I read this book as part of the Austen in August reading event.
One of the truly curious things about Austen is just how many different incarnations of her there are. In the space of two hundred years, the ghost of Austen has been conjured in many different forms: saint, saviour, genius – and of course, more recently, in a wider and wider variety of guises: lover, detective, even bloodsucking and immortal vampire.
Biographies of Austen, and accounts of her work, frequently try to chip away at the layers and layers of disguises she has been coated with, in an effort to get a little closer to the ‘real’ Austen, to what she ‘really’ thought and ‘really’ wrote. But for me, as for many, the ‘real’ Austen (impossible to ever recover now, try as one might) is sometimes less interesting than the various ideas that people have of her. Partly, because it says a lot about the society they’re living in, and partly because it says a lot about individual desires and experiences.
Juliette Wells’ book, then, seems an absolute wonder. Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination doesn’t attempt to tell us anything new about Austen. Instead, it’s interested in inviting us into the world of the popular Jane Austen, a world of TV miniseries, bonnet-making classes, and vampire Jane Austen fan fiction. (Incidentally, I’ve found a trend among many Austen scholars, all of whom seem to want to avoid telling us ‘anything new’, as if they are aware of the limitations that a country parson’s daughter who wrote six novels might place on truly astounding or ground-breaking analysis and insight. Or maybe they’re just being modest.)
The study of popular culture has always been marred, in the past, by a contempt amongst scholars (and, indeed, everyday people) for the subject-matter. Which I have always found to be rather a shame, because finding out what the population at large is consuming seems to me a fascinating insight into the ideologies and practices of our own society. Not to mention that getting paid to watch and re-watch Jane Austen adaptations, read graphic novels, and contemplate the complexities of the Star Wars universe strikes me as a particularly enjoyable occupation.
So I fully expected to enjoy Everybody’s Jane. From its introduction it is clear that Wells aims to take as distanced and scholarly approach to her study of Austen in popular culture as possible, an attitude which is clearly necessary for any such undertaking. Indeed, the book is not concerned with the quality of Jane Austen continuations and adaptations so much as the quantity and type of those cultural products.
Wells covers an impressive amount of material: images of Austen, literary tourism, fan fiction, and movie adaptations. But while all of these discussions are interesting, they lack, perhaps, a certain depth; Wells does an excellent job collecting and describing various popular depictions and understandings of Austen, but in her task of cataloguing them all she perhaps sacrifices a consistent comparative approach, which might otherwise have made this a truly fascinating book. In particular, I would have liked a discussion of Jane Austen as a marketing tool, and perhaps an examination of Austen-based memorabilia, gifts, and toys. Of course, I appreciate that this would probably provide a considerable practical challenge to a scholar, given the ever-changing nature of Austen trinkets available online and in stores, but it’s still a fascinating topic that I would love, one day, to see in print.
But I should probably stop focusing on what the book doesn’t do, and focus on what it does. As an overview of Austen in the popular imagination, it is a good book. A stronger structure and more focused analysis might have made it a truly excellent one; but for anyone interested in Austen’s effect on popular culture, it is a good place to start.
Rating: 4 Stars