- Making the Modern Fan:Readerships and Aesthetics in Austen Studies
Taken together, Jane Austen’s Erotic Advice, Global Jane Austen, and Jane Austen and the Arts provide a snapshot of some current preoccupations of scholars of Austen and her contemporaries. Following on studies ranging from Janeites (2000), edited by Deidre Lynch, to Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures (2012), in different ways Raff, Raw, and Dryden all engage with the Austen fandom. Sarah Raff’s monograph explains the devotion of the Janeite as only the latest demonstration of the rhetorical power Austen consciously experimented with from her youth; Laurence Raw and Robert Dryden’s contributors analyze Austen’s popular reception and adaptation across mediums throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Natasha Duquette and Elisabeth Lenckos’s interdisciplinary anthology likewise situates Austen’s work within a wide-ranging frame, though in this case centered around eighteenth-century aesthetic theory as well as musical and other cultural practices.
Sarah Raff’s Jane Austen’s Erotic Advice is a scholarly gem: beautifully written, theoretically sophisticated, erudite, and in command of its subject from the eighteenth through to the twenty-first centuries. This monograph draws connections between diverse texts and phenomena, in and of themselves familiar, but given new importance when considered together. Raff’s opening insight is that the modern-day Austen devotee, longing for an Austen to script her life and loves, is a recasting of that familiar eighteenth-century literary type, the female Quixote. Raff contends that the conviction [End Page 507] that today’s fans possess, that Austen somehow understands their problems and that her novels are coded guides directing them to happiness and romantic fulfillment, taps into a deep truth: Austen the novelist did in fact write advice manuals, though of a peculiar, groundbreaking sort. Austen’s plots disable critiques of Quixotism by showing that what poses as its opposite, sober didacticism, is in fact its double, since both depend on forms of literary seduction. In Raff’s reading, Austen’s signal achievement is her extension, particularly in her later novels, to include the reader her or himself in this process. Austen thus achieves unparalleled success in creating a state of “happy erotic anticipation” (164). Raff reaches this conclusion through the deployment of comprehensive literary references, rhetorical analysis, and biographical episodes. The argument closely examines the logic and linguistic structure of the generalization—such as the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice—to show how such pronouncements are essential to both didactic novels and Quixote-inducing narratives. And precisely through its claim as “a truth universally acknowledged,” the generalization punctures the wall between the fictional world and the world of the reader, promising that, if applied in the real world, it will facilitate the same satisfying outcomes at which the courtship plot aims.
After presenting the history of the study’s key terms, Raff provides detailed scrutiny of Austen’s last four published novels. At first glance, what Raff calls the “vanishing narrator” of Pride and Prejudice seems to obviate her initial claims about the erotic relation between Austen as author and her readership. Raff’s discussion shows, however, that this particular text anticipates Austen’s subsequent narrative choices by casting a character—Darcy—as the master of the generalization. Elizabeth Bennet’s dawning attraction to the hero is concomitant with her realization that he, not those in her neighborhood or her father, knows in the broadest sense the views and expectations of polite society. This theory explains Darcy’s unique status among Austen’s male leads for her readership, who “often see their extratextual loves as versions of or substitutes for him” (57). In subsequent novels, this erotic charge becomes transferred to the author herself. In terms of Austen’s own life, Raff maintains that Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion did in fact...