PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.30, NO.2 (Spring 2010)

“New Directions in Austen Studies”: A Conference, a Publication and Some Thoughts on Bicentenaries

Gillian Dow and Susan Allen Ford


Gillian Dow (email: and Susan Allen Ford (email: are the co-editors of this issue.


In 1975, the year of the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s birth, David Lodge published the first of his popular campus novels.  Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses is not an homage to Austen, but it includes a revealing pen-portrait of a fictional celebrity academic, Morris Zapp, who has a scholarly interest in Austen’s works.  Professor Zapp, the highest-paid academic in the Arts faculty of his university in California, has, as Lodge puts it, “an ambitious critical project.”  Zapp intends to publish


a series of commentaries on Jane Austen which would work through the whole canon, one novel at a time, saying absolutely everything that could possibly be said about them.  The idea was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it; so that when each commentary was written there would be simply nothing further to say about the novel in question. . . . After Zapp, the rest would be silence.  The thought gave him deep satisfaction.


As an insider (as well as a being best-selling novelist, Lodge was for many years Professor of English at the University of Birmingham), Lodge was well-placed to lampoon the increase in critical interest in Austen on both sides of the Atlantic in 1975.  And of course his character Professor Zapp is a larger-than-life, in many ways stereotypical, creation:  his arrogance in even thinking that such a comprehensive study of Austen might be possible is quickly shown to be misplaced.  Particularly interesting is the list of “every conceivable angle” of approaches that Zapp feels certain will exhaust Austen’s novels for future critical dissection.  Clearly, the critical landscape has changed dramatically since 1975, and twenty-first century critics and readers alike have different priorities from the “Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist” readings that Morris Zapp proposes.  And no twenty-first century scholar would presume that after his or her own work on Austen, “the rest would be silence.”


In July 2009, the year of another bicentenary, that of Jane Austen’s arrival in Chawton on July 7, 1809, international scholars gathered in celebration at Chawton House Library.  The conference, centered on the theme “New Directions in Austen Studies” and hosted jointly by the University of Southampton and Chawton House Library, was a fitting tribute to the most famous resident of this small Hampshire village.  This special issue of Persuasions On-Line publishes papers selected from the lively and provocative set presented at the conference.


What has changed since 1975?  In some ways, the similarities between the events and publications prompted by the commemoration of Austen’s birth and our outlets in 2009 are striking.  As usual, David Gilson’s bibliography provides the starting point for such research, listing all the celebratory news articles and exhibitions for 1975.  In separate articles on the bicentenary, Alistair Duckworth and Barry Roth both provided accounts of recent criticism; the magazines Hampshire and This England provided tributes to Austen and Chawton respectively; there were exhibitions at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, and at the Morgan Library in New York, where Alberta Burke’s donation of her collection of Austen’s letters had just arrived.  So far so similar.  The 2009 celebrations in Chawton were likewise documented by radio, magazine, and television interviews.  The Jane Austen House Museum reopened its doors (and opened its kitchen), with a wonderfully enhanced visitor experience, as well as a new education center.  An exhibition was displayed at Chawton House Library, focusing on Austen’s reading during her time in the village.  Also at the Great House, a grand regency ball was held, hosted by Sandy Lerner.  A short story competition was organized to mark the occasion of Austen’s move to the village, and the resulting stories were published in July, as Dancing with Mr. Darcy, with an introduction by the novelist Sarah Waters.  And although it was not linked to the arrival of Austen in Chawton, the Morgan Library did close 2009 with the opening of an exhibition featuring their collection of Austen’s letters entitled “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.”  Thanks to modern technology, not available in 1975, this exhibition has much to offer even those who are unable to visit New York.


As far as scholarly publications in 1975 were concerned, Gilson again provides a comprehensive list.  Special issues of the journals Nineteenth-Century Fiction and The Wordsworth Circle were compiled and published.  Juliet McMaster organized a bicentennial conference at the University of Alberta (and the resulting papers were published as Jane Austen’s Achievement in 1976).  Joel Weinsheimer published a collection of essays entitled Jane Austen Today (University of Georgia Press).  And in his introduction to another bicentennial publication, Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, John Halperin, states confidently that “[w]hat follows in this book represents much of what is going on now in Jane Austen Studies, in 1975.”


In 2010 we can offer no such certainty.  The “New Directions in Austen Studies” conference held at Chawton House Library showcased new work on Austen, presented by a diverse range of delegates, from established scholars who have set the agenda for Austen studies in recent years, to graduate students who have just embarked on their research.  The conference certainly demonstrated that research on Austen is flourishing.  Key scholars, of course, were missing.  (Claudia Johnson is just one scholar who was unable to attend:  announced on the conference poster, she had to withdraw nearer the time.)  For every published critic and “known” scholar, there must be many more at the early stages of their research.  In many crucial ways, however, the conference did serve to provide a useful survey of both “new” and “recent” directions in Austen studies, and to provide a map of the scholarly landscape in 2009.


How, then, has that scholarly landscape changed since 1975?  In the last forty years, reader-response and reception theories have led us to examine Austen’s reading and Austen’s readers in closer detail:  the exhibition of Austen’s reading during her time at Chawton highlighted the diversity of the works both Austen and her family read and had direct access to, and many papers presented at the conference paid careful attention to Austen’s readers, both in the nineteenth century, and now.  Work by book historians on the rise of the novel means that we understand a great deal more about the literary marketplace in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than we did thirty-four years ago, and we are therefore in a position to understand more clearly Austen’s place within that literary marketplace.  Similarly, work on the Enlightenment and Romantic canon has allowed us to situate Austen more clearly within both, as an author with roots in the Augustan tradition, certainly, but looking forward too to a new understanding of the Realist novel of the nineteenth century.  Since 1975, Anglo-American feminist scholars have brought to light countless other important women writers:  it was fitting that many of the papers presented at Chawton House Library—a library devoted to the work of early women writers—read Austen alongside her female contemporaries.  Those who work on gender and queer theories are fruitfully bringing their research to their readings of Austen. Postcolonial criticism, and perhaps most crucially Edward Said’s 1993 Culture and Imperialism, has had a lasting effect on our reading of Austen—one need only scan down the conference program to see that explorations of Mansfield Park and studies of Fanny Price were still preoccupying scholars at this bicentenary celebration.


The critical discussion in 2009 is also more interested in and aware of ways in which Austen has been translated and adapted in different cultures and cultural moments.  Translation studies have brought us back to the early translations of her novels, and led us to examine Austen in France, Austen in Japan, Austen in Italy, and the transformations and transmutations of the writer who, for some, epitomizes all that is English.  Cultural historians and scholars of film studies have given us the critical apparatus to talk about Austen’s appeal to the broader reading public, and to engage with the numerous recent sequels, prequels, adaptations and imaginings in all genres.  A large number of papers at the conference focused on Austen and contemporary literature and culture—not an area of scholarly preoccupation in 1975.  Finally, new media—those databases of reading experiences, of production, and reception, as well as searchable online editions of novels—have affected how we research Austen, just as they have every author of her period.


It is important to note, however, that although the conference itself could make some claims to be representative of “much of what is going on now,” as Halperin put it in 1975, this publication cannot.  It is of necessity selective, for reasons of space, and reasons of availability:  not all of those who presented papers were willing or able to publish resulting articles.  In particular, and regrettably, keynote speeches by John Wiltshire, Linda Bree and Janet Todd, Emma Clery, and Kathryn Sutherland are not included here.  Two papers presented at the conference have recently been published in other issues of Persuasions On-line and Persuasions: Akiko Takei’s “‘Mr. Cole is Very Bilious’: The Art of Lay Medicine in Jane Austen’s Characters” in Persuasions On-Line 30.1 (Winter 2009) and Elaine Bander’s “Revisiting Northanger Abbey at Chawton” in Persuasions 31 (2009).  In this collection, we have no sustained examination of Mansfield Park, which, as already mentioned, loomed large in the conference.  And although there is discussion of some of Austen’s manuscript work (notably the juvenilia) in this publication, there is no discussion of Lady Susan, “Sanditon,” “The Watsons,” or indeed any of Austen’s poetry, all of which were discussed during the conference itself.  Nevertheless, what we have in this publication are twenty essays, all of which emphasize the “new” in their treatment of Austen’s writing in the early twenty-first century.


Isobel Grundy and Juliet McMaster opened the conference in July 2009, and they open this publication with their joint essay “New Faces, New Understandings”. Rising to the challenge of the “new” in our publication title, Grundy examines the moments in Austen’s novels when the heroine has the first glimpse of the man who will become her hero. McMaster analyzes the subsequent “debriefing scenes,” those moments when “heroine and hero take their huge new step in analyzing their relation, and how they got there.”


An important subgrouping of essays in this issue deals with Austen and contemporary literature and culture.  Laurie Kaplan’s essay explores the witty televised miniseries Lost in Austen as a satire on “Janeitism,” uncovering the appeal for the Generation-Y viewer.  Juliette Wells’s contribution explores a series of “fantasy Austens” in American fiction between 1996 and 2006, seeing these biographical reworkings of “Jane Austen” as character as revealing of “how non-academic readers and writers conceived of Austen.”  In her analysis of Pride and Prejudice in contemporary culture, Marilyn Francus focuses on Alexandra Potter’s Me and Mr. Darcy (2007) and Shannon Hale’s Austenland (also 2007), reading them as just two works that form part of a seemingly never-ending desire for “more” Austen in the twenty-first century.  Finally, Diana Birchall, herself a writer of fiction, believes that much can be learned about Austen’s novels from writing pastiche.  Birchall’s reading of Mrs. Elton from Austen’s Emma is a clever “vindication” of this character, and explores from a very specific stance what we might learn from adaptations and sequels.


Two of the contributors to this special issue pay particular attention to other women writers of Austen’s age.  In “‘Motionless Wonder’: Contemplating Gothic Sublimity in Northanger Abbey,” Natasha Duquette reads Austen’s use of the “contemplative sublime” alongside the writings of Ann Radcliffe, Joanna Baillie, and the lesser-known Mary Schimmelpennick.  Jacqueline Labbe’s “What Happens at the Party: Jane Austen Converses with Charlotte Smith” is a compelling discussion of Austen as an author who was of her time, and as such, influenced by her contemporaries.  Charlotte Smith, an important poet and novelist of the generation before Austen, was a crucial influence on Austen’s writing, and Labbe takes steps in this essay to redress the neglect of Smith as foremother, just as important to the formation of Austen’s fiction as the more commonly cited Frances Burney.  In their discussion of Jane Austen’s reading, in an essay that documents the exhibition mounted at Chawton House Library to suggest the range of that reading during her Chawton years, Gillian Dow and Katie Halsey provide material evidence of the links between Austen and her contemporaries.


Just as Duquette, Labbe, and Dow and Halsey situate Austen among contemporary writers, the next group of essays reads her within the cultural and socio-political changes of her times.  Eric Walker’s essay, “‘In the Place of a Parent’: Austen and Adoption,” is a rich discussion of Austen’s novels, and in particular Emma, within the context of both early nineteenth- and twenty-first century understandings of surrogacy and adoption.  Erin J. Smith focuses the regency waltz, a new dance, symbolizing in Austen’s novels a society on the cusp of change.  In “Austen and Enclosure,” Helena Kelly reads the politics of enclosure in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as informing Austen’s plots—in particular that of Emma—in significant ways.  Taken together, these three essays enhance our understanding of Austen’s English regency world.


Recent research on the global Austen—notably on her reception outside of Anglo-American circles—is represented in this special issue.  Valérie Cossy’s essay, “Why Austen cannot be a ‘classique’ in French: New Directions in the French Reception of Austen,” is a rich discussion of how France historically has interpreted (and crucially misinterpreted) Austen’s novels.  Cossy situates the “misunderstanding” firmly within both gender politics and within the traditional French canon.  The contribution from three Japanese scholars, Ebine Hiroshi, Amano Miyuki, and Hisamori Kazuko, on Austen’s reception in Japan situates her novels within the context of Japanese responses to Western culture more generally.  They provide close readings of works by Sōseki, Nogami Yaeko, and Kurahashi Yumiko, all of which are shown to be inspired by Austen’s writings.  These Japanese readers of Austen provide unique responses to her works, going, as Amano, Ebine and Hisamori point out, “beyond adaptation.”  Reader response is central, too, in Elizabeth Bankes’s discussion of Charles Darwin’s reading of Austen.  In “‘Read and reread until they could be read no more’: Charles Darwin and the Novels of Jane Austen,” Bankes suggests reasons why the young scientist returned to Austen’s novels time and again throughout his life.


The final group of essays ranges from Austen’s early writing, composed and dedicated to family members, through her afterlife as seen through they eyes of her family.  In some of these essays, just what constitutes biography and what can be made of family history emerge as contested areas.  Lesley Peterson discusses two of Austen’s early works of fiction, “Jack and Alice” and “The Beautifull Cassandra,” both unpublished during her lifetime.  Peterson sees these works as Austen playing with traditional narrative forms, testing herself, and developing her craft.  Annette Upfal and Christine Alexander use Austen’s juvenilia to a different purpose, one that challenges traditional biographical readings of the Austen family and their relationships with each other, in particular, Austen’s own relationship with her mother.  Deirdre Le Faye, who has done so much archival work in recovering the lives and letters of the Austen family, suggests avenues that still remain uninvestigated in terms of Austenian biography.  Her contribution is a call to the archives, where, she suggests, fruitful evidence of Austen’s activities may be found in the papers of her friends and neighbors in Hampshire.  Finally, Alice Villaseñor reads the writing of Fanny Caroline Lefroy, the daughter of Jane Austen’s niece Anna, as innovative in its combination of biography and literary criticism.


Kathryn Sutherland closed the three days of discussion and debate at the “New Directions” conference with a reminder that in terms of both Austen’s life and her art there are silences and disorder, uncertainties and, as Sutherland put it, “mess.”  Speaking of Austen’s remaining letters, Sutherland pointed out that there are many unknowns:


As for Jane Austen’s own arrival in Chawton two hundred years ago—it is immediately followed by one of the longest and loudest silences in the biographical record—a near two-year gap in the surviving correspondence.  Her verse epistle to brother Frank, dated 26 July 1809, describes briefly “Our Chawton home”; and the next letter in Deirdre Le Faye’s authoritative edition is dated 18-20 April 1811, from Sloane Street London and begins, with Sternian appositeness, “My dear Cassandra I have so many little matters to tell you of.”  All the “big matters” in between—and the biggest of all, namely, when and why and how she picked up her writing or continued what she had never really stopped—remain a mystery.


It is this sense of “mystery” that still remains to be uncovered that makes Austen studies a vibrant environment for scholars, students, and readers alike.  The fictional Professor Zapp, with whom we opened this discussion, worried about the appeal of Jane Austen to his students at the State University of Euphoria in the America of the early 1970s:


Jane Austen was certainly not the writer to win the hearts of the new generation.  Sometimes Morris woke sweating from nightmares in which students paraded round the campus carrying placards that declared KNIGHTLEY SUCKS and FANNY PRICE IS A FINK.


Those of us who teach undergraduates today will recognize that Austen has well and truly captured the hearts, the imaginations, and the minds of the new generation—indeed, that it is sometimes difficult to get our students to write on any other early nineteenth-century author!  As we look forward to the next eight years, in which we will be celebrating the bicentenaries of the publication of each of Austen’s novels and commemorating the bicentenary of her death in 2017, it is a great pleasure to observe a vibrant culture of Austen studies.  Our hope is that over the coming years, the new directions suggested in this collection of essays will provide useful starting points for further research.


There is one way in which this special issue of Persuasions On-Line does not indicate a new direction, and that is in the fruitful cooperation it represents between Chawton House Library and the Jane Austen Society of North America, mutual beneficiaries of a sustained and productive relationship.  Members of both organizations have contributed their time, energies, and talents to this offering of “New Directions in Austen Studies.”  Our gratitude is due to Jacqui Grainger, Ray Moseley, Sarah Parry, and Morwenna Roche at Chawton House Library for their help with the CHL images for the issue.  JASNA’s President Marsha Huff has provided encouragement for this project since its inception.  Lee Ridgeway, JASNA’s Publications Secretary, magically sharpened and clarified sometimes murky images for on-line publication.  And without the tireless and creative energies of Carol Moss, JASNA’s Web Manager, over months of work, there would be no publication at all.


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