Benedict, Barbara M. "Sensibility by the Numbers: Austen's Work as Regency Popular Fiction." Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees. Ed. Deidre Lynch. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 63-86.
Austen as safe and delicate; refined, conservative; "an author of high literature" / Yet: Austen writing at a time of independent heroines, and when "the Romantic ideal of authorship as a sign of laudable originality was, in fact, only newly emerging" (63).
"Poised between two aesthetics" (63). Did contemporary readers regard her as "literature" or "fiction"? Note Austen's use of contemporary reading in her novels: cf. Udolpho in Northanger Abbey (63-4).
This intertextuality "suggests she conceived of her novels in the context of current fiction, as a part of popular literature" and that they "were constructed and presented to audiences in the mold of circulating fiction: as the episodic adventures of familiar, sympathetic heroines, designed for a rapid read" (64).
c. 1800: Reproduction of content and form, access through catalogues of circulating libraries; mixed popular and high literature: "critical hierarchies vanish." Austen's novels partake of both. (65).
Account of circulating libraries. Novels predominate in 1797 plan (65). Classes mix in libraries (65-6).
Harrod's of Stamford, mostly novels; author names omitted (67).
Read before you buy: casual, impressionistic reading (68).
Anxieties aroused, viz. Mangin in 1808 on "formulaic fiction that panders to the lower and middle classes degrades literature, converting it into merchandize" (68). Formula (as in today's Harlequins, etc.): "Circulating libraries marketed novelty -- but novelty of a particular, predictable sort" (69). Borrowing made reading ephemeral (extensive!) (69).
Catalogues of libraries: usually print title only, and perhaps price of book; denies originality of author (Romantic notion). (70)
Catalogues: examples of novels titles, e.g., women's names, Love at First Sight, romances of women's education (here Austen's titles find a place): importance of plot and female heroine, appeal to moral sensibility (72-3).
Listing books by titles begins to change; 1832 example. Lifts Austen's novels to "texts for elite readers" (74).
Austen's references to Burney, Radcliffe in Northanger (74). Intertextual references, including Austen's, suggesting familiarity of readers with conventions of popular fiction (75). Novel that disclaims its sentimental premise, like Northanger; events are "natural and familiar" (75).
Opening of novels: description of characters and family circumstances (76). "Beauties" vs. plot and character development: 18th C gives way to 19th; but note Radcliffe's novels tend to combine the two awkwardly (76-7). Use of cliffhanger ending of each volume of a novel to impel reader to continue to next (77); Austen's use of this technique (78).
Rapid reading of library borrowers (78); complaints of mistreatment of books, writing in margins (dialogism) (79).
Austen's readers, emphasis on character:
- Emotional responses
- Moral responses
- Aesthetic evaluations (79)
-- examples (80-1)
Austen's family: use elite rather than popular terms (80, 81); "one class's realism is another's romance" (80); elite vs. popular = conceptual vs. characterological (80); realism vs. romantic fantasy (81).
- Austen's novels designed for circulating library
- Focus on plot, but with "dramatic beauties"
- For elite and novel-reading public
- Reader's identification with heroine, a familiar figure
- Her work both fiction and literary (82)
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Document created October 10th 2005 / revised March 21st 2011