- Reading Austen in America by Juliette Wells
2017 was a banner year for Jane Austen studies. One need not rehearse the litany of titles that remind us that even after two hundred years, Jane Austen is here to stay. That Juliette Wells's Reading Austen in America came out in this banner year is to its and her credit. Amidst the splash and noise of Austenian ubiquity, Wells's task of tracing the first edition of Emma produced in America risks being rather too quiet, notwithstanding the suggested range of the book's title. However, despite the apparently modest nature of the book's task and the unprepossessing quality of the claims it makes, it nevertheless takes on something rather daunting in its efforts to interest a general audience in not only Austen but in the minute history of a particular edition of one of her novels. Placed in the "intersecting fields of reception studies and the history of reading" (3), this book explores the first instances of "reading Austen in America," specifically the histories of circulation of the first American Emma, as a sort of object narrative. Combining the narrative history of biography with the detail of the collector, Wells weaves a story that charms and interests even despite (and likely because of) its rather immediate, dare one say, nerdiness (and one says such a thing with both respect and appreciation).
As she gets her story rolling, Wells acknowledges the divided readership for the book: "So far, all is well known to those steeped in Austen. We enter less familiar territory with the title page of the [End Page 877] first American edition of Emma" (16). Among the most daunting of challenges, of course, for a book like the one Wells has written is the need to provide facts and basic information for a reader who is not steeped in Austen studies, or indeed in literary study, while at the same time maintaining an academic and professional readership. Here, Wells's subject matter is ideal, in that she offers a series of biographical sketches of individuals who gain admission to history only through their encounter with Jane Austen, and even more particularly, only through their encounter with this single edition of Emma—itself poorly produced enough to be almost ephemeral. Many an erudite Austen scholar will know little about the letters passing between Alberta Burke and her book-collecting English pen pal David Gilson, and even if they do know something about those two from having visited the treasure trove that is the Goucher Library Special Collections (where Wells enviably gets to spend much of her time), they will almost certainly know nothing about the Quincy sisters of Boston and their letters with the Francis Austen family in Portsmouth. It is an intriguing mode of both history and historiography, and one that the young Jane Austen would likely have found rather compelling.
There is at times something almost gossipy about the kind of story Wells offers, weaving the letters passed between these various transatlantic epistolary relationships together with some conjecture and guesswork about what else might have transpired. "It is tempting to imagine," Wells writes in her discussion of one Lady Dalhousie, an "accomplished Scotswoman" and acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, "that Lady Dalhousie and Scott discussed Austen's novels during this or other encounters" (104). That neither Wells nor, it seems, anyone else can confirm or deny such an idea helps to produce the scene that Wells's book is so invested in producing. The scene, it seems, is provided for the non-specialist, who might well take up such an idea as part of the pleasure of Wells's storytelling. The acknowledgment of "temptation," however, seems offered to the scholar, who knows better than to imagine such a scene as anything other than a guilty indulgence.
It is a fine line that Wells treads, and it is perhaps not surprising that few books get written that so directly aim to engage two very different audiences. As another sign of the book's challenge, Wells must provide...