A New Jane Austen: How Americans Brought Us the World’s Greatest Novelist

By | October 23, 2023

“But hasn’t everything been digitized by now?”

            I’m often asked this question when I address non-academic audiences, who—given Jane Austen’s worldwide popularity—make up a significant portion of my readership, one that I value greatly. Everyone knows about Google Books, and many people are conversant with databases of historical newspapers and periodicals, as well as with open-access digital editions of manuscripts and catalogues of museum collections. Most, though, are unaware how much remains to be uncovered in archival boxes and folders. I have the utmost respect for scholars who expand our understanding of Austen’s reception by tirelessly digging in the newest databases. For me, nothing compares to the thrill of viewing an archival document or object, realizing that I’m the first to appreciate its significance, and getting to share that significance with others.

            My research for A New Jane Austen involved plenty of exciting moments, of which the most breath-taking was the last. In September 2022, when my manuscript was under final review, a recently graduated student, Grace Fischbach, brought to my attention a handbound book that I had never seen before. The Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College—which I’ve been exploring since the preparation of my first monograph, Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination—comprises thousands of volumes and more than forty archival boxes, so I’m well aware that there are many discoveries yet to be made by me and others. Grace, with whom I had shared my 2021 article about the English artist Averil Hassall’s contributions to Alberta H. Burke’s Austen archive, rightly guessed that the book in question was one of Averil’s creations. Evidently, and understandably, the person who originally processed the collection was unable to decipher the monograms: AHB for Alberta H. Burke, the dedicatee, and AGH for Averil G. Hassall, the creator. Delighted to find that Goucher held another gift handmade by Averil for Alberta, I soon recognized what else this page contains. Who could that lively lady in the lower right-hand corner be but Jane Austen, rendered by Averil in confident strokes of black and hot-pink ink? The more I gazed at the image, the more euphoric I felt. A New Jane Austen includes several justly forgotten portraits of Austen by turn-of-the-twentieth-century American commercial illustrators. Those ghastly, wooden versions of Cassandra Austen’s portrait of her sister could not be more different from Averil’s exuberant, affectionate portrayal. I love that Averil shows Jane as a young, fashionably dressed woman, and I really love that Averil’s Jane has her pen to the page and her head turned away. Here is Jane Austen as the readers who love her would prefer to envision her: engrossed in writing. There could be no more appropriate cover image for a book that, after much deliberation, bears the bold title A New Jane Austen.

            Earlier moments in my research—which was fortunately all but complete before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic—were exhilarating as well. One such involved unfinished business from my previous book, Reading Austen in America, for which I studied Charles Beecher Hogan’s copy of the 1816 Philadelphia edition of Austen’s Emma at Yale’s Beinecke Library but didn’t take time to consult any of Hogan’s other books or papers. At the time, the Beinecke had yet to digitize the finding aid to Hogan’s Austen collection, so it came as a complete surprise to me to discover in that archival box a set of four reading journals, covering the 1920s to 1940s, in which Hogan recorded a pithy observation about each book he read—and, in the case of Austen’s novels, reread. There is no comparable record anywhere of a perceptive reader’s evolving appreciation of Austen from teenage years through middle age. (The Beinecke has recently digitized the first of Hogan’s reading journals.) In another case of vital material being incompletely catalogued, it turned out that documents confirming Hogan’s recollections of his purchase of the Austen sisters’ topaz cross pendants were preserved at Jane Austen’s House in Chawton. Putting these archival pieces together, I was able to correct the published record by telling the complete, accurate story of Hogan’s acquisition of the topaz crosses—as a Yale undergraduate!—and his gift of them to his “flour heiress” bride, Carolyn Crosby.

            I have Averil Hassall’s son Mark Hassall to thank for the documents that allowed me to return once more to Alberta Burke from a fresh vantage point. In autumn 2016, Mark emailed me out of the blue to say that he had found his mother’s name in Everybody’s Jane and wondered whether I, or Goucher, would like a box of letters written to her by Alberta Burke from 1959 to 1963—just a few dozen, Mark apologized, that survived of the hundreds that the two friends exchanged over their friendship of more than forty years. I expressed enthusiastic gratitude, and Mark donated the letters to Goucher. I was especially eager to read them because Alberta Burke bequeathed only professional correspondence to Goucher (her alma mater). I hoped that in writing to an intimate friend, Alberta would cast new light on her motives for and practice of collecting, and indeed she did. Alberta reminisced to Averil about how she first became interested in Austen, hitherto a crucial unanswered question. And Alberta remarked that color-plate volumes from the Georgian period, of which she owned many rarities, helped her visualize Austen’s world, thereby confirming what that important element of her collection meant to her as a reader. Perhaps most importantly, a stray pre–1959 postcard in the box of letters served as the key that unlocked the story of Alberta’s contributions to the 1951 “Jane Austen Festival,” an event that included the first public exhibition of rare Austen editions and manuscripts held anywhere in the world, in the unlikely location of rural Frostburg, Maryland.

I look forward to sharing many of these documents and objects with visitors to the Morgan Library & Museum’s summer 2025 Austen exhibition commemorating the author’s 250th birthday, for which I’m honored to be guest co-curator.

Juliette Wells is Professor of Literary Studies at Goucher College (USA). She has written several books about Jane Austen’s historic readers and fans: A New Jane Austen (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023), Reading Austen in America (2017) and Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination (2011). For Penguin Classics, she edited Austen’s Persuasion (2017) and Emma (2015).

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