Faculty Author Q&A: Claudia Johnson on “30 Great Myths about Jane Austen”

August 12, 2020
Claudia Johnson, “30 Great Myths about Jane Austen”

Claudia Johnson is the Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University. Her latest book, co-authored with Clara Tuite, 30 Great Myths About Jane Austen, was published by Wiley in August, 2020.

How did you get the idea for the project?   

The idea behind this series is to have established experts on a given subject write fun, engaging, informative and (most important of all) accessible essays that students as well as scholars could read with pleasure. I had already read and enjoyed 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare, which is marvelous. And being really committed to teaching, I realized that all kinds of readers of Austen’s novels would be interested to learn about the myths and lore and assumptions, often contradictory, that have accumulated around her. As luck would have it, the editors of this series asked me to write the volume before I could propose it myself. Additionally, I thrive on collaborative work, and the prospect of writing the essays with a cherished colleague, Clara Tuite (University of Melbourne), was irresistible.

How has your project developed or changed …? 

The title of the volume itself presented challenges that became more evident as soon we started inventing the table of contents and planning our essays. We did not want the volume to be snarky, to approach “myths” about Jane Austen — her love life, her politics, the very character of her fiction — as silly ideas that it was our job to correct. Rather, we decided to treat these myths as ideas about Austen that did a lot of cultural work that readers yearned for. Take, for example, the “myth” that Jane Austen never talks about war. This common take on Austen’s novels emerges from a need to imagine Austen as the creator of a tranquil world where good manners are sufficient to overcome problems. That need is really nothing to scoff at. We wanted to respect this myth, even while we also wanted to show how and when and why it came about — and finally also to dismantle it.  

What questions for future investigation has the project sparked?  

Well, in a sense each one of the thirty chapters is a call future investigation.  From “There is no sex in Jane Austen’s Novels” to “Jane Austen is easy to read” — with 28 other propositions in between — every chapter inspects supposed truths and incites us to think and read again. What specific subjects might I in particular want to investigate? Probably the subject of style — everyone says they love Austen’s style, but actual analyses of her style are few and far between.

Why should people read this book?  

Each chapter is self-sufficient, making it easy for any reader with even a passing interest in Jane Austen’s novels can pick it up, choose a subject, and learn anew about an author we think we already know so well that there is nothing more to be said. I hope this will invite readers to turn to Austen with renewed esteem and delight.

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