When Devoney Looser was in her early teens, her mother handed her a copy of Pride and Prejudice. A precocious reader, she found the language of the novel difficult, but was immediately drawn to its characters and their problems. It wasn't until she was in her 30s that she learned her mother had never read the book herself.
Dozens of readings later, Looser is now a professor of English at Arizona State University; the author of several books, most recently The Making of Jane Austen (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); the wife of another Austen scholar; the mother of two teenage sons and a roller derby enthusiast.
Boise Weekly caught up with her ahead of her keynote address before the Jane Austen Society of North America Southern Idaho's 25th-annual Birthday Tea celebration on Saturday, Dec. 8, to talk about how Jane Austen's work has been adapted, what there is still to say about her, and what it's like talking to fans of the author of "novels of little genius."
Are you still gleaning insights into Pride and Prejudice?
I think in every age of my own life I see things differently, and now I have two teenage sons, and watching the teenagers interacting with their parents in the novel takes on new resonance for me.
You're also married to a Jane Austen scholar. Which of you is Elizabeth and which is Darcy?
You're great to give him the opportunity to be one of those or the other. We joke that he has his Mr. Collins moments, and I might have my own Mary Bennet moments. We both have our crosses to bear [and] our struggles. He's a bad dancer, my husband.
How did you end up in Austen scholarship?
I began in college thinking I'd be a high school teacher, and it was one of my professors who suggested graduate school. I'm grateful to her for realizing that. I went to graduate school knowing I wanted to study the history of women's writing, and Austen was an author I already loved at that point.
What's your favorite adaptation of Austen's work?
I love the BBC Pride and Prejudice from 1995, and I love Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility. There's something to Austen adaptations that imprint themselves on us at formative stages of our lives. For me, they're not only excellent, but they remind me of being young and in love.
Why do we still read Austen?
One of the things I argue in the book is that she's so widely appreciated in high culture and in popular culture over so many years. We have lots of authors we can point to as having great cache, but maybe they're not read as widely as some pretend. Austen really is read and seen crazily widely. The Hallmark Channel has 37 Christmas movies this year, and two of them are Pride and Prejudice-related, which I think is just wild.
The title of your book is The Making of Jane Austen. Who made her, and how?
I think the kinds of myths that have grown up around her are the result of a mixture of pop culture, literary criticism and the opinions of famous authors. The book goes back to the pop culture element: the people who illustrated her, wrote plays based on her novels, brought her up in political speeches and taught her in classrooms.
How has her reputation changed over the centuries?
In the 19th century there was a sense that she lived a small, quiet life. She wrote these novels of little genius in this safe, uneventful life, cut short. At the same time, her name was being marched through the streets of London during women's suffrage marches. I was really excited to bring back to our conversation that this supposedly apolitical novelist was being used for very political purposes a long time ago. This certainly continues to our present day. Last year there was a viral story about the alt-right and Jane Austen, and that the alt-right seemed to be embracing Austen. Not only is she conservative or liberal, but is she far right or far left?
You say in the book that you bring new materials to bear on Austen. What could possibly be new about her?
As long as we keep making new things about her and her image, there will be things to say. There were things in the past we hadn't paid attention to, in particular the dramatists. There were patterns emerging about the ways people were using drawing rooms and scenes, and amateur theatricals in girls' schools were just pulling out themes of admirable domestic protest. Seeing her novels as domestic protests is different from seeing them as stories about men in wet, white shirts.
What do you make of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?
We're really in the weeds here, aren't we? How cool is it that I have a job where I can read the book, see the movie and have things to say about it? If we're talking about the film, I think the first half of that does some clever things. Once it gets into full-on zombie mayhem, we're lost. There's a scene where Mr. Bennet says to his wife, who famously wants to marry off the daughters, he says, "Listen, I can't worry about marrying off our daughters: There's a zombie apocalypse going on!" It's a funny way of reenvisioning his initial hesitation about his wife thrusting his daughters into the marriage market.
What will you tell people at the upcoming JASNA tea?
They've asked me to speak about Persuasion, since this is the 200th anniversary of that novel's publication. I'm going to talk about some of that novel's afterlife. I love speaking to the Jane Austen Society of North America. It's always a thoughtful, eclectic group that appreciates fun, and to be able to have fun with ideas I think is one of the greatest gifts of civic life.
What am I not asking?
Did you want to talk about roller derby? Everyone asks about roller derby. I'm a much better literary critic than I am a roller derby player, but I skate under the name "Stone Cold Jane Austen," so I love that my career and my hobby and my home life all circulate around this author, which is basically ridiculous but also great fun. [It's] amazing to me that one author's life could so shap so many of our life choices and our ability to lead meaningful lives in a world that's often deeply unfair.