- Introduction:What's Next for Jane Austen?
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The literary celebrity and cultural reach of Jane Austen (1775–1817) has grown exponentially over the past decade. In quick succession, half a dozen bicentenary celebrations for each of her published novels prompted not just gatherings of her existing loyal fans but waves of books, films, art, and essays about the author's life and work that garnered new devotees. The Bank of England confirmed the modern cultural currency of Austen's celebrity when it placed her portrait on its ten-pound note. The heady crescendo to this [End Page 335] unprecedented scholarly and artistic activity around Austen's writings came in the form of the two hundredth anniversary of the author's death on July 18, 2017. The worldwide attention for Austen on that day included countless op-eds and news headlines, a flurry of social media activity, significant museum exhibitions, and a no-holds-barred grand ceremony at Winchester Cathedral. All scholars and fans of Austen, including the two of us, have benefitted professionally and personally from this recent global attention. We recognize the serendipity of a string of anniversaries that direct the public gaze to the author about whom we research, write, and care.
The biggest anniversary of most of our lifetimes may still lie ahead: the year 2025 will mark the 250th anniversary of Austen's birth—her sestercentennial. (Better start practicing that word out loud now.) The question that guides the contributions in this special issue, "What's Next for Jane Austen?," is intended to redirect our collective attention to the present moment, post-bicentenary, and to this next major milestone. With one eye on 2025, this issue is intended as a deliberate stocktaking of the great variety of intellectual activity in the name of Jane Austen—including her cultural capital and market sector—in all corners of the Austen-inspired world. To this end, we have gathered together five academic articles considering emerging areas of inquiry and nineteen brief views from major stakeholders connected to the Austen industry. Together, they provide a panoptic sense of how we are collectively approaching Austen today, in light of that 2025 anniversary, which will be the last Austen jubilee of great significance in our lifetime. The contributors in this issue express their work on and devotion to Austen in vastly different ways: as curators, fans, writers, artists, scholars, tool makers, collectors, reporters, teachers, thought leaders, and historians of all stripes. They compel us to consider how these activities stand alone, diverge, blend, or coexist.
How did we get here? Much energy in Austen studies has already been spent answering this question. One answer is that past may be prologue where literary celebrity is concerned. The state of Austen's literary afterlife today parallels the nascent celebrity of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) during the eighteenth century. We (Barchas and Looser) note this not just because we were both trained as eighteenth-century scholars, but because parallels between Austen and Shakespeare are unavoidable and commonplace. Both Austen and Shakespeare were, you might say, late bloomers.
It took two hundred years for Shakespeare to be declared a master in the court of public opinion. Only then did "the God of our idolatry" begin to inspire those activities necessary for literary worship: pilgrimage routes, a frenzy for true relics, merchandizing, and literary tourism. In the case of [End Page 336] Shakespeare, the charismatic eighteenth-century actor David Garrick (1717–79) helped to transform the dramatist into the national icon we now take for granted—not unlike how the celebrity of Colin Firth and Emma Thompson have helped to make Austen the current darling of Hollywood. If you squint hard enough, you can see that Shakespeare and Austen enjoyed similar watershed moments. Garrick's rained-out Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1769, and Firth's famous dip in that BBC Pemberley pond, offered wet spectacles that became the stuff of recycled celebrity legend.1
Fun analogies aside, if we have arrived at a key moment for Austen's fixity, it has also brought more pressing questions. What destination...