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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, September 9, 2012

My Idiosyncratic Review of Claudia Johnson's New Book

I have now had a chance to browse and read all the way through Claudia Johnson's new book _Jane Austen's Cult and Cultures_ (it's only 188 pages, plus footnotes, and is not unduly jargon-laden), and for the most part I found it very difficult to categorize. As I mentioned in my post the other day about one of Johnson's points...

.....Johnson's elegant writing style is a pleasure to read, she's obviously a brilliant scholar, but if I had to pick one word to describe this book, I'd call it "eccentric"---it's a cut above most of the other recent books about Austenmania past and present in terms of the intelligence of the writing, and yet, for the most part, I found myself uninterested in most of what Johnson went to such care to write about so elegantly.  Much elegant and intelligent ado about not too much.

I had to remind myself that Claudia Johnson is the same scholar who wrote the intellectually daring and insightful _Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel_ over two decades ago---the Austenian frontiers that Johnson now explores are badly shrunk from that earlier book---I found myself skimming past the first 100 pages, until I got to Chapter 3, entitled "Jane Austen's World War I", and that, finally, was something to sink yer teeth into, intellectually speaking.

Expanding on an article she had written way back in 1996 entitled "The Divine Miss Jane", Johnson here makes a very insightful analysis of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "The Janeites" and of Reginald Farrer's writing from the WWI front in which he finds uncanny and disturbing resonance between the "trenches" where mass killing occurred and JA's pastoral tales of "narrow" lives.  If anyone's curiosity is piqued, get the book and read the first half of this chapter (ppg. 99-110), you will find it worth your while, I would not try to summarize her analysis, which I find excellent and compelling.

What I will give you is Johnson's cogent summation of her inferences from comparing Kipling's poem and Farrer's essays to JA's novels:

"How does all of this strike a 21st century reader of JA? In conspicuous distinction to Victorian readings, Janeite allusion is not magically safe and uncomplicated, where the stakes are higher and the dangers keener than we imagined before. Austen's novels are about nothing if not the perils of living in a confined, narrow, profoundly bruising place where experience unfolds under the aegis of ordeal, where vulnerable, deferent young protagonists with next to no autonomy are exposed to adversities so brutal that they cannot be essayed, much less assailed directly. In Austen's world, that narrow place is called a neighbourhood; during WW I it is called a trench, but in both, a premium is placed on behaving well during 'epical instants' of duress. NA, a novel pooh-poohed as a fledgling effort in most academic readings after WWII, sides with the vulnerability of Austen's youngest heroine. It is plangent to imagine how Kipling's Janeites in their trenches, designed by their generals for cannon fodder, might have discussed Catherine Morland's misplaced confidence in General Tilney's intentions: certainly, she reassures herself [like the Tommies in the trenches], 'he could not propose any thing improper for her' (NA, 160). Janeite allusion thus breaks down the false opposition between the arena of war and the arena of domesticity...."

That is powerful thinking and writing, and I find it sad and deeply puzzling that this is practically the only passage in Johnson's entire book which makes you sit up and think. Is it that Johnson thought "BTDT" with her great book of two decades earlier? Or is it that she has completely retreated from the brave feminist readings she made so long ago? Incredibly enough, in a 188 page book about Jane Austen's readers, written by a scholar who made JA's feminism her happy hunting ground, the index to this book does not even have an entry for "Feminism" or "Feminist"!

And that is, I think, all the more surprising, given the strong implicit feminism of the above summation---if Johnson is saying, as I think she is, that JA viewed the situation of the young woman of her era as being disturbingly similar to that of the young men dying in WWI trenches along the Somme, then I 100% agree with Johnson on that point.

I have written countless times about the Holocaust of married English gentlewomen dying in childbirth in JA's lifetime, and how JA was most appalled at the deafening silence of her society on that subject, and the danger to a writer who would even dare to raise a hue and cry about that Holocaust in an explicit way. So I think JA would have been nodding approvingly at Kipling, Farrer, and Claudia Johnson on that point.l

But why Johnson hits this scholarly high note for only 10 pages out of 188, I don't get it. But I still recommend her Chapter 3 very highly nonetheless.

Cheers, ARNIE
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