This was a fascinating book, with the kind of deep literary criticism I used to read all the time in college, which was so nice to get back to. Entwined with the lit-crit is more history than I ever expected. Not just Jane Austen's own history, or the history of her novels, but the history of the Austen fandom. In fact, this isn't a book about Jane Austen or about her novels so much as about her fans. And that's the real reasons I decided to read it, after reading this review on Austenprose.com. Because I keep feeling like I'm not the same kind of fan of Austen's books as other people I've met, both in real life and in the blogosphere, and I was hoping this would help me figure out why I feel that way.
The good news is, it did. The bad news is, it took me a year to read because I kept getting caught up in other books. But I'm glad I've finished it at last, and will probably use it as a reference book in the future.
There are 5 chapters, an introduction, and an afterword. There's also an appendix containing three folk tales from the Austen family that Jane herself was likely familiar with. Here's a quick description of each chapter:
"Jane Austen's Body" discusses fan's reactions to the fact that Jane Austen was a human being with an actual body, not an ethereal literary goddess. "Jane Austen's Magic" involves the way Victorians viewed Austen's books, often equating them with fairy stories! "Jane Austen's World War I" talks about how British soldiers in particular looked to Austen's books to give them courage and strength in the face of terrifying war experiences. "Jane Austen's World War II" details the way that both military and civilians used Austen's books to remind themselves of the heritage they were fighting to preserve. And "Jane Austen's House" shows how, by collecting relics in some way connected to Austen, her fans seek a sense of closeness with the author.
In the introduction, Johnson defines Janeism as "a self-consciously idolatrous enthusiasm for 'Jane' Austen and every primary, secondary, tertiary (and so forth) detail relative to her" (p. 6). And while I enjoy her books, enjoy movies based on them, even enjoy books about her or her characters, I don't really revere Jane Austen herself. She doesn't even quite make it into my top ten favorite authors -- I put her at number eleven here. So what I have long suspected is true: I am not "a Janeite."
I'm okay with that.
However, please don't think that Johnson is mocking Janeism or Janeites. Far from it. Also in the introduction, she declares that her "aim is not so much to trace Jane Austen's reputation as it is to ponder what loving her has meant to readers from the nineteenth century to the present" (p. 14). By exploring how Austen's works have been differently appreciated and interpreted over the years, Johnson shows just how deep and multi-faceted those works truly are.