The book in two sentences: Devoney Looser explores Jane Austen’s long and lasting legacy as one of the most brilliant novelists to ever exist. In this book, we see Austen illustrated, dramatized, politicized, and schooled in ways that give voice to Austen’s lesser-known authorities.
Rating: Travel companion
Long story long: I made it through a whopping four pages of Pride and Prejudice the first time I picked it up. I was in sixth grade and figured it was about time I started reading “the Classics” (whatever that meant). I wouldn’t end up finishing the book until two or three years later.
Since then, Pride and Prejudice has become my favorite novel. I have read it nearly 20 times, listened to the audiobook version almost twice as much, collected fan-fiction and spin-off books, and been to a number of stage adaptations.
There are many reasons I love Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s biting social commentary on class, marriage, and wealth, to say the least—but the most meaningful to me is that it has helped me track my growth as a reader, and as a person, over the past 18 years. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I’ve either learned something new about myself, or something new about the book and the author; it never ceases to surprise me!
Devoney Looser’s novel The Making of Jane Austen is a wonderful continuation of this tradition. Her book explores the legacy of Austen in four parts through lesser-known historical figures. In the first part, she wonders how “illustrations seen by Austen’s first generation of readers shaped then-developing understandings of the author and her fiction” (15). A number of artistic choices made in the 19th century carry weight even today, and have influenced early stage and screen adaptations of Austen’s novels.
In part two Looser looks at stage renditions of Austen and her work. She examines the still unanswered question of Austen’s sexuality through the lens of the first openly queer couple to play Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra Austen on stage (actresses Josephine Hutchinson and Eva Le Gallienne, respectively). Looser says, “Playing the Austen sisters offered a first chance to act out private devotion to each other as adult characters on the public stage.” (115).
Looser then discusses how Austen was politicized, by both sides of the political spectrum, although she is often considered by many to be apolitical. Looser argues, “Yet if one means by politics ‘actions concerned with the acquisition or exercise of power, status, or authority’, then Austen may appear one of our most political novelists.” (149). We learn about heated discussions of Austen in private men’s clubs and how she became a symbol for first-wave feminists.
Finally in part four, Looser investigates Austen’s legacy in the classroom, and how she has been and continues to be taught to young adults. The first dissertation about her was written in 1883, 66 years after her death, and is linked to multiple paranormal events.
One aspect I thought was missing from this book that could have easily been its own section was Austen’s influence on other countries and other cultures. Other than a few notes here and there, Looser sticks to Austen’s impact in the U.S. and UK. She briefly mentions how other places and people adapted and adopted Austen, but does not really give us a sense of just how far-reaching Austen was. Perhaps that evidence isn’t there, in which case a brief acknowledgement to clarify would have been helpful.
Overall, this was a great read. The book focuses on Austen’s considerable contributions to literature, politics, and culture, and if anyone has any doubts as to her relevancy—past, present, or future—reading The Making of Jane Austen will do away with all of it.
“Holding the attention of scholarly and popular audiences alike is precisely what Austen has done through two centuries of images, stages, screens, schools, and soapboxes.”The Making of Jane Austen, 218
It’s comforting to know that Jane isn’t going anywhere.
Are you an Austen fan? What’s your favorite work by or about the author? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!