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Book review: A New Jane Austen: How Americans brought us the world’s greatest novelist by Juliette Wells

by
24 November 2023

Michael Wheeler looks at the case for Austen’s being made in the US

THIS book might come as a shock to the British Janeite. Juliette Wells, Professor of Literary Studies at Groucher College, Baltimore, is a recognised scholar and fan who bridges the gap between academic research on Austen and dear Jane’s fan clubs. In this, her third study on Austen’s readers and enthusiasts, she argues that Austen’s global reputation was established, not by British scholars, as most people assume, but by visionary American writers and collectors.

They are certainly an impressive group, headed by Oscar Fay Adams (1855-1919), labelled here as critical editor and biographer, and shown sporting pince-nez and a splendid moustache in The Cosmopolitan (1890). He gained access to the cottage and the big house in Chawton, and the house in College Street, Winchester, where she died.

Wells painstakingly takes us through reviews of his Austen biography, including one by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who commented that “our cousins have a pretty way of making pilgrimages to even the smallest shrines of our common literature. I think their careful reverence may fairly shame us who have ten times their opportunities for its display.” (The British heritage industry has caught up more recently, offering an Austen “experience” in Bath, for example.)

Then comes William Dean Howells (1837-1920), interpreter and advocate, whose “wholly unacademic approach” is reflected in gushing prose relating to “divine Jane” and the “giant Jane”. His essays in Harper’s Bazar were illustrated with anachronistic period fashion plates. Wells’s commentary is characteristic of her approach: “Unappealing to Austen purists as they may be, the images . . . nevertheless ought to be recognized as part of the corpus of turn-of-the-century illustrations of Austen, which are attracting increasing interest from scholars.” But, then, everything associated with the divine Jane interests some fan, somewhere.

Charles Beecher Hogan (1906-83), owner of the famous topaz cross pendants, gave them to his bride, a flour heiress, and stunned the 1974 AGM of the Jane Austen Society at Chawton with his surprise donation. Alberta H. Burke (1906-75) and Averil Hassall (1910-97) co-operated in producing a transatlantic Austen archive, containing material, “much of it low cost or free”, that included all kinds of ephemera and even kitsch, along with significant books and manuscript letters. Hassall provided Burke’s clipping service in England, and wrote reviews of stage adaptations of the novels. The letters that they exchanged became part of the archive. Of such things there is, of course, no end.

Over here, we can always say, ah, yes, but she was made in England, and we have the body (at Winchester Cathedral), and the various houses, and the locations from the novels, as seen on TV and at a cinema near you. But much of the energy behind the Austen industry comes from North America.

Wells ends her exhaustingly thorough study by rallying the troops, her “fellow members of Austen societies”: build on what we already do so well, she writes, “hosting enjoyable occasions for readers to learn about Austen and celebrate her genius”. And encourage your local library to get involved. Yay!


Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, and author of
Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral, a booklet published by the cathedral, of which he was formerly a lay canon.

 

A New Jane Austen: How Americans brought us the world’s greatest novelist
Juliette Wells
Bloomsbury Academic £17.99
(978-1-3503-6550-6)
Church Times Bookshop £16.19

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