What can a cheaply made crumbling copy of a Jane Austen novel tell us about readers that a pristine scholarly edition cannot? This was the sort of question that Janine Barchas sought to answer in her book "The Lost Books of Jane Austen." Barchas, a speaker at the upcoming Jane Austen Summer Program, is the Louann and Larry Temple Centennial Professor in English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. We asked her some questions about her work.
Your latest book, “The Lost Books of Jane Austen,” argues that the cheapest and most ignored reprintings of Austen’s novels contributed a great deal to the author’s reputation. Can you explain this seeming contradiction to us?
“The Lost Books of Jane Austen” indeed reveals a Catch-22. In the 19th century, inexpensive reprintings of Austen's novels were targeted to Britain's working classes and sold at railway stations, traded for soap wrappers, or awarded as school prizes. At just pennies a copy, such reprints included the earliest mass-market paperbacks, with Austen's beloved stories squeezed into tight columns on thin, cheap paper. I argue that these lowbrow books expanded her readership and did most of the heavy lifting of placing Austen in the literary canon. However, due to their intolerable cheapness and large print runs, these early reprints have not been deemed important or rare enough to be collected or protected by scholarly libraries. Pulped in paper drives or read to bits, many of these early lowbrow Janes are, today, rarer than the first editions that have been carefully preserved by collectors. Some cheap Austens never made it into the historical records of bibliographers, whose detailed inventories of an author’s editions serve as shopping lists for collectors and curators. Because all too few of these early, hardscrabble bargain books survive, the standard narrative about Austen’s slow rise to fame has been incomplete, elitist, and top-heavy. In this project, I turn my back on those fine editions in research libraries to hunt for scrappy survivors of the versions bought and read by ordinary working people.
Do you have a favorite copy that you discovered while working on this project?
Online databases and genealogy websites often enabled me to trace ownership inscriptions, recovering the backstory, or provenance history, of ordinary copies and their readers. This project soon became not just about lost books but also about lost readers. Austen has long been cherished by working-class men and women. I discuss the Austen copies of a ship captain, a law student, a group of coal miners, provincial teenagers, women battling genteel poverty, and school children among the working poor. One such story proved particularly moving when I discovered that the working-class recipient of a brightly colored, inexpensive, reprint of Northanger Abbey published by Blackie & Co. circa 1910, had died from diphtheria within six months of receiving her book as a school prize. On the front flyleaf, 13-year-old Annie Munro had made her precious book over to her older sister Florence just before her death. I don’t want to sadden anyone here with the narrative of Annie’s all-too-short life (with which I close my book), but with such poignant stories about real owners the research quickly became far more personal than I ever expected.
What do you think you have learned about the history of publication through working on this project?
My biggest takeaway became my book’s opening sentence: Cheap books make authors canonical.
In addition, I learned that while scholars study editions, people read books. I was surprised that the scholarly record of Austen “editions” proved so gobsmackingly incomplete and elitist. Bibliographies, including David Gilson’s excellent inventory of Austen editions, stress fine illustrated editions, precious firsts, and landmark publishing moments rather than the ubiquitous cheap stuff that reached ordinary readers. Because reprints are by definition derivative and many 19th-century publishers reused or recycled old stereotype plates, dressing up old texts as if new, bibliographers have been taught to ignore cover art and exteriors and focus on textual variations, “firsts,” or authoritative versions approved by scholars. But 19th-century publishers often marketed the same central text to utterly different niche audiences by means of altered packaging, paper quality, and pricing strategies. I learned in this project that original book prices neatly sorted Victorian readers by social class: 2 shilling vs. 6 shillings is a HUGE price difference that, centuries later, is hard for us to compute in terms of distinct groups of consumers.
How difficult was it to track down all the reprintings of Jane Austen shown and discussed in your book?
Without a bibliographical record or roadmap of these “lost” or missing books, I could not conduct standard targeted searches in library catalogs by publisher or date. Instead, I slowly abandoned my own bibliographical training when for some years I quietly stalked bookish game in the wilds of eBay and other commercial sites – where cover images offer only a partial guide to a copy’s likely identity. I was merely following my curiosity, not knowing I had begun research for a book. It was not until two unusual, and unusually generous, private collectors learned of my quest and offered me access to the oddities they had acquired over 40 years (each) that I understood the scope of the category that had only begun to emerge, higgledy-piggledy, from my own growing shelves of what I called “Austen on the cheap.” Only with the help of these experienced collectors did I realize how the historical record had overlooked a whole host of books merely because they had originally been too lowly or ubiquitous to warrant notice by serious editors and scholars.
What is it like to have people show off their copies of Jane Austen to you?
Exciting — and less lonely than my prior research. Even now, I continue to receive a trickle of emails from strangers who read my book and then offer to share a volume from their shelves that I do not mention or perhaps even know about. Saving “lost books” now feels like a group effort. With the help of many new contacts, research continues — especially on the inexpensive translations of Austen into other languages that have been hardest of all to access.
If you got to curate your own collection of Jane Austen’s novels, what would be important to you to include?
In a way, “The Lost Books of Jane Austen” is precisely that: a curated collection of Austen editions that were once hiding in plain sight. In response to the book, the Harry Ransom Center here in Austin, Texas, also gave me the opportunity to curate a brick-and-mortar exhibition out of their Jane Austen holdings. The four-month-long gallery show, titled, “Austen in Austin,” ended just before COVID hit in early 2020. The exhibition postulated that an institution’s holdings of a single author can reveal patterns and trends in institutional collecting practices — the prides and prejudices of book collecting. In 1957, when the Ransom Center was founded, first editions of major writers were an acquisition priority for a library with world-class aspirations. Soon, the Ransom Center owned an enviable number of Jane Austen’s novels as rare firsts. Then, and as great writers are great readers, all manner of Austen copies began to arrive among the books and papers of other authors. In this way, the Ransom Center has made incidental catches of Austen in editions owned by famous creatives and intellectuals. The “Austen in Austin” exhibition brought together an eyewatering collection of rare firsts, scholarly editions, and association copies that once belonged to other writers — from Arthur Conan Doyle to H.G. Wells — and placed them alongside some of the lowbrow reprints that I champion in my own work.
What are you working on now?
With my eye newly trained on pricing and small economic variations, I have begun to explore the messy logistics of the luxury objects that could be rented in Austen’s lifetime. When Austen is born in 1775, the burgeoning consumer culture of late-Georgian England increasingly allowed temporary ownership over luxury goods for a fee — from pianos to pineapples. Whereas old sumptuary laws aimed to fix luxury goods as markers of class, in Austen’s era privilege could be flaunted with kit and carriages not one’s own. Ignored by both economists and literary historians, the Georgian rental economy complicated identity politics. Cut off from outright ownership by primogeniture, marriage, as well as extra-legal restrictions, women on the edge of gentility, like Jane Austen herself, stood the most to gain from rental agreements.
The Jane Austen Summer Program will be virtual this year, as you know. What can we expect from your plenary and what do you hope we take away from your book?
In my plenary, I have been asked by JASP to talk about my project “What Jane Saw.” This digital heritage project reconstructs two blockbuster museum exhibitions attended by Jane Austen: the Shakespeare Gallery as it looked in 1796 and the British Institution’s exhibition of the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1813. Both exhibitions have been digitally reconstructed with help from talented teams at LAITS [Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services] and TACC [Texas Advanced Computing Center] here at the University of Texas at Austin. I will be giving attendees of JASP a bespoke, behind-the-scenes, curator’s tour of the first museum dedicated to the Bard and the first one-man painting exhibition in Europe. Reynolds, of course, makes a cameo appearance in “Pride and Prejudice” (published that same year) when the heroine is guided by a Mrs. Reynolds through a picture gallery! Our own tour should follow nicely upon what we will have learned about a vibrant culture of public entertainments during the Regency from fellow speaker Robert Morrison.
And if you are a bibliophile and do reach for “The Lost Books of Jane Austen,” be prepared for some shockingly scruffy stuff. Cheap books live hard lives.