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Editors’ Note: Jane Austen Upside Down

Living in a world defined by elegant decorums, Jane Austen’s heroes and heroines are often described as upright, erect, graceful, agile, energetic.  Mr. Knightley’s “tall, firm, upright figure” is “such as Emma felt must draw every body’s eyes”—a description later inverted in her re-evaluation of Frank Churchill:  “‘So unlike what a man should be!—None of that upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness, which a man should display in every transaction of his life.’”  Elizabeth Bennet’s case is more complex:  Darcy notes that her figure fails to achieve “perfect symmetry” but admires her “ease” as well as the “brilliancy” that exercise gives to her complexion even as he has reservations about her decorum, “doubt[ing] . . . the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone,” a doubt perhaps justified by the “impatient activity” with which she jumps over stiles and springs over puddles.  Departure from moral uprightness can be signalled by a change—even an inversion—in posture.  Recalling the “exquisite happiness” of the acting week at Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford recalls Edmund’s departure from upright principle:  “‘His sturdy spirit to bend as it did!  Oh! it was sweet beyond expression.’”  Marianne Dashwood’s excessive sensibility results in her “‘tumbling down hills,’” in Sir John Middleton’s words, and leads almost to her death.  At the seaside, enjoying the delightful sensation of jumping into Wentworth’s arms, and “too precipitate by half a second,” Louisa Musgrove falls onto her head.  In a largely orderly world—an order signalled by Austen’s generic choices—such moments of disorder, moments when Austen’s fictional world turns upside down, are remarkable. 

But, in another way, turning things upside down is Jane Austen’s modus operandi.  As a letter writer, she often rotates her paper by 90 degrees and then writes crossways across what she’s already written; sometimes she literally turns the paper upside down (rotating it 180 degrees) in order to fill in the blank space of the upper margin.  A world in which friends and family are separated—and in which women especially must economize—involves these disordering acts of inversion.  And, of course, Austen’s most characteristic tactic, her irony, is a way of upending readerly expectation. 

The essays in this special issue of Persuasions On-Line turn Jane Austen upside down in a variety of ways.  We hear of characters who are transgender and of Georgiana Darcy’s funeral; we hear of Austen-indebted texts that do not end with a marriage and of retellings of Pride and Prejudice in which the central female character is no longer Lizzy Bennet but one of her sisters or, even more radically, one of the Longbourn servants.  There is even a text in which Austen does not die in 1817 but goes on to write many more novels. 

These inversions of the life and works of a much-loved author may seem strange and potentially even jarring, but they typically make serious points and raise questions worth considering.  Mary Peace notes that Austen has only a limited interest in objects, but both Sarah Dredge and Marie Hockenhull-Smith draw attention to the fact that the servants in her books are, in a sense, objects.  The articles by Carol Dole and Courtney Duchene and by Camilla Nelson remind us that Lizzy’s pre-eminence is only achieved by another kind of flattening:  the other Bennet sisters—Mary in particular—must be kept in the background so that Lizzy can occupy the foreground.  To make such observations is not to criticize Austen or to diminish her achievement but to enable us to better understand how her books work and what assumptions they expected their earliest readers to share. 

At the same time, such reworkings also remind us of how much times have changed since Jane Austen wrote.  Other essays in this special issue show us that, even though she herself died in 1817, Austen has changed with the times.  Andrea Austin’s and Laura Witherington’s essays show that the novels can speak with equal ease to the aesthetics of video games and of animated musical film, while Lisa Hopkins’s and Emma Major’s essays explore the ease with which Austen’s plots, characters, and language can be reused in crime fiction. 

In “The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers” Dorothy L. Sayers invokes Austen:  “You can write letters [at the Egotists’ Club] if you like, and have the temperament of a Jane Austen, for there is no silence room.”  Letters are important in Austen’s life and works, but Suzanne Speidel’s essay shows how they too are turned upside down as an epistolary novel is brought to the screen, while Janice Wardle’s exploration of Kathleen Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project foregrounds the extent to which letters are or should be private.  Collectively, the essays in this special issue show how turning Jane Austen upside down can help us not only to see things about Austen herself but also to examine our own roles as readers of Austen. 

For help with this special issue, we are indebted to many:  to the authors of these essays; to the scholars on the Editorial Board, who contributed their time, energy, and expertise; to Marsha Huff, who did more than mere proofreading, spotting errors and even upside-down logic; to Carol Moss, who built these pages, fixed errors, and tagged the essays for greater access; and to Iris Lutz, who solved a range of problems.  Thanks to all for extending our collective dialogue with Jane Austen.

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