Jane Austen’s Cults & Cultures by Claudia L Johnson

7th Aug 2012


Her latest book, Jane Austen’s Cults & Cultures, sees Johnson’s impressive learning brought to bear with an admirable lightness of touch on the subject of Austen’s reception history: Cults & Cultures is the story of some of the many different ways in which we have ardently admired and loved Austen’s oeuvre down the ages.

Beginning with what is perhaps the most engaging and memorable of all her chapters, Johnson examines the evolution of the cult of Austen’s body (or, often, its absence) through the different visual and textual representations that have come down to us – all of which are lacking in some crucial way.

She then goes on to consider what Austen meant to the Victorians, to the British of the First World War, and finally to those who sought comfort in her in the dark days of WWII.

With Austen now firmly enthroned in the canon of great English novelists, the past few years have seen perhaps greater liberties than ever taken with her writing, as a new generation attempts to put their own stamp on these classic books – with Bridget Jones, sea monsters and even erotic re-writes all in on the act.

But, as so often with each new generation, Johnson’s book shows us that where we might think ourselves pioneers, we’re really only repeating what every generation has done before by reinventing Austen for our own times.

While we may think of Austen as a timeless great – a kind of literary constant who provides a direct glimpse into a fossilised past – Cults & Cultures shows how far from the truth this is. Austen’s meaning and significance has, in truth, never been fixed.

Particularly fascinating are insights into Austen’s reception that make us reassess our own positions. Take, for example, Johnson’s reminder that, while ‘Janeism’ these days is usually seen as a kind a very feminine obsession, mostly afflicting either Bridget Jones types desperate for their own Mr Darcy, or old-maidish types who like dressing up in period costume and probably surround themselves with cats to boot, a love of Austen was once a badge of honour for a very masculine set of late nineteenth-century writers, headed by Henry James.

Only a passing familiarity with Austen’s life and work is needed in order to get plenty of enjoyment out of this book. While Johnson also specialises in the very closest and most minute textual criticism – the book opens with a scene in which she is pondering the precise placement of an errant comma in Mansfield Park – this is as much an illustration of the cultural circumstances surrounding the books and their author as it is an examination of the novels themselves. Cults & Cultures will prove as engaging for the casual reader as it will be invaluable to Johnson’s fellow academics.

Published by University of Chicago Press, it’s out now and available for £21.38 in hardcover or for £18.17 for Kindle.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Fans of Austen, devoted or casual, and those interested in the history of English Literature, the canon, and women writers’ place within it.

Other recommended reading: Also out recently, John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen is an enjoyable look at key themes in the novels that might otherwise baffle or escape the 21st-century reader. For modern Austen interpretations, look to PD JamesDeath Comes to Pemberley or Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Claire Strickett