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!

Jane Austen Bicentenary Readings & Various Non-Jane Literary Links


I’m not big on death anniversaries, but I had intended to participate in The Guardian Book Club’s discussion of Austen  to commemorate the bicentenary of her death (July 18).   Alas, they have chosen to read  Persuasion, which I just read in May.

And so I will quietly read Jane on my own.  I am not sure which book.  What will you be reading?

If you think you have read Austen too many times, don’t despair:  there are dozens of new books every year about Austen. In Jane Smiley’s entertaining essay, “The Austen Legacy: Why and How We Love Her, What She Loved, ” in The New York Times,  she writes about Deborah Yaffe’s  AMONG THE JANEITES:  A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, Devoney Looser’s THE MAKING OF JANE AUSTENand Paula Byrne’s THE GENIUS OF JANE AUSTEN.


1 Have you read the satirical novels of Thomas Love Peacock? Pamela Climit at the TLS recommends the new Cambridge editions of Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle.  I’m always ready for a laugh.  (And the Penguin is good enough for me.)

2.  Michael Dirda at The Washington Post recommends eight small presses, NYRB, Haffner Press, The Folio Society, Poisoned Pen Press, Wildside Press, Europa Editions, Centipede Press, and Cadmus Press.

“Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” So said Henry James, who would doubtless recommend spending some of those sunlit hours with a good book or two. Whether you enjoy escape fiction or literary fiction, check out the home pages of the following small publishers. I confess to deeply admiring their commitment to older or neglected writers, which explains why a few titles from New York Review Books, the Folio Society and Tartarus carry introductions by me.

The Folio Society Jane Austens

Sylvia Plath

Emily Van Duyne at the Literary Hub asks. “Why Are We So Unwilling to 
Take Sylvia Plath at Her Word?” She writes,

Back in April, the Guardian dropped an apparent literary bombshell—new letters had been discovered from the poet Sylvia Plath, alleging horrific physical abuse at the hands of her husband, the British poet Ted Hughes. The letters had gone unread by any major Plath scholar through one of those black holes so common, and frustrating, to those of us who love her work.

It is not a matter of not taking Sylvia Plath at her word; it is a matter of needing to know more.   Van Duyne is writing a book on Plath, so she has read everything  and obviously this discovery means something to her.  I myself know so little about the couple that an article in The Guardian  doesn’t say “Of course!” to me.

But poor Sylvia!  I do love her poetry.