholarship” (49). Many photographs of the notebooks and other Burke artifacts are included in the volume and provide the reader a glimpse into the extensive library she bequeathed to Goucher College. Although “of another era,” Alberta might be considered “a direct forerunner of post-1995 Austen fans,” the large Austen following that came after the film adaptation wave of the mid-1990s (59).
Wells then looks more carefully at the current amateur readers in her third chapter, considering Oprah Winfrey’s influence, which popularized “experiential aspects of reading and frame[d] it as an activity that can be both enjoyable and therapeutic” (70). She chronicles several self-help style Austen-inspired books that make the six published novels personal, adapting them to the individual needs of the various readers. Readers and writers are also drawn to scores of Austen-inspired fictional works, “both created by and intended for those who engage imaginatively rather than critically with what they read or view” (94). Throughout her book, Wells is careful not to disparage the seriousness of these publications or their readers, considering the industry as another way to understand the deep and lasting influence of Jane Austen’s fiction.
In the fourth chapter, Wells studies literary tourism and books that have been inspired by these travels, considering the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton and the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, with short side trips to Jane Austen’s grave at Winchester Cathedral and the site of her childhood home at Steventon. Rather than [End Page 322] merely providing a travelogue of Austen-related sites, Wells analyzes the way those sites provide satisfactory or unsatisfactory moments for the literary traveler. Utilizing personal interviews of visitors, log books from the two Austen museums, and several Austen tour books, Wells concludes that the visitors’ “experience was...