Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Circulating Jane

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Circulating Jane

Article excerpt

FOR JANE AUSTEN, the distinctions between fiction and lived experience were discrete and definable. Whenever characters in her novels attempt to cross the barrier between their "reality" and fiction, disaster results, as Catherine Morland discovers while imagining herself in a Radcliffean gothic romance at Northanger Abbey, and as the Bertram family party learns while acting out Lovers' Vows onstage and off at Mansfield Park. Inevitably there is a moment of recall, as characters are forced to desist from their fantasy of enacting another's fiction in order to live their own lives instead. Acting another's narrative is suspect insofar as it distances individuals from their own narrative, identity and autonomy; in Austen, patriarchy is particularly threatened by the performance of fiction and its potential to subvert the existing order, as the censorious remarks by Henry Tilney and Sir Thomas Bertram suggest. All of which is to say that Jane Austen was not a postmodernist, for while her works acknowledge the permeability of fiction and experience, ultimately she argues for their separation.

So it seems ironic that today so many people still feel compelled to enact Austen and her fictions, repeatedly traversing the space between their lived experience and her fiction by generating multiple productions of Austen. The impulse to play Austen's role as author, by writing sequels, completions, and supplementary scenes to her works, can be traced back to the nineteenth century when her nieces attempted to finish The Watsons and Sanditon, and such Austen para-literature has been produced steadily ever since. (1) Theatrical versions of Austen have been on the boards at least since the early twentieth century, and the extended 1990s run of Austen on film and television suggests that the market to watch people perform Austen's fictions is still vibrant (Wright; Troost and Greenfield). While all these period texts and productions assert Austen's value and sustain the cultural currency of her works, they explain neither. Instead, I would argue that three contemporary, metafictional versions of Pride and Prejudice--Kate Fenton's Lions and Liquorice (LL) (1995), Melissa Nathan's Pride, Prejudice, and Jasmin Field (PPJF) (2000), and most famously, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (BJD)(1996)--provide just such an explanation. These novels present models that traverse the space between Austen's fictions and lived experience, and in the process, they expose the mechanisms that coin and circulate Austen's value. Although Austen was not a postmodernist, her work thrives in a postmodern world, and literary strategies of pastiche and metafiction cultivate her authority as they elucidate it. (2)

In each of these contemporary novels there is an operating assumption that Austen's novels are known quantities on the cultural landscape. This assumption may seem to beg the question--how do Austen's works become known in the first place?--but it does not; there is no "first place" or initial encounter with Austen within these works. For nearly two centuries, persistent references to and (re)productions of Austen's novels have granted if not canonized her value and, consequently, her cultural authority in the West. In other words, in an ever-expanding cultural framework, cultural value is identified not only by the content of an idea or text, but by the range and frequency with which that idea or text is invoked. (The Internet provides a useful model in this regard, for websites are evaluated based on their number of links and the number of "hits" they generate). As cultural literacy is necessary to navigate a society, one must be aware of the cultural vocabulary to succeed; as an established part of that cultural vocabulary, Austen and her works are already known and circulating before a specific incarnation of Austen appears. Accordingly, each protagonist knows Pride and Prejudice before his or her narrative version of it begins. …

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