Humor & Humility: A Jane Austen Anniversary Overdose

Were you gobsmacked by the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death?

I certainly was. And the more articles I read about Austen, the sillier I felt for buying into it in the first place.  Because there is no question that I, along with many others,  “bought.”  I took my beautiful  Folio Society edition of Pride and Prejudice out of the box only to discover I have read this comedy of love and money far too often to enjoy it.  Godspeed, Elizabeth and Darcy!

So am I a fan of Jane Austen?  To be exact, I am a  fan of Emma and Persuasion.  The rest–I can take them or leave them, but I usually take them because she wrote better than anyone else.

Our scholarly blogger friend Ellen Moody wrote at Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two about the press coverage of the “anniversary hoopla.” She especially admired the articles in the Jane Austen issue of the TLS, and her favorite was “Passages to India,” by Charlotte and Gwendolyn Mitchell, about the  identification of a few of Austen’s relatives in a painting by Reynolds.

Amid all the hoopla 200 years on from Jane Austen’s death on July 18, 1817, one essay stands out: Charlotte and Gwendolen Mitchell’s identification of Austen’s aunt, her cousin, and their husband/father and maid in a painting by Reynolds. The essay comes at the end of a series of articles discussing the celebrity status of Austen, recent and older books on her, the films, and fandom (as it’s called) in the July 21, 2017 issue of Times Literary Supplement, a compilation resembling the one I described found in the New York Times Book Review (and doubtless countless others in other magazines, periodicals, websites, blogs, video media), in this case closely as to pages (16). The quality of the articles, the tone, and (by virtue of this essay alone) substance is much better than the NYTimes Book Review. I’ll review these briefly before turning to the pièce de résistance of the set, original research on a painting hanging in a gallery in Berlin.

Ellen’s scholarly article is excellent and I highly recommend it.  It was refreshing to read her analysis of this  “celebration” of Austen.  (Clearly they have run out of anniversaries when they get to the death one!)

But this  year the humor eclipsed the scholarly, as far as I was concerned. Ellen was much less keen than I on the lead essay at the TLS by Ian Sansom, “Jane Austen on the Money.” In some ways,  Sansom’s amusing essay is  an odd choice for the lead article in a scholarly publication. But in other ways it makes perfect sense.  The editors must have asked, “What can we do that is different?  How can the TLS steal attention from every other British and American publication on the same topic?”

Certainly the TLS essay is witty. Sansom, a mystery writer and a comparative literature professor, read and reread Austen’s books for the first time since he was “at university.” He  hilariously muses on his reactions to the books–Emma is his favorite–as well as writing about Austen’s obsession with money and the Austen industry.  He is well-organized, and a good storyteller.

Like Ellen, I did feel slightly taken aback that the essay was written by someone who is not an Austen enthusiast.  (Perhaps it was Sansom’s idea in the first place, though.)  But I thoroughly enjoyed it, because he is clearly a professional writer.  After reading so many serious Austen reviews and articles, I was happy to have a chance to laugh.  The only other writer as witty as Sansom is the novelist Emma Straub at The Washington Post on her favorite book, Emma.  Coincidentally, Sansom, Straub, and I are all mad about Emma.

Although I am a blogger and read many thoughtful Austen blogs, I must admit I laughed at the following.

Sansom writes,

These days it might be possible for someone to spend their entire time studying and thinking about the many blogs and social media posts devoted to Austen without ever having to study or think about Austen herself – indeed, some PhD student at Poppleton is doubtless doing so even now. So, tweet me. “Jane Austen” has become a signifier of such high semiotic intensity, possessing such incredible power both within and outside the academy that it has finally become the ultimate fiction: money. As if she weren’t already ubiquitous enough, you can now find Jane lurking in your pocket, on the £10 note, and also on commemorative £2 coins. When the new £5 notes were recently released, a small number were engraved with a special Austen micro-portrait, making each fiver, according to the Daily Mail, and my mother, worth approximately £50,000. Thus, men and women up and down the land were finally reduced to searching for Jane Austen with a magnifying glass.

Oh, no, more indecipherable English money!

And in Straub’s essay at the Washington Post, “Is it too late to read your first Jane Austen novel?” she describes her joy when a customer at her bookstore comes up to the register with a copy of Emma. Straub adds, “…and one of my chattiest, most wonderful booksellers yelped, ‘This is my favorite book!’ which I happily seconded.”

She writes,

I don’t often admit that “Emma” is one of my favorite books because it’s sort of embarrassing to love a book named for a character whose name you share — especially because Emma Woodhouse is thought of so dismissively within the Austen canon. Elizabeth Bennet she’s not. On the face of it, “Emma” is a novel about a bored rich girl with too much time on her hands, and yet it was the final paragraph of “Emma” that my husband and I typed by hand over and over again and set at each guest’s table setting at our tiny wedding. It’s Jane Austen’s mix of irony and satire and true generosity to her characters that makes Emma Woodhouse so charming, and what makes the book so pleasurable to read.

So on both sides of the pond you can find some humorous essays of interest , if you so inclined.   And, by the way, you can order a special book collection of the TLS articles on Jane Austen.

Between bloggers and professional writers, I have made  a long TBR of Austen books.   At the moment I am reading  Lucy Worsely’s Austen at Home, one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read on Austen this year.   Thanks to Nicola at Vintage Reads for recommending it!

12 thoughts on “Humor & Humility: A Jane Austen Anniversary Overdose

  1. “Were you gobsmacked by the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death?
    I certainly was.”

    You mean you didn’t expect it?


  2. There certainly is a lot of Austen about, but the way of the world nowadays is to jump onto any event and celebrate (exploit!) it! I’m really not sure nowadays which of her titles I’ve read or not, but I know I love Persuasion and Northanger Abbey and I think those are the ones I’ll return to. Basically, if all this palaver gets people reading the classics that has to be a good thing!


    • I was astonished by how much press this anniversary got! But that’s because the internet multiplies everything by two or three. I do love Jane, though I have reread P&P too many times.

      On Wed, Jul 26, 2017 at 5:19 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! There’s always so much on the internet. In the good old days I would have read only one newspaper…

      On Wed, Jul 26, 2017 at 6:56 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:



  3. Thank you for singling out my blog. I enjoyed reading yours. I had written one before (yes I wrote two blogs on this anniversary, the first on the “great day;” in that one I criticized the whole idea and tried to show how a couple of themes dominated those books chosen to be reviewed for the “day” (this makes me remember Mary Poppins’s birthdays, done semi-tongue in cheek). Specifically they wrote about fans, fandom, the better ones the publishing and film history. I admit I’m a Janeite and probably an Austen scholar too:

    I decided Austen’s last lines in each of the “major” stories (7 novels, 3 fragments) would be appropriate plus what is said to have been her last spoken and written lines. She is like some idol I know and the real woman is lost . The week before that a playwright sent me a song he had written for her; he produced an independent film of Sanditon. His music is beautiful: click on “The Blue Briny Sea.”

    It’s hard to explain why I should love an author the way I have. Like others, to me it seems she is like a close friend — I’ve been reading these books since age 12-13. I take off a few years now and again, but when I come back, there she is again. Most times my favorite is Sense and Sensibility, but I am very fond of Northanger Abbey — maybe because I love the gothic. Emma is my least favorite, but that I know it so well means I’ve succumbed there too. I think I like the deep feeling Austen best of all which is why I like the dramatic romance kind of film adaptation.

    TMI. I love this blog and Kraggsby faithfully read yours too.


    • Ellen, thank you for the link to the first article about the anniversary! Yes, the whole thing got out of control: too many articles, though if I weren’t on the internet I would only have seen those in the NYT, which did not go overboard. I love Austen too and now must reread the books I know less well because I have read my favorites over and over.


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