George Justice, Editor

Austen Is Still Making History

Jane Austen and Co.: Remaking the Past in Contemporary Culture

Edited by Suzanne R. Pucci and James Thompson.
State University of New York Press, 2003.
277 pages.
Hardcover. $73.50. Paper. $24.95.

Reviewed by Amy Elizabeth Smith.

Edited collections like Jane Austen on the Big Screen (Troost and Greenfield, 1998) and Adaptations (Cartmell and Whelehan, 1999) have set high standards for work on adaptation in general and on Austen in particular; Suzanne R. Pucci and James Thompson maintain those high standards. Combining the strengths of both types of predecessor, Pucci and Thompson’s collection stakes out new territory through being simultaneously sharp in focus and broad in scope. First, its breadth. The “and Co.” component creates space for essays on novelists such as Laclos (by Sarah Maza) and Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson (by Virginia L. Blum). The collection also considers popular culture phenomena such as television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Kristina Straub) and Ally McBeal (Martine Voiret), as well as the boom in Austen tourism in the UK (Mike Crang). Depth comes through a sharp focus on history reconstituted via the context-specific “make-over.” This unifying theme keeps “and Co.” from unraveling into “and Misc.”

The work’s four-part structure supports the theme, identifying the primary sites wherein texts are engaged: I. In the Classroom; II. In the Nation; III. At Home; and IV. In the Bedroom. Thompson’s opening essay, “How to Do Things with Austen,” sets the stage conceptually (and semantically), emphasizing the continuities both over time and between academic and non-academics alike in responses to Austen as a writer firmly situated in a specific context yet infinitely adaptable. Thompson avoids, however, simply crying nostalgia when considering Austen’s appeal. As the book’s introduction (co-authored with Pucci) makes clear, nostalgia is a circular rather than linear dynamic, one always “begging the question of what we are nostalgic for and why now.” Further, history and cultural memory are also dynamic, not static, constructions—a concept that teachers must, the introduction urges, drive home to students to make clear how and why Austen continues to matter. These ideas provide the general theoretical foundation for the twelve specific arguments brought together here.

The collection is uniformly strong, but essays of particular note include Deidre Lynch’s “Clueless: About History” and Mike Crang’s “Placing Jane Austen, Displacing England: Touring between Book, History, and Nation.” Crang’s discussion of how Austen tourism in effect overwrites the present-day landscape of England describes both a literal travel phenomenon and a concept metaphorically relevant for each of the essays: our experiences as readers (and adapters are readers) inevitably are shaped by how we select our itineraries, follow signs, and handle the baggage we bring. Yet Crang is careful to emphasize that the process is dialectical and, in the case of tourism, not simply a “fake” England being superimposed upon the “real” one. Tourists are aware that they are reading, that “Pemberley” is, at one and the same time, a fictional place, an actual estate, a (fragmented) film set, a stop on a tour of Austen’s England, etc. Reading, applied to landscape or to text, is always an act of “assembling and connecting”—a point as valid for the whole collection as it is for Crang’s particular subject.

Austen’s own sense of how history shapes identity and identity reshapes history was assembled in part from reactions to revolutionary France and to Napoleon, determined to revise, among other things, the very map of Europe; an appropriate and distinctive feature of this collection is its integration of work by specialists in French studies. Sarah Maza’s “It Can’t Go on Like This: Dangerous Liaisons in the Thatcher Years” makes especially clear how present-day anxieties about gender and politics can be played out on an inter- continental, ostensibly non-threatening historical stage. The underlying concept, of course, is not a new one, nor is it presented as such; the collection picks up and extends lines of argument running through prior scholarship on adaptation.

The extent, for instance, to which Austen remakes may represent backlash against feminism—covered from various perspectives in Jane Austen in Hollywood—is further developed here (Virginia L. Blum, Martine Voiret, Madeleine Dobie). The collection also contains a helpful appendix by Patrick Cooper on television, film, and radio productions of Austen adaptations. Cooper covers radio plays not included (by design) in Sue Parrill’s recent Jane Austen on Film and Television (2002), but his listing is less comprehensive than Parrill’s appendix on television adaptations; the two appendices are most useful taken together.

Ultimately, through combining breadth of coverage and depth of focus, Pucci and Thompson’s collection presents strong individual essays that complement each other without redundancy, while the “and Co.” component helps situate Austen “makeovers” within a larger cultural context of adaptations reconstructing history in a complex present-day world. The ideas that adaptations are products of their culture and that history and memory are dynamic are not new—the editors never claim them to be—but the particular configurations of texts and contexts presented here is. Pucci and Thompson’s collection is worthwhile for teachers, scholars, students, readers, and re-readers alike.

Amy Elizabeth Smith is an assistant professor of English at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. She teaches Jane Austen and travel literature and conducts a consulting practice for professional writing.

JASNA News v.20, no. 1, Spring 2004, p. 17

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