Jane Austen and her Readers, 1786?1945

Jane Austen and her Readers, 1786?1945

by Katie Halsey


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‘Jane Austen and her Readers, 1786–1945’ is a study of the history of reading Jane Austen’s novels. It discusses Austen’s own ideas about books and readers, the uses she makes of her reading, and the aspects of her style that are related to the ways in which she has been read. The volume considers the role of editions and criticism in directing readers’ responses, and presents and analyses a variety of source material related to the ordinary readers who read Austen’s works between 1786 and 1945.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783080502
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Series: Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series
Pages: 298
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Katie Halsey is a lecturer in eighteenth-century literature at the University of Stirling, Scotland.

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Jane Austen and her Readers, 1786â"1945

By Katie Halsey

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Katie Halsey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-050-2



Jane Austen's Reading

As a child and young woman, living with her family in Steventon Rectory, Jane Austen had access to her father's library of some five hundred volumes, many of which she read, along with books borrowed from friends, neighbours and wider family members. After the family's move to Bath, when her father's library was sold, and the family's second move to Southampton after the death of the Reverend George Austen, Jane Austen borrowed books from the circulating libraries of Bath and Southampton, and enjoyed borrowing and reading books from the private libraries of friends and relations during her sometimes lengthy visits to them. In particular, Austen seems to have relished her brother Edward Knight's library at Godmersham Park, and to have taken full advantage of his collection. While they were in Bath and Southampton, Henry Austen sent his mother and sisters works from London, and they also sometimes received newspapers and periodicals from the same source, and, rather like the Dashwood family in Sense and Sensibility, from friends and neighbours. When Jane, Cassandra, Mrs Austen and Martha Lloyd made their home in Chawton, in 1809, the Austens formed part of the Chawton Book Society, and Jane continued to borrow books from both public and private libraries. In the last three years of her life, once she belonged to the prestigious John Murray stable of authors, she received the latest publications as loans from her publisher. Over the course of her life, therefore, Austen had different kinds of access to books and other printed matter, but, in common with her mother, sister and most other Georgian women on a limited income, she very rarely bought books, and when she did, they tended to be as gifts for other people. Those bought or given to her during her youth were sold with her father's books before the move to Bath in 1801, and the frequent purchase of books was simply too expensive for the Austen women during their years in Bath, Southampton and Chawton.

Reconstructing Austen's reading is therefore both difficult and inevitably patchy, since the most obvious source available to the historian of reading – an individual's library – does not exist in Austen's case. We cannot therefore depend on marginal notes or annotations to her books to tell us what she thought, nor even look for evidence of heavy use, such as dog-eared pages and dirty marks, or, conversely, marks of disuse, such as uncut pages. The Austens, in fact, extremely rarely wrote in their books – the outstanding exceptions are James Austen's copy of Oliver Goldsmith's History of England in four volumes (1771), in which Jane Austen wrote more than a hundred marginal notes that document her championship of the Stuart dynasty, and, to a much lesser extent, Jane Austen's copies of Vicesimus Knox's Elegant Extracts, in which both she and her niece Anna wrote marginalia, and Burney's Camilla, in which Austen commented on the ending. The marginalia in both the History of England and the Elegant Extracts primarily demonstrate Jane Austen's disagreements with received versions of history, reminiscent of Catherine Morland's view of history in Northanger Abbey as 'the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all'. Austen seems, in particular, to have objected to the depiction of the characters of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I in Goldsmith's History and the extracts from Hume's and Robertson's Histories in the Elegant Extracts. Beyond these exceptions, however, in general the surviving copies of Austen family books in the Knight Collection at Chawton House Library tell us little about their readers. Austen did not leave a diary or journal, and unlike many women of her period and class, she does not seem to have kept a commonplace book or album of quotations. We are therefore dependent on the limited marginalia, Austen's surviving letters (a very incomplete record), the quotations, allusions or parodies of literary works found in her novels, juvenilia and unfinished works, and the recorded memories of Austen's nieces and nephews for evidence about what she read, and, sometimes, how she read it.

It is possible to conclude from the existing evidence that Jane Austen read both intensively and extensively, knowing some books almost by heart through repeated re-readings, but also reading a wide and eclectic variety of texts. From the Goldsmith annotations, which show Austen frequently disagreeing with Goldsmith's view of history, and revealing her own sympathies with the Stuart dynasty, we can see that she engaged intensely and sometimes fiercely with authors and arguments that she disliked. Like most readers, she read different books at different times in her life, but returned to old favourites regularly, and responded in various ways to what she read. She read for different reasons, and with varying levels of attention, although, as Isobel Grundy rightly points out, she read like a potential author from a very early age, looking for what she could use, 'not by quietly absorbing and reflecting it, but by actively engaging, rewriting, often mocking it'. As a child and young woman, Jane Austen's access to books was restricted by financial and geographical constraints, but she was also unusually free to choose her own reading matter. George Austen's library was small, but all of his books were available to his children, and, uncommonly in the period, their choice of reading does not seem to have been censored. From childhood, therefore, Jane Austen was used to making her own judgements and decisions about what (and how) she read, albeit within a limited compass.

When her elder brothers went up to university, they returned for the holidays with new books and ideas, many of which they shared with the family members still at home. Family tradition records, for example, that Austen's elder brother James 'had a large share in directing Jane's reading and forming her taste.' At Steventon, books were read both alone and together, aloud and silently. As Paula Byrne demonstrates, the family participated in amateur theatricals, gaining a deep and shared familiarity with certain plays and poetical prologues, including those written by James Austen. Jane Austen, Byrne argues, was 'actively engaged' in the amateur theatricals, not only at Steventon, but also in Kent, Southampton and Winchester. All of the members of the Austen family, like Mrs Morland in Northanger Abbey, re-read their favourite books very frequently. Growing up in a family where books were read together and shared around, Jane Austen was used to sharing her thoughts about books with her parents, sister and brothers, and also, crucially, to assuming a shared knowledge and understanding of literary works. This early experience of reading in a small and close-knit community, in which literary allusions were common currency, almost guaranteed to be recognized and understood, and in which certain books were known by heart, was to affect both Austen's later reading practices and her writing style, in profound and important ways. Throughout her life, Austen habitually read with her sister, mother, and any other guests to their various households. Austen's niece Caroline, for example, remembered that Jane Austen 'was considered to read aloud remarkably well' and recalled her reading of Burney's Evelina (1778): 'once I knew her to take up a volume of Evelina and read a few pages of Mr. Smith and the Brangtons and I thought it was like a play.' Patricia Howell Michaelson notes that Austen 'almost certainly wrote her novels anticipating that they would be read aloud', and analyses the ways in which such elocutionary effects as emphases, pauses, tone of voice and gestures are represented in Austen's writing. Austen certainly did read her own works aloud to a small and sympathetic audience at various stages of their composition, including after their publication. In addition to Marianne Knight's account of hearing the novels read aloud behind closed doors, scattered references in the letters alert us to the practice of reading Jane's novels aloud in the family circle. As soon as Pride and Prejudice was published, for example, the Austens read it with their guest, Miss Benn: 'Miss Benn dined with us on the very day of the Books coming, & in the eveng we set fairly at it & read half the 1st vol. to her – prefacing that having intelligence from Henry that such a work wd soon appear we had desired him to send it whenever it came out.– She was amused, poor soul! that she cd not help, you know, with two such people to lead the way'.

The Austens, as a family, were all also used to reading each other's work in manuscript. More information has survived about Jane's manuscripts than those of any other family member, but she was not the only writer in the family. James Austen wrote plays, poetry and belles lettres, Mrs Austen wrote light verse, George, Henry and James Austen all wrote sermons, Cassandra Austen wrote charades and verses, and a later generation of nephews and nieces wrote novels. We know that Jane read (and admired) Cassandra's charades, and Henry's sermons. We can surmise that she read the essays James, Henry and their cousin Edward Cooper wrote for James's periodical The Loiterer from the fact that she contributed a letter, signed 'Sophia Sentiment' to the periodical in answer to a previous paper. We know that every member of the family who chose to participate in the Austen amateur theatricals read the plays that James wrote for performance at Steventon. We can assume that even if they did not read their father's sermons, the members of the Austen family certainly heard them in Steventon Church. And we know that later in their lives, Jane, Cassandra and Mrs Austen read the embryonic novels of Caroline, Anna and James Edward Austen in manuscript form, and that Jane probably helped Anna by writing out the latter's playlet of 'Sir Charles Grandison'. Jane Austen's family and friends also read her novels at all points of their composition, from first drafts to published novels, as recorded in her letters and the opinions she collected of Emma and Mansfield Park. Martha Lloyd, we should remember, had read 'First Impressions' so often that Jane Austen joked in 1799 that 'one more perusal' would enable her to 'publish it from Memory'. There is, therefore, sufficient evidence to say that the Austens, as a reading community, were both producers and consumers, and that part of what bound them together was the shared experience of reading, enjoying, and criticizing each other's works. Reading and writing were communal activities within a close-knit family, and criticism of literary works took place against a common set of shared reading experiences.

Jane Austen's manuscript notebooks, written between 1787 (when she was 12) and 1792 (when she was seventeen), show her assumptions about the kind of reading community who would read her works – one which would share her concerns and point of view – and occasionally they also show the ways in which that reading community actually responded to the works. The three manuscript notebooks are titled Volume the First, Volume the Second and Volume the Third, and they adhere closely to the conventions of presentation of the fiction and plays that Austen knew – with dedications, chapter headings, where appropriate, dramatis personae at the beginning of plays, and so on. They copy, as far as is possible, the typographical conventions of published works. The juvenile effusions in the volumes are all, without exception, parodies of particular works, authors or genres that we know to have been read by the young Austens together. These individual works include the aforementioned Goldsmith's History of England, Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote (1752), Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison (1753–4), and Berquin's L'Ami de l'Enfance (1782–3); genres include the novel of sentiment, the conduct book, the dramatic comedy, the epistolary novel and the history.

By its nature, parody assumes prior knowledge of the work being parodied, and to some extent, it creates a readership which shares the author's sentiments about the works, authors or genres being parodied. That is, after all, the aim of parody – it points out the weaknesses, absurdities and follies of the original, and implicitly asks the reader to align him or herself with the parodist's stance. The internal evidence, in the shape of the dedications to the works, suggests that all of the members of the Austen family, including more distant relatives such as Jane Cooper and Eliza de Feuillide, and their close friends, such as Martha and Mary Lloyd, were expected to read the notebooks. We know that at least two members of Austen's family recognized the parodic nature of the works, as they responded in creative kind. Henry Austen added a very brief parody of another kind of genre – the banker's draft – after one of her dedications. The dedication reads:

To Henry Thomas Austen Esqre –


I am now availing myself of the Liberty you have frequently honoured me with of dedicating one of my Novels to you. That it is unfinished, I greive [sic]; yet fear that from me, it will always remain so; that as far as it is carried, it Should be so trifling and unworthy of you, is

Another concern to your obliged humble.


The Author

Henry Austen – a future banker – wrote in response:

Messrs Demand and Co – please to pay Jane Austen Spinster the sum of one hundred guineas on account of your Humbl. Servant.


H. T. Austen

In these jeux d'esprit of a loving brother and sister, we can see the Austen siblings simultaneously acting out and parodying the productions of their future professions, whilst using their shared expertise in parody, learned through resistant and oppositional reading, to amuse one another. Cassandra Austen, the sibling to whom Jane was always closest, also recognized and participated in the spirit of parody of Jane's notebooks. The second item in Volume the Second is The History of England, written 'by a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian' and dedicated to 'Miss Austen, daughter of the Revd George Austen'. Cassandra is, however, not only the dedicatee of the work; she produced thirteen illustrations which strongly underline the satirical tone of the text, and reflect its political bias (Mary, Queen of Scots is depicted as soft, round and smiling, while Elizabeth I has a gaunt, hook-nosed and unsmiling visage), thus suggesting that she, like Henry, was a reader with attitudes and interests in common with the author. Austen's first assumption about her reading community, at least as evidenced by the notebooks, is that her readers would immediately recognize her works as parodies of particular originals, and that they would share her satirical perceptions of those originals.

The second assumption that Jane Austen appears to have made was that her readers would recognize the relevance of characters and situations to their own lives. All but a small number of her short pieces are dedicated to a friend or family member, and her mock-grandiloquent dedications are carefully designed, not only to ape the more florid specimens that she and her family knew from published works, but also to reflect the character of the work to follow, and the character and situation of the dedicatee. To her young niece, Fanny, she dedicated 'the female philosopher – A Letter', with a mock-serious dedication that sets it up as a parody of the conduct book in letters, made popular in the 1770s and 80s by writers such as Hester Chapone and John Bennett:

My dear Neice [sic]

As I am prevented by the great distance between Rowling and Steventon from superintending Your education Myself, the care of which will probably devolve on your Father and Mother, I think it is my particular duty to prevent your feeling as much as possible the want of my personal instructions, by addressing to You on paper my Opinions and admonitions on the conduct of Young Women, which you will find expressed in the following pages. I am my dear Neice,

Your affectionate Aunt

The Author

The 'Ode to Pity', a brief poem at the very end of Volume the First, bears the following dedication to Cassandra:

To Miss Austen, the following Ode to Pity is dedicated, from a thorough knowledge of her pitiful Nature, by her obedt humle Servt.

The Author


Excerpted from Jane Austen and her Readers, 1786â"1945 by Katie Halsey. Copyright © 2013 Katie Halsey. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; PART ONE; Introduction; 1. Jane Austen’s Reading in Context; 2. Jane Austen’s Negotiations with Reading; 3. Jane Austen’s Games of Ingenuity; PART TWO; Introduction; 4. Austen’s Readers: Contexts I; 5. Austen’s Readers: Contexts II; 6. Austen’s Readers I: Affection and Appropriation; 7. Austen’s Readers II: Opposition and Resistance; 8. Austen’s Readers III: Friendship and Criticism; 9. Austen’s Readers IV: Sociability and Devotion; Conclusion; Notes; Bibliography; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘Yoking together close reading with considerable methodological exactitude, ‘Jane Austen and her Readers’ presents the history of a complex series of negotiations and re-negotiations that have shaped readers’ engagements with Austen’s novels, as well as the reception of those works. In acknowledging and privileging the diversity of readers’ responses, Halsey builds up a nuanced picture of Austen’s own embedded narrative strategies, as well as those of her readers.’ —Dr Shafquat Towheed, The Open University

‘Beautifully written and drawing on a wealth of new manuscript and print resources, Katie Halsey places Austen’s nuanced comedy at the heart of fierce disputes about the art of the novel and the moral life of the reader in the period 1786–1945. This study is an elegant, authoritative and compelling account of Austen’s role in the history of the book.’ —Dr Jane Stabler, University of St Andrews

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