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the austen industry: canon and caricature

Austen's likeness as drawn by her sister, Cassandra. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Austen’s likeness as drawn by her sister, Cassandra. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

W.H. Auden once said of Sigmund Freud that he was no longer just a person, but had become a ‘climate of opinion’. These days, it is challenging to think of many others in the public eye that merit this description, even with the effusive presence of reality television stars and the ever-growing relevance of pop culture. It has, however, recently come to my attention that there is indeed a novelist who – particularly in a contemporary context – has been posthumously bequeathed this great honour. Jane Austen has become not only a climate of opinion, but a movement, an aesthetic, an attitude and perhaps most tellingly of all, a fridge magnet.

The late Ms Austen has been thrust upon the modern day consumerette with the kind of vigour that other authors within the Western canon have never begun to approach. Though we may still read Tolstoy, Steinbeck and Proust and cogitate their merits and scholarly gravitas, there has not yet been fans in their thousands waiting eagerly for the newest television adaption of In Search of Lost Time, or discussing their recent attendance of the War and Peace convention in full Napoleonic garb. The ‘Austen Industry’ has no doubt had a profound effect on the literary landscape of the past few years, and, quite like the obstinate fervor of Elizabeth Bennett, shows no signs of abating.

At the heart of the Austen craze is no doubt a desperate pursuit for the diplomacy and stability that her novels represent, especially during a time where at every turn there is a new act of political violence or Justin Bieber album. This however is not a new belief, as British soldiers returning from the front during the Second World War who were showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were presented with Jane Austen novels. It was believed that the sentimentality of the characters and the pastoral regency backdrop would be comforting, and aid in the soldiers’ recovery and reintegration into polite society. Perhaps the woman of today are being seen as returning soldiers; being told to put our feet up and take our minds off the weighty battlefront issues of gender-based wage gaps and the GST covering essential feminine hygiene products.  As much as I would like to believe that the mollifying effect of Austen is being handed over as a gift-wrapped sign of a respite from a literary industry inclined to be patriarchal, it appears that this feverish trend is representative of the exact opposite.

Having done some research on Jane Austen, it becomes apparent that she, as with so many authors of her time and gender, underwent a series of ‘embellishments’ for the sake of the public eye. In 2013, Austen became featured on the Bank of England £10 note. The image portrays her as doe-eyed and round-cheeked, with a faint smile on her full lips, and curls of hair elegantly trickling from her bonnet. It is claimed that Austen’s sister Cassandra drew this image when the author was around twenty years old, however it does not take long to find a reproduction of the original drawing. In it, Austen appears angular; her arms are folded, her lips are stern and down-turned and her eyes are discerning, almost suspicious. It appears that as she has been propelled into the limelight of the 21st Century, even the Georgian damsel Jane Austen could not avoid a touch of Photoshop.

 

In my opinion, it is exactly this bizarre dichotomy that fuels the Austen industry. Her novels are being stripped bare of any possible depth or Georgian nuance that may have once been of interest, and being mass-produced as derivative and overly sentimental ‘chick-lit’. Now, even despite what is written here, I am not necessarily a Jane Austen fan myself. I’ve never necessarily found myself to be particularly engaged with her novels and to say it plainly, they’ve always bored me a little. My personal distaste for her work has recently been met by raised eyebrows and assumptions that I have an almost anti-Jacobin aversion to canonical literature (but really, they’re all just books). This is the result of admiration of a mas-produced silhouette of an author by a self-appointed celestial hierarchy of consumers’. It is evident that Austen finds her ball gown bustle in the awkward position of straddling the labels of canonical novelist and abiding consumerist fantasy.

W.H. Auden once said of Sigmund Freud that he was no longer just a person, but
had become a ‘climate of opinion’. These days, it is challenging to think of many
others in the public eye that merit this description, even with the effusive
presence of reality television stars and the ever-growing relevance of pop
culture. It has, however, recently come to my attention that there is indeed a
novelist who – particularly in a contemporary context – has been posthumously
bequeathed this great honour. Jane Austen has become not only a climate of
opinion, but a movement, an aesthetic, an attitude and perhaps most tellingly of
all, a fridge magnet.
The late Ms Austen has been thrust upon the modern day consumerette with the
kind of vigour that other authors within the Western canon have never begun to
approach. Though we may still read Tolstoy, Steinbeck and Proust and cogitate
their merits and scholarly gravitas, there has not yet been fans in their thousands
waiting eagerly for the newest television adaption of In Search of Lost Time, or
discussing their recent attendance of the War and Peace convention in full
Napoleonic garb. The ‘Austen Industry’ has no doubt had a profound effect on the
literary landscape of the past few years, and, quite like the obstinate fervor of
Elizabeth Bennett, shows no signs of abating.
At the heart of the Austen craze is no doubt a desperate pursuit for the
diplomacy and stability that her novels represent, especially during a time where
at every turn there is a new act of political violence or Justin Bieber album. This
however is not a new belief, as British soldiers returning from the front during
the Second World War who were showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder were presented with Jane Austen novels. It was believed that the
sentimentality of the characters and the pastoral regency backdrop would be
comforting, and aid in the soldiers’ recovery and reintegration into polite society.
Perhaps the woman of today are being seen as returning soldiers; being told to
put our feet up and take our minds off the weighty battlefront issues of gender-
based wage gaps and the GST covering essential feminine hygiene products.  As
much as I would like to believe that the mollifying effect of Austen is being
handed over as a gift-wrapped sign of a respite from a literary industry inclined
to be patriarchal, it appears that this feverish trend is representative of the exact
opposite.
Having done some research on Jane Austen, it becomes apparent that she, as
with so many authors of her time and gender, underwent a series of
‘embellishments’ for the sake of the public eye. In 2013, Austen became featured
on the Bank of England £10 note. The image portrays her as doe-eyed and round-
cheeked, with a faint smile on her full lips, and curls of hair elegantly trickling
from her bonnet. It is claimed that Austen’s sister Cassandra drew this image
when the author was around twenty years old, however it does not take long to
find a reproduction of the original drawing. In it, Austen appears angular; her
arms are folded, her lips are stern and down-turned and her eyes are discerning,
almost suspicious. It appears that as she has been propelled into the limelight of
the 21st Century, even the Georgian damsel Jane Austen could not avoid a touch
of Photoshop.
In my opinion, it is exactly this bizarre dichotomy that fuels the Austen industry.
Her novels are being stripped bare of any possible depth or Georgian nuance that
may have once been of interest, and being mass-produced as derivative and
overly sentimental ‘chick-lit’. Now, even despite what is written here, I am not
necessarily a Jane Austen fan myself. I’ve never necessarily found myself to be
particularly engaged with her novels and to say it plainly, they’ve always bored
me a little. My personal distaste for her work has recently been met by raised
eyebrows and assumptions that I have an almost anti-Jacobin aversion to
canonical literature (but really, they’re all just books). This is the result of
admiration of a mas-produced silhouette of an author by a self-appointed
celestial hierarchy of consumers’. It is evident that Austen finds her ball gown
bustle in the awkward position of straddling the labels of canonical novelist and
abiding consumerist fantasy.

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