University of Texas at Austin

Monday, October 29, 2012

Truths Universally Acknowledged: English professor reveals how Jane Austen’s characters and settings are fact as well as fiction

BarchasIn “Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity,” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, August 2012) Janine Barchas, associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, boldly asserts that Jane Austen’s novels allude to real names of glamorous people and places.

The first scholar to conduct extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction, Barachas offers scholars and ardent fans of Jane Austen a wealth of historical facts, while shedding an interpretive light on a new aspect of the beloved writer’s work. Other projects Barchas is working on include a website titled What Jane Saw that reconstructs a museum visit attended by the Austens in 1813 as well as an investigation into the marketing of Jane Austen through book cover art from 1833 to the present.

Barchas kindly answered some questions for ShelfLife@Texas about Jane Austen’s “subtle manipulation” of celebrity culture, current trends in Austen studies, and why timeless classics like “Pride & Prejudice” and “Persuasion” continue to fascinate readers.

In your opinion, why do Jane Austen’s novels remain on best-seller lists? Have you noticed a modern resurgence in her popularity?

Well, her novels are really good, so quality may play a role! In addition, the many Hollywood movies and BBC bonnet dramas have further propelled Jane Austen to literary stardom in recent decades. As someone who also teaches many lesser knowns (such as Samuel Richardson who, alas, has no action figure or major motion picture to promote his fine novels), I am delighted that Hollywood is recruiting students to our English Department who want to follow up a film by reading the original book. We now cannot supersaturate the demand for classes on Austen in, well, Austin.

How did you come to realize there might be a strong connection between actual high-profile politicians, contemporary celebrities and famous historical figures to the characters in Austen’s novels? Can you describe your research process?

As a researcher of “the long 18th century,” I found myself initially distracted when teaching Austen (who published her first novel in 1811) by the historical associations conjured up by the leading names and settings in her stories. For example, the real-world family of Dashwood (also the name of protagonists in “Sense and Sensibility”) was a notorious and disreputable lot, who in the 1750s and 60s became known for a Hell Fire Club and a naughty landscape garden with female shapes and priapic statuary. At first, I dutifully shook off such well-known associations from my own “historical field” as unsuitable to her Regency fiction.  But once these associations reached a tipping point, I began to wonder whether or not they were part of the fun that a historically savvy Jane Austen had intended to create with her stories. Her stories are so daring and witty if you know the reputations and names that she is reworking into her fictions. The collection at the Harry Ransom Center was such a key element in the early stages of my search for books about history, travel and famous landscapes that Austen could or would have read.

Could you elaborate more on Austen’s “subtle manipulation” of the celebrity culture she saw around her?

Austen is minute about location, taking her characters to street corners in Bath where famous people lived or specific locales where great historical events of national importance occurred. Real history is then allowed to intrude upon her stories in animating ways. Her leading names are also as if plucked from the history books, resonating with celebrity associations. For example, one famous political family in Austen’s time, the Wentworths of Yorkshire, included on its family tree the names of Woodhouse, Fitzwilliam, Darcy, Vernon, and Watson (all leading names in Austen’s stories).  Imagine a novel today about, say, a fictional Kennedy family with a plot that takes a son named John to Cape Cod.  Would you not wonder what other knowledge might be rewarded by such a cheeky reference to history?

Why do you think other scholars had yet to make this important connection?

There was a unique delay in the literary reputation of Austen, who was not popular in her lifetime. Even after her death in 1817, her reputation slumbered until she began to be reprinted in 1833. And only in the 1850s did her work become truly celebrated. So Austen — born in 1775, writing in the 1790s, and published in the 1810s — was not taken seriously until after 1850. I argue that she has been read out of time. As a result, scholars must combat the narrow Victorian view that saw her stories as confined merely to the domestic, because decades of delay in her popularity muted her daring historical and political allusions. Austen died long before Queen Victoria took the throne, and yet she is often grouped with Victorian writers like the Brontës who published decades later. I am simply resituating her in the culture, stories and history of her own youth by pulling her back into the 18th century. You see different things if you look at her as a Victorian precursor than if you look back over the books and stories that influenced her own work.  We know from her brother Henry that Jane was a keen history buff.

What are the current trends in Austen studies, and do you see your book affecting them?

Historicizing is back. New editions are encouraging the reading of Austen’s novels in their original historical context, with new notes and increasingly fuller explanations of how a contemporary reader might have understood a detail of dress, money or manners. This is a different impulse from the prior view of celebrating Austen as “timeless” (that view is only partially true).  My own book is part of a trend in scholarship that would historicize Austen to her time and place.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

That Jane Austen was even smarter and more politically daring than they’d thought! That every detail in her stories deserves to be savored and pondered — in the same way that scholars acknowledge similar details in James Joyce or Shakespeare.

What’s next for you and Ms. Austen?

I have started new project called “Jane Austen between the Covers,” which tracks the marketing of Austen through book cover designs from 1833 to the present.  Because of Austen’s broad and sustained popularity since the invention of publisher’s bindings in the mid-19th-century, her cover art not only generates local insights into her reception history but also tells us how novels, as a popular genre, were marketed and consumed during the 19th and 20th centuries. 

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» Truths Universally Acknowledged: English professor reveals how Jane Austen’s characters and settings are fact as well as fiction

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