Looking at the Wrong Books
By Sarah Skwire
Russ Robert’s interview with Janine Barchas opens so many avenues that I want to pursue for thought and discussion that I’m as dizzy as an Austen heroine’s younger sister at her first ball. The question of why Austen is still so firmly in the canon, what other Victorian novelists have been unjustly neglected, the popularity of modern Hollywood/BBC/Bollywood versions of Austen novels–each one merits a blog post of its own.
But I was particularly intrigued by Barchas’s discovery and analysis of cheap editions of Austen’s work. I’ve argued in a range of other articles for FEE, Cato Unbound, and Reason, that if we want to find evidence of the positive representations of the bourgeois virtues in literature, we need to read books intended for the bourgeois–not aimed at the cultural elite. I’ve used that to argue for taking romance novels and “shopgirl” novels seriously. In Barchas’s interview and book, a similar argument gives us an excellent reminder of the fact that cultural products are delightfully slippery. They refuse to stay in the class for which they are produced.
Austen’s novels, initially brought out in 3 volume editions (as was typical for many novels of the period) were priced higher than the average weekly wage. Later editions brought the price down to 6 shillings, which was still out of reach for the average unskilled worker. But their popularity spurred later even less expensive editions of the novels, which were available for a shilling or two. Suddenly Austen’s novels were in reach of nearly everyone. An elite cultural product became a pop cultural product. We think of Austen as “elite,” but because this part of her publication history has been unstudied, we are missing a huge part of the story. As Barchas says, “that phenomenon of her being read by coal miners, and school children, and ordinary working people is not something we usually have accounted for in our reception-histories of Austen, simply because we’ve been looking at the wrong books.”
And by the wrong books, Barchas doesn’t mean only what I have argued in the past–that we need to look at different genres and different authors. She means that we need to look at different editions and at publication histories of authors we think we know as well. Jane Austen started out as the kind of thing that “toffs” read, but she became the kind of thing that everyone read–and the cheap editions of her work helped that become true. (I suspect that modern pop culture versions of Austen, from Clueless to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries have done the same for Austen in the 21st century.)
While Barchas isn’t a fan of Kindles and ebooks, I wonder if they are the most accurate modern analogue for the cheap railway editions that brought Austen into the canon? They lower the financial and transaction costs of buying or borrowing new books, and they address the storage and inheritance problems that have been worrying Russ of late. Unlike the railway editions, however, ebooks will leave no traces behind them to be mapped future students of publication history, no matter what they do to elevate and secure the reputations of their authors.