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Tracing Jane Austen's Popularity

Austen is now so popular that even non-novel readers recognize the name from seeing it in various, unexpected places like tea mugs and dating guides. Her immediate Regency siblings and her future Victorian collateral descendants would faint at seeing their sister and aunt depicted like this. For they presented her as a near saint. But Austen has also stepped off the pedestal into the trenches of World War I and classrooms ranging from high school to post-doctoral school seminars.

Starting the Saint Jane myth

When Henry Austen wrote his biography of his sister for the posthumous publications of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, he presented a woman ready for sainthood:
Faultless herself, as nearly as human nature can be, she always sought, in the faults of others, something to excuse, to forgive or forget. Where extenuation was impossible, she had a sure refuge in silence. She never uttered either a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression . . . She was thoroughly religious and devout; fearful of giving offence to God, and incapable of feeling it toward any fellow creature. . . .

Henry's notice, of course, is understandably influenced by his feelings of loss over his 41-year-old sister. Henry also had recently become a clergyman of the Anglican Evangelical persuasion, so this recent career move certainly affected his decision to write of his sister's religious devotion.

But imagine the shock when the edition of her letters came out in 1932. Here's another Austen one-liner from a letter that completely undercuts Henry's "incapable of feeling offence" line: "I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal" (Letter, December 24, 1798). Yet 1932 was still a long way from 1818 when Henry wrote the biographical notice. And so the Austens had time to perpetuate "Saint Jane."

Victorianizing Jane Austen

Austen's next biographer was a beloved nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. By the time he published A Memoir of Jane Austen in December of 1869 (though dated as 1870 on the title page), he was a mutton-chopped Victorian. And so it's not surprising that he presented this type of Aunt Jane to the world with the help of his two sisters; all three of them, the children of Jane Austen's eldest brother James, knew their aunt well and still remembered her.

The Memoir opens by saying that Austen's life was "singularly barren" of events. This portrayal doesn't look too promising! And because the Victorian mindset is one of silence and coverup, the Memoir proceeds accordingly. Not that Austen has anything to hide. But the Memoir presents Aunt Jane as a simple woman who had "genius" and lived a happy Christian life without complexity. The sarcasm, cynicism, and satire that you've seen in her letters and even seen in some of her fiction are all missing. Nevertheless, the Memoir satisfied the appetites of a new generation of Austen readers for information on the author's life. And it boosted Austen's popularity!

Taking Austen to the trenches

In 1894, the English critic George Saintsbury coined the word "Janeite" to mean an enthusiastic admirer of Austen's works. But Rudyard Kipling popularized the term in a short story called "The Janeites," first published in 1924. Written in heavy cockney slang, the story isn't the easiest text in the world to read. But it's worth the effort. Here's the story in summary:
Soon after WWI, the story's narrator goes to a Masonic lodge on cleaning day. One of the cleaners is Humberstall who'd been wounded in the head but who still returned to the Western Front as assistant mess waiter for his old Heavy Artillery platoon. A simple and uneducated man, he tries to explain how his boss, the senior mess waiter, was able to talk with the university-educated officers on equal ground because of their shared love of Jane Austen's novels. Humberstall is coached on the novels and is led to think that the Austen readers, or Janeites, are all members of a Masonic-like secret society. They scratch the names of Austen characters on the guns. Then all but Humberstall are killed by a hail of gunfire. When he quotes Emma to a nurse, another secret Janeite, she saves his life by getting him on the hospital train back to England. Humberstall still reads Austen's novels as they remind him of his comrades back in the trenches. "There's no one to match Jane when you're in a tight place," he says, noting the comfort her novels provide. Yet her comfort isn't all healing, for as the other Masonic Lodge cleaner notes, Humberstall's mother has to come and take him home from the Lodge because he gets "fits."

WWI soldiers agreed that while they were overseas in the war, reading Austen was an effective mental escape from gas masks and bayonets. The Army Medical Corps advised shell-shocked soldiers to read Austen for the books' soothing effects. Supposedly, Mr. and Mrs. Rudyard Kipling found comfort in Austen's novels, which they read to each other after their son was killed in 1914 in WWI.

Taking Austen to school

Austen's novels became continuously available since 1833, when England's Bentley Standard Novel Series produced affordable editions of her works. In 1923, R. W. Chapman's edition of Austen's novels was published by Oxford University Press. This scholarly edition is one of the earliest of the works of any English novelist. While Austen had readership popularity before, she now had academic distinction. Scholars began to pay serious attention to her novels, proceeding with literary analyses. Austen's use of irony was especially appealing to American academic critics writing just after WWII because analyzing her verbal irony made use of a popular new critical approach that treated the text as an object in itself and studied that text in terms of how the author used language.

A study in 1997–1998 by the National Association of Scholars showed that in the 1964–1965 academic year, 25 liberal arts colleges surveyed in the United States still had no courses that cited Jane Austen in their catalogs. When those same schools were surveyed in the 1997–1998 academic year, however, Austen had moved into third place, just behind those old standbys Shakespeare and Chaucer. Austen's appearance in college catalogs' course descriptions is likely the result of the Women's Movement and the expansion of the canon (literary texts that authorities consider as the best representatives of their times). For along with Austen on the 1997–1998 lists were Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, and Zora Neale Hurston. In the earlier list, no female writers were listed.

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