Janet Todd was born in Wales and grew up in Bermuda and Sri Lanka. After Cambridge she taught at the Universities of Cape Coast in Ghana, Florida, Puerto Rico and Rutgers. She returned to Britain to work at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, UEA, Glasgow and finally Aberdeen where she is Director of the Centre for the Novel. She has authored many books mainly on early women writers.
Mark Thwaite: What was the spur behind producing these splendid, definitive, scholarly editions of Jane Austen’s work (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen [CEJA])?
Janet Todd: There has not been a full edition of Jane Austen since R.W. Chapman’s in 1923, over 80 years ago. This, though admirable in its time, was made on textual principles rather different from those accepted in the 21st century when scholars and general readers alike are interested in what a writer actually wrote, whether or not this might seem incorrect.
Chapman was far closer in time and even more in culture to Jane Austen than we are and he felt little need for much annotation beyond explaining frocks and carriages. The social culture of kin, county, and deference needed in his view no explanation. But our own times are very different and Jane Austen has attracted a worldwide readership that includes the generally interested from Tennessee and the scholar from South Korea, as well as the British enthusiast who has never known village life in the south of England.
So with the new century it seemed a good moment to create a new edition with an international team of editors who would take into account the needs and interests of the new and far-flung readership.
I was asked to be the general editor. In the past I had edited complete works of Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn and had just completed a volume of Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters. I had however sworn to myself never to edit again since the work is so time-consuming and – relatively – unappreciated and unrewarded. But it was Jane Austen, the only author who I could have found tempting. An editor has to live with a writer for a long time and Jane Austen is one of a very few whom I could read and reread and reread. So I took on the edition, determining only to oversee, suggest and check. But, as it happened, as editors decided the work was too much or too demanding, I have in fact ended up editing – with joint editors Antje Blank and Linda – two of the volumes: Persuasion and the Later Manuscripts. This last includes the hugely interesting final work, Sanditon about the creation of a tourist resort on the south coast of England, a quite new development by Jane Austen, which was interrupted by her death.
MT What do they tell us and/or make available to us that we didn't have before?
JT: First of all they have a text as carefully presented as we can make it. We have stayed as close as possible to the original printing and there has been no attempt to modernize spelling or punctuation or to regularize inconsistencies in presentation. Where there is more than one edition Jane Austen might have seen we have presented any differences on the page.
Second, in our introductions we have given a full account of Jane Austen’s early publishing history and provided details of composition, publication, and so on.
Thirdly, we have described the critical history of each work, how it has been read over the nearly two centuries since it was first published and how its meaning and message have changed with cultural fashion. When we wanted Jane Austen to be feminist and political we read the works in one way; when we wanted her to be an example of decent moderate ‘Englishness’ we read her in another etc. When we wanted more sexiness, we found her writing about about lesbianism and masturbation.
Fourthly, and for the general reader this is perhaps the most important aspect, we tried to provide as much of the texture of Jane Austen’s everyday world as possible: the medicines, the food, the artefacts used and the common novels read. We accepted that her art was in the detail, and the books are enriched by knowledge of this. For example we discussed the habit of giving locks of hair and what it can mean in different circumstances, and the different degrees of mourning expressed in black ribbons and bands, as well as the various dining customs of the different classes, what hour they ate and what would be on the table.
MT: The series includes a volume of Juvenilia. Will this be of interest to any more than just Austen academics (and the most committed of Austen fans)?
Personally, I think the works Jane Austen wrote as a child are the best, the funniest and most accomplished writings I have ever read by a young person. Where most would-be authors tend to write confessional moans about adolescent emotions or absorbing compensatory make-believe worlds, Jane Austen from the age of 11, probably earlier, was writing delicious, sometimes surreal stories and parodies to amuse her family – or, in Virginia Woolf’s opinion ‘everybody‘ since ‘even at that early age…everything she writes is finished and turned and set in its relation, not to the parsonage, but to the universe'.
As I have just written in my Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen: ‘The stories are full of anarchic fantasies of female power, licence, illicit behaviour and general high spirits. Drunkenness, incest, and serial killings routinely occur in speedy kaleidoscopic permutations, revealing even at this early stage Austen’s youthful awareness of the comic possibilities of language through absurd conjunctions: Lady Williams’ ‘handsome Jointure & the remains of a very handsome face’ or the advice to beware of the ‘unmeaning Luxuries of Bath and of the stinking fish of Southampton’.’
The longest of the works written when she was 14 is Love & Freindship, ‘a brilliant burlesque of popular sentimental novels. It takes two girls through a series of absurd adventures in which love and hate are sudden and absolute, familial relationships made and unmade, and emotional extremes paralleled only by the extreme nature of the happenings. While sentimental to the core, crying, fainting, palpitating, falling ill and dying, the central characters are entirely amoral believing that sensation must triumph over commonsense morality and justify any act of theft or betrayal.’ Pretty good stuff.
MT What have you learned most from your editorship of the series?
JT: I came to appreciate Jane Austen’s experimental side and her artistry far more than I had done, her clever use of surface conversations to reveal otherwise hidden depths, and her intentional minimalism, which allows her to appeal to later generations far more that, say, Walter Scott or Frances Burney. Charlotte Bronte accused her of lacking passion. Having worked closely with the novels for the last 5 years I now think that she is an extremely passionate writer who both celebrates passion and shows its narcissistic, destructive aspects.
MT: Does CEJA represent the final word on Austen scholarship?
JT: No, of course not. No edition or critical work will ever do that. Culture changes and a great writer like Jane Austen changes with it. That’s part of the genius of her writings. And publishers respond to public demand. If we can last as long as Chapman we will be happy. And by then or long before, technology may have allowed pods and pads to take over the functions we still think now best served by a handsome book.
MT: What do you think is the most controversial aspect of the books?
Well for specialists, our choice of text. Some insist that the first edition should always be used as a base. However in the case of Mansfield Park we decided to go against such opinion and take the second edition since Jane Austen is known to have had some input into it.
But this is arcane for most readers. Our other controversial aspect will probably be the way we have surrounded her with so such historical and material information. Some people believe the novels stand best alone and need no nurturing context. I hope these people will simply read the texts and look at our 9th volume, Jane Austen in Context, now in paperback, since this provides information about Jane Austen’s times without attaching it to individual novels.
MTHow did you first come to Austen?
JT: I lived out of England as a child in a not very bookish household and I began by confusing Jane Austen with Jane Eyre, which I never liked. Then in my early teens in school I was made to read Northanger Abbey and with no background in the literature it was mocking did not like that either. But then I read Pride & Prejudice and fell in love. As an adult lecturer I worked in the US and was very involved in the early feminist movement, which did not hugely care for Jane Austen except insofar as she could be interpreted as subversive. I could never quite take this on board. So I felt my continued liking for her rather a secret passion.
MT: What is your favourite Austen novel? And why?
JT: Well now, it has to be Persuasion. It was just serendipity that this novel fell to my lot but the editing of it has made it even more dear to me. When I reviewed the criticism it became interesting how often male critics felt uncomfortable with the big operatic scene where Anne Elliot declares her own and women’s constancy when life and hope are gone – and how rarely women readers failed to succumb to it. I succumb in a big way to the whole book. I think that its early pages give a remarkable depiction of depression—and its later ones, of how to get out of it.
MT: ... and who is your favourite Austen hero – Henry Tilney or Mr Darcy or Edmund Bertram or Mr Knightley or Captain Wentworth!?
JT: Well if I could have one of them I would have the skittish Henry Tilney. I think he would suit me very well. But he is not the most attractive within his story, for he lacks the feelings of Mr Darcy and has not provoked such deep ones as the dashing but a little obtuse Captain Wentworth. So now I would say, Captain Wentworth. But in fact it is largely the heroines who make the heroes in the novels and it is perhaps the recent films that allow them now to have such centre stage in our minds.
MT: Who would play him in the film?
JT: Well he was played I thought wonderfully by Ciaran Hinds in 1995. He does for me.
MT: Austen, like the Brontes, has achieved a kind of literary fame that is bestowed on very few writers. Is the Austen industry good for Austen's novels as novels?
JT: I think it does no harm. The films travesty the books of course, some worse than others, especially when they omit any of the irony that informs all the novels. Sometimes scriptwriters try to get in some of the narrator’s sharpish opinions by giving them to characters—occasionally with tricky results, as when Mr Collins speaks some of Jane Austen’s wittier remarks. I think Emma is largely unfilmable and the failures might put off someone reading that book. But in the main I imagine sales of each novel go up with a pretty cover from a film and, if one or two people read and get something out of Austen who would not otherwise have done so, this can only be good. I see no reason to want to limit the readership to people of a particular type or views. She is out there for us all. And I love the mugs and tea towels…
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
MT: Plenty more of course, but I said most of it in the edition and my book!
MT: Thanks so much, Janet.