PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.31, NO.1 (Winter 2010)

Brian Charles Southam

15 September 1931 – 7 October 2010



Brian Charles Southam was a pioneer in Jane Austen studies as in literary criticism more generally.  It was typical of this open-minded, generous, and supportive man that he spent so much of his life enlarging the appreciation of major authors by means of annotated editions, monographs, chapters in companions, encyclopedias and handbooks, essays and addresses, casebooks, student guides, and collections of criticism.  Southam’s general editorship of more than a hundred volumes in the Critical Heritage series, together with further collections in The Routledge Critics, was especially significant.  As he rightly argued, critical responses over time reflect an author’s changing image, but they also open up larger questions.  The documentation of Austen’s contemporary reputation, for instance, “is important to our understanding of the rise of the novel in critical esteem.”


Southam’s introductions to his two Critical Heritage volumes on Jane Austen (1968 and 1987) were tours de force of early reception theory.  As he points out, Austen is “alone in English literature in being a popular author as well as a great one.”  In his 158-page historical survey in the second volume, he therefore records “how popular taste was shaped; and how, in turn, criticism itself responded to a large audience of common readers.”  During this period, too, Austen was recognized as “one of the supreme artists of the novel.”  Serious subsequent discussion of her work contained “remarkable anticipations of modern criticism,” making of it “an arena for examining central issues in fiction.”  It still is.  For scholars, students and common readers alike, Southam’s Critical Heritage volumes are quite simply indispensable.


As Southam argued, Victorian representations of Jane Austen as a domestic saint were extremely damaging to her reputation as a writer, for the portrait of “dear Aunt Jane” encouraged “a cult of appreciation in which biographical details and literary commentary were easily and uncritically mingled.”  After urging scholars to write “an account of Jane Austen which is historically sound,” and yet “satisfying in its perception of the experience of life rendered in the novels,” he himself did just that in his quietly radical Jane Austen and the Navy, published in 2000.  By demonstrating Austen’s familiarity with those little wooden worlds, the ships so crucial to Napoleon’s defeat, Southam brought new insights to her work.  Here too, he displayed his characteristic ability to speak to different audiences, whether they were admirers of Jane Austen or readers whose interests were primarily naval or historical.


Innovative in his critical directions and prolific in his scholarship, Southam was one of the earliest literary critics to pay close attention to a writer’s manuscripts.  In 1964, he published Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts: A Study of the Novelist’s Development through the Surviving Papers, a study which reveals, as he says, “the gradual change as the young writer began to turn from burlesque entertainment to experiment in the techniques of fiction.”  As always, the reading is perceptive and the scholarship impeccable.  More recently, Southam accepted an invitation to edit the Later Manuscripts volume of the Cambridge University Press edition of Jane Austen.  After the unhappy termination of that relationship, he published his introductions and notes as Jane Austen: A Students’ Guide to the Later Manuscript Works (2007).


As a true gentleman-scholar, Southam understood that the proper focus of literary enquiry is not the critic, but the author.  The reason may have been his professional life as a publisher.  Born in London, educated at Eltham college and then Taunton school Somerset as an evacuee, he read English at Oxford and completed his B.Litt. in 1961, after national service.  A short stint teaching at Westfield College, London University was followed by a position at Routledge & Kegan Paul, where he ended up as Editorial Director.  Another brief period at Blackwell Publishing, Oxford led to a long and successful association with the Athlone Press, London.  In 1980 he bought it, acting as Managing Director and then Chairman until 2000, when he sold it to Continuum.  He served first on the committee of the British Jane Austen Society, then as chairman for fourteen years.


Questing and venturesome to the last, Southam was still actively engaged in two new projects, a book about Jane Austen and the professions, and another about Jane Austen and seaside novels, when he died on 7 October 2010, aged 79.  His introduction to “Jane Austen beside the Seaside, a Story of Romance, from Sidmouth to Sanditon” will be published shortly by Persuasions.


Brian and Doris Southam married in 1976.  She survives him, as do their children Andrew and Christine and grandson Max.


Reprinted with the kind permission of The Times (London).


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