Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Review: THE MAKING OF JANE AUSTEN, by Devoney Looser
2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death, and thus this year will see the publication of several books celebrating her life. Devoney Looser is professor of English at Arizona State and an Austen scholar, and she has produced an interesting and entertaining look at how we the reading public have come to understand and appreciate Austen's wonderful novels.
More academic in tone than Helena Kelly's Jane Austen: Secret Radical, Looser's book focuses on visual representations of Austen through the years, and how those representations have shaped the public's understanding of Austen and her works. She also touches on the ways, sometimes contradictory, that Austen's name and legacy have been appropriated for social or political ends. Kelly's book might actually serve as an example of someone interpreting Austen to serve a political agenda. But that is another discussion for another day.
Looser starts with a survey of early illustrations accompanying the novels, and tells us about the life of each artist who was important in establishing Austen's visual representations, as well as how the artwork itself served to create expectations in the public. She goes on to talk about theatrical productions and how they both defined Austen's works in their (the productions') own time and how those productions influenced the later adaptations that came to the silver screen. I wish she had spent more time on the cinematic adaptations of the modern day and how those continue to shape and direct the understanding of the general public of Austen and how they influence readers' understanding of the novels.
And she talks about how Austen was used by politicians and social activists, particularly during the suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Overall I thought the book was interesting and offered some worthwhile insights into the way we've read Austen over the years. I learned a lot about the weight the early illustrations carried, and how the theater was so important in both keeping Austen's books in circulation and shaping and evolving the understanding of womens' roles in the books. I will admit to finding it a little dry at times but Looser has written a book for the serious Austen fan rather than the casual one. But for that person, who is interested in digging deeper into the history of the novels and their popularity, The Making of Jane Austen is a great choice, and there is a lot to be learned from this volume.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.