Pride and Prejudice and roller derby: Q & A with Devoney Looser
When she died in July 1817, Jane Austen was not a household name. But in the 200 years since her death she has become one of the world’s most celebrated novelists. ASU professor and Jane Austen scholar Devoney Looser traces the author’s posthumous rise to fame in her new book, “The Making of Jane Austen,” which was named a Best Summer Book (Nonfiction) for 2017 by Publishers Weekly.
Looser, who has also played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen, recently talked with Knowledge Enterprise Development writer Kelsey Wharton about how a Jane Austen debate led to her marriage, what Jane Austen might think of roller derby and why Looser would pass on having tea with the late author.
Tell me about the first time you read Jane Austen.
The first time I became aware of Jane Austen was when my mother handed me a book. It was a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” together in one big volume. And it had been on the shelves in our living room. I'd never noticed it before but she brought it to me and said, “I think you should read this.”
I think I tried to start it two times, and I just got really stuck in the language. I was probably 13 or around that age. The third time, something clicked. It was fun and delightful, and I loved it.
It was only years later that I learned that my mom had never read Jane Austen’s novels . We’d just owned a copy of that book, and she knew it was literature that educated people should read. And obviously, it set me on the path for a life that I'm really happy to have. So I'm incredibly grateful to her for doing that.
Jane Austen has been popular among such diverse audiences – from suffragettes to the alt-right. Why do you think that is?
Well, she’s hard to pin down, and reading her isn’t a cake walk. I would say my students often come to her texts with exactly the same feelings that I did as a teen. That is, they are either prepared to be pleased or skeptical but struggling a little bit with the language.
Once they get past the struggle, they say she's “relatable.” I think that’s because she's able to speak on so many layers and levels. You can reread her and see new things every time. That is what's amazing about her fiction. You can go in with a lot of different agendas or interests and find something there to appreciate.
Of course I have opinions about what I think are better and worse ways to interpret her fiction. But the fact that we have these debates swirling around her for so long is evidence of how complex and enduring the questions she raises are.
(Looser comments on this topic in a recent New York Times article.)
How do you think of Jane Austen now that you've spent so much time studying her and her work? Is she an active mentor or more just a historical figure to understand?
The answer to that is probably both. She's now so deeply woven into the fabric of my life that it does feel like somehow she's a cosmic traveling partner. But I don’t believe I’m unique that way. I think she also serves that purpose for a lot of people. The way my experience is unusual is that I make a living doing Jane Austen. Not too many people make a career out of her, not to mention a marriage and a hobby!
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How is your marriage related to Jane Austen?
I met my husband [ASU English professor George Justice], who is also a Jane Austen scholar, over a conversation on Jane Austen. We date the moment of our first knowing each other back to an argument over her.
George asked me which of her novels was my favorite, and he didn’t like my answer. He told me his favorite was “Mansfield Park” because he loved the heroine Fanny Price. I told him, “That is my least favorite novel because I do not like Fanny Price. I find her to be too much like me. She's boring.”
He says that's the moment at which he knew he wanted to marry me. I always say that he decided right then that he wanted a boring wife. That’s something that we continue to tease each other about, more than twenty years later.
Has your opinion of Fanny Price changed over the years?
You know, it has, it actually has. I now see her as a lot less boring! She's still not my favorite heroine. I still much prefer the spirited, independent heroines, more in the Elizabeth Bennet mold. I was a very shy person in my teens and twenties, and Fanny Price spoke to that part of me, and maybe it’s not a part that I still identify with in the same way. I think as I identify less as a timid person, I can appreciate Fanny Price more for the quiet strength that she does have.
For your forthcoming book, “The Making of Jane Austen,” how did you get the idea to explore the years after Jane Austen's death?
There's an area of exploration that scholars call reception studies. It means looking at how an author was received over time, by critics, readers and audiences. It looks at how their writings are interpreted and used. That's an approach I’ve taken for a number of female authors I've studied over the years in my previous books.
It always seemed to me, “Well Jane Austen must have been done to death. We must know everything there is to know.” But then I was interviewed for this book that Deborah Yaffe wrote, “Among the Janeites.” She included me and my husband as some of the “quirky weirdos” profiled in her book. And so I thought, “There are all these quirky Jane Austen-loving weirdos now. I bet there were more in the past than we think there are.”
And the more I dug in the more I found. I think I found some pretty fun, new things about how Austen’s popular reputation was made, especially in book illustration, stage plays, early film, politics and schools.
If you could sit down to tea with Jane Austen, what would you want to ask her?
Austen has this line in a letter to her sister where she talks about the advantages of getting older. She writes, “I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.” I like that picture of her better than the tea drinking picture!
But regardless of where I'm sitting with her, I think one of the things I would ask a ghost of Jane Austen would be, “What do you think of all the fuss that's been made of you and all the dust that's been kicked up about your writing and the arguments and the debates?” It's hard to imagine any author wouldn’t be somewhat pleased with their works living on in this way.
But it might end a lot of the debates to hear exactly what she thought. The fiction, I think, purposely doesn’t tell us what she thought, because pinning everything down makes it a lot less interesting. So, I'm actually glad that she can't tell us what she thinks because I'd rather have the debates and the arguments than have any kind of a settled line from her. The questions she raises for readers about how to live good lives, how to cope and maneuver in a world that can be deeply unfair, these may be far more valuable things than pat answers.
Do you have any Jane Austen memorabilia?
This is where the fine line between work and play gets interesting. The “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” t-shirts are always attention-getters, and I enjoy wearing those and having people say “What in the world?” And the other thing that I've started wearing is Jane Austen-printed leggings. They also get some raised eyebrows. So those are the objects I have that are really more about fun and less about work. They start great conversations with strangers in elevators.
But I also have really interesting pieces of material — cultural detritus — of Jane Austen from the past hundred years, like a bridge tally card from the 1920s. It’s from an author-themed bridge game. You would pretend to be an author in a group of people playing bridge and [the card] would tell you, “You are Jane Austen, and now it's your job to go partner with Sir Walter Scott or John Ruskin or Charlotte Brontë, and that's going to be your partner for this round.” It's funny to think about people pretending to be Austen playing bridge in the 1920s, but these objects exist to show us that this was actually a thing. I also have this fabulous Jane Austen train. I haven’t used it with my sons’ train set, but I really should.
You have played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen. Do we have any evidence as to what Jane Austen’s roller derby personality might have been like?
You know, people regularly ask me, “What would Jane Austen think of roller derby?” I think she would appreciate the spirit of fun and women doing intrepid things and exhibiting strength. Maybe not the tattoos so much. But there's a great line in a letter to her sister, where she says, “If I am a wild beast, I cannot help it. It is not my own fault.” And to me that is so roller derby.
Do you have a recommendation for Austen newbies?
I would start with “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s her most famous, widely beloved novel for good reason. It's the one she herself referred to as “rather too light, bright and sparkling.” But really, can there be too light, bright and sparkling when you’re first discovering a genius author?
You recently had a conversation with filmmaker Whit Stillman and the question came up as to whether there can be a wrong age to begin reading Jane Austen. Is there?
I think we're living in odd times in that there are now toddler board books for Jane Austen. So you know, in that sense, I have no idea what the right age to come to Jane Austen is now.
I do think a reader’s sense of what's important or what's most to be appreciated in her fiction changes over time. I wouldn't start on the juvenilia (her youthful writings) until you'd read the novels because I think you just can't understand how playful and funny they are without grasping the fictional conventions.
But I think teens aren't too early; apparently two is not too early! The graphic novels, the video games, these change, too, how people come to her books. What would make me sad is if people came to Jane Austen through those new media and then didn't end up reading the fiction at some point later.
Since she brought you together, did Jane Austen play a role in your wedding?
That is a really good question. We did not do any kind of special toast. In fact, we decided to flout convention and walk down the aisle together. I didn't have anybody give me away. To me, that is a decision that came from years of having read Jane Austen’s fiction. Her heroines aren't being given away in marriage, figuratively anyway. They're giving themselves.
Austen was living and writing in a world where there was such pressure to marry. For whatever reason, she didn’t. She imagined for nineteenth-century women — and men, too — bold romantic paths, alongside powerful ways to question society. I think she and her novels are still doing that work today.
Interview has been condensed and edited.