On December 7, JASNA Southwest celebrated its 40th anniversary at the University of Southern California — a fitting location since USC was where the region held its inaugural meeting almost exactly four decades before. The 2019 festivities at the festive Town & Gown banquet hall included raffle baskets, special book giveaways, a photo booth featuring (sadly, an inanimate) Colin Firth and numerous “heroes on a stick,” an interactive lunchtime quiz, a white elephant sale and book signings by the guest speakers.
Janine Barchas, the Luann and Larry Temple Centennial Professor in English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, started the day with a discussion of her new publication, The Lost Books of Jane Austen. Barchas spent years searching for and gathering as many versions as she could find of the inexpensive 19th century reprints that helped make Austen canonical. Those she discovered helped fill her oversized volume with nearly 100 color images of rare and forgotten Austen editions.
Barchas began her talk, “Jane Austen on the Cheap,” by describing the effort as “hard-core bibliography meets the Antiques Roadshow.” She explained how the cheap books that belonged to the working class were sold at railway stations, traded for soap wrappers and awarded as school prizes. They were among the earliest mass-market paperbacks.
While noting that “cheap books live very hard lives,” she added that many of the versions she found were better preserved than those collected by famous authors. “Virginia Woolf’s copy of Sense and Sensibility looks like it was read in the bath,” she said, comparing it to a photo of a pristine copy apparently treasured by Ellen Martha Horwood, a butcher in Newgate Market, London.
Barchas explained some of the other reasons why the largest print runs of Austen editions were not saved or collected. In addition to their low production values, paper drives during World War I and World War II led to many ordinary books being pulped. Storage on microfilm also gained favor, leading to the loss of many of the cheap versions of Austen’s works.
She also showed numerous covers that tried to capitalize on completely unrelated Hollywood films to sell copies of the novels. For instance, an Italian teen version featured a likeness of Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda from War and Peace, while an image of Laurence Olivier (more Heathcliff than Mr. Darcy) adorned the cover of a Spanish paperback edition of Northanger Abbey. “This is about selling translations of old books with Hollywood glamour in war-torn Europe,” she said.
These forgotten books not only challenge our ideas of good taste but more importantly help us question who loved Jane Austen’s books more. “These cheap, crappy, ill-made books did the hard work of building Austen’s fame from the ground up,” she said.
Next, Devoney Looser, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University, shared “Further Adventures in the Making of Jane Austen,” featuring a number of stories she pieced together on the 19th century afterlife of Austen that didn’t make it into Looser’s 2017 book, The Making of Jane Austen. Looser began by noting that Austen is now the fifth most Instagrammed author and recently was mentioned in Chance the Rapper’s opening monologue for Saturday Night Live.
After running through a host of Pride and Prejudice reimaginings — from vampires and lawyers to kittens and guinea pigs — Looser regaled the audience with her favorite current Austen-inspired title, Pride and Pregnancy, with Hallmark’s Sense and Sensibility and Snowmen being runnerup.
“It is a daunting thing to say anything new about such a well-studied figure,” Looser opined. She then shared a quote that further highlighted the challenge. “So much has been written and so much well-written concerning Miss Austen that there seems to be need for some sort of apology or explanation for putting forth any new volume.” Looser explained that was written by literary critic Walter Herries Pollock in 1899!
Her talk debunked the myth that Austen was overlooked for 30 to 40 years after her death, and that she only gained fame after her nephew’s biography of her in 1870 followed by publication of her surviving letters in 1884. She put Austen’s catchiest titles, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, in the context of 1810s and afterward to help demonstrate her earlier fame. While the phrases were not original to Austen, after the novels were published, they almost immediately amplified use of those phrases. “The phrase sense and sensibility featured in everything from headlines about the Prince Regent in 1813 to the congressional remarks of John Quincy Adams in 1827,” she said.
Looser went on to discuss Austen’s unrecognized emergence in legal history starting with 1820s, with a breach of promise of marriage case, up to the U.S. Supreme Court reference to Pride and Prejudice in 2015. She also noted that Austen’s writing was often plagiarized in books like Half Hours with the Best Authors in which “The Voluble Lady” — Miss Bates in Emma — was excerpted and used as a satiric exemplar of a failed lady in Victorian England. Looser explained how the character became a gender-bending performance phenomenon from the 1840s to the 1880s.
She concluded her talk with a “Sad Adventure in Switzerland,” a debunked story that began circulating in the late 1880s that fantasized about Austen’s love life with a real-life Captain Wentworth who she supposedly met in Switzerland before he died in a mountain climbing accident.
After lunch, Barchas and Looser returned to the stage to discuss their collaboration on a special issue of the Texas Studies in Literature and Language journal with the topic “What’s Next for Jane Austen?” The conversation was moderated by Lynda Hall, associate professor of English Literature at Chapman University. JASNA Southwest was honored to serve as the official launch for the new issue of the journal, which includes not only scholarly articles but contributions by biographer Deirdre Le Faye, playwright Kate Hamill, filmmaker Whit Stillman, presidents of Jane Austen societies around the globe, and numerous others.