Sunday, 2 September 2012

WOMEN, POPULAR CULTURE, AND THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY - BOOK REVIEW


The book

(description of the book from Amazon.com) In contemporary pop culture, the pursuits regarded as the most frivolous are typically understood to be more feminine in nature than masculine. This collection illustrates how ideas of the popular and the feminine were assumed to be equally naturally intertwined in the eighteenth century, and the ways in which that association facilitates the ongoing trivialization of both.


Top scholars in eighteenth-century studies examine the significance of the parallel devaluations of women's culture and popular culture by looking at theatres and actresses; novels, magazines, and cookbooks; and
populist politics, dress, and portraiture. They also assess how eighteenth-century women have been re-imagined in contemporary historical fiction, films, and television, from the works of award-winner Beryl Bainbridge to Darcymania and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. By reconsidering the cultural and social practices of eighteenth-century women, this fascinating volume reclaims the ostensibly trivial as a substantive cultural contribution



My review


Released in July 2012, this is certainly not a quick, fun summer read for any Austen fan in search of escapism in a relaxing romance,  but a thorough university tome which any true Janeite would love to own,  proudly showcase on their Austen-studies shelf, and would bless  each time they will be searching for information and details about the world their favourite author lived in. Many essays are not directly Austen-related and some of them refer to the society of  the first half of the eighteenth century. Anyway, all  of them are really interesting and highly accurate in describing a cultural and social reality which must have greatly influenced Jane Austen and her contemporaries. 

In the first part “Women, Popular  Culture and The Eighteenth Century”, scholars like Berta Joncus, Paula Backscheider, Jessica Munns, Elaine Chalus  analyse on one hand the impact which popular culture had on the women of the age and how they were depicted in forms of art and entertainment like the theatre, the ballad opera  or fashion. On the other hand, the reader will discover the influence women had on the popular culture of the age, being those genres and forms mainly addressed to them. In Chalus’s essay, the conjuction between women, fashion and politics is analyzed with references to Swift and Addison  who,  as men and conservatives, saw women’s use of fashion for political ends as a trivialization of one of their main interests and as an  invasion of an exclusive field where they used to champion their power.

In the second part, “Women, Reading and Writing”,  among various all worth-reading works, a  special  notice goes to Isobel Grundy’s “Women and Letters”. We know Jane Austen loved writing letters and we are grateful for the many we were left to discover more about herself as well as disappointed for the many we know were burnt by her sister Cassandra. In this essay, Grundy proposes a social/cultural study of the profusion of letters which became a new aspect of popular life in the 18th century in England and which provide an uniqualled window for observing the shifting cultures of dress, entertainments, social practices, politics and every other aspect of changing human lives (p. 153).

In “Women Reading  and Writing for The Rambler”, Peter Sabor analyses the apparent failure in popularity, especially among women, of Dr Johnson’s cultured journal The Rambler. Addison could boast sales of 3,000 copies after two weeks from his publication of The Spectator, Johnson printed no more than 500 copies of each number of his own journal. What was the reason of such a failure in the market of reading? Johnson’s indifference to the “meteors of fashion” and insistence on writing for those with “leisure for abstracted truth, and whose virtue could please by its naked dignity” (p.202) There’s a reference to Jane Austen in this essay and to her reading and liking The Rambler n.97 featuring Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (p. 195)

One of the essays in part two is definitely Austen-related: Timothy Erwin contributes an interesting reading of Northanger Abbey in “Comic Prints, The Picturesque and Fashion: Seeing and Being Seen in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey” (pp. 222-242)
More Austen-related chapters are in the third and last part of the book, Eighteenth century women in modern popular culture:”

1.   Would you have us laughed out of Bath?”Shopping around for Fashion and Fashionable Fiction in Jane Austen adaptations" by Tamara S. Wagner
“Throughout Austen’s novels, shopping doubles as a defining marker of satirized society and as a metonymy for changing fashions in fiction. How to transpose such a metonymy onto screen without reproducing an uncritical appreciation of commodification has long plague literature adaptations. “ (p. 277)

2.  "Visualizing Empire in Domestic Settings: Designing Persuasion for the screen" by Andrew MacDonald and Gina MacDonald  
“Film makers must create visual images: landscapes, buildings, animals, servants, costumes, decorations, lighting, and general milieu that they imagine correspond to Austen’s turn-of-the-century realities. Thus, it is not Austen’s genius creating what viewers see on screen, but rather the skill and imagination of those responsible for inventing what Austen does not spell out: a costume department doing research and producing drawings, a design team making storyboards defining look and style …” (pp. 274-275)

3.   "From Pride and Prejudice to Lost in Austen and Back Again: Reading Television Reading Novels" by Claire Grogan
“Jane Austen’s status as a cultural icon is indisputabile. What is less clear is whether Austen’s works should be positioned as part of an elite culture or  as part of popular culture since both she and her works travel what Stuart Hall terms a  cultural escalator” (p. 312)

I’m really glad I was granted an e-galley of this book from netgalley.com so that I’ve had had to opportunity to leaf through such interesting articles and take some notes from most of them.  I definitely recommend this book to any Janeite or 18th century lover and scholar.


1 comment:

suzan said...

sounds fascinating