Deidre Lynch: Jane Austen Quotation Books and the Forgotten Heroine

At a recent women’s studies colloquium, Harvard University’s Deidre Lynch discussed her latest discoveries in editing a new edition of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and how the culture of quotation books might have influenced Austen’s writing.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 3, 2017)—Out of all of Jane Austen’s heroines, why is Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price so often left in the shadows? At a Women’s Studies Colloquium, Harvard professor of English Deidre Lynch discussed her recent work editing new editions of Jane Austen’s novels for Harvard University Press and the link she discovered between 19th-century quotation book culture and Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price, Austen’s overlooked heroine.

Between Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet and Emma’s Emma Woodhouse, Austen’s heroines appear to fend for themselves in terms of clever dialogue and literary renown. But what do readers make of Fanny Price?Mansfield Park has a perverse relationship to the snappy dialogue that generally seems the essence of Austenian style,” Lynch said. “Yet Fanny does engage in some quoting herself, and she also seems to prompt Mansfield Park’s narrator to quote as well.”

Lynch explained that Mansfield Park’s narrator often cedes to whatever Fanny Price is reading to express Fanny’s thoughts, from Sir Walter Scott to William Cowper. In this way, Lynch said, Fanny seems to find that her favorite poets and writers speak for her better than she can speak for herself. And, according to Lynch, the fact that Fanny has trouble registering an independent mind is what motivates the novel’s narrator to mediate many of Fanny’s emotions.

“The task of editing and annotating Mansfield Park has given me a new angle on some questions that have traditionally been central to this novel, questions about how Austen manages the relationship between her narrator and her protagonist and the gap between those two figures’ characteristic modes of expression,” Lynch said.

During the editing process, Lynch also wondered what relationship the extensive quoting and literary allusions found in Mansfield Park might have to do with the emerging culture of quotation books during Austen’s lifetime. Quotation books were self-curated repositories that the reading public used to collect, paste and transcribe lines from popular books or poems. “In one of the many passages in which she adopts a fond but exasperated tone toward her heroine, the narrator herself connects Fanny to the practices of textual curatorship that were during Austen’s lifetime becoming of increasing importance for literary culture,” Lynch explained.

For example, Lynch said that in volume two, chapter nine of the novel, the narrator relates how Fanny “seizes with avidity a scrap of paper that Edmond has left in her room.”

Lynch continued, “The narrator comments at length ­– and I think with some rolling of the eyes – on her heroine’s pleasure in thus having come into possession of a specimen of her beloved Edmond’s handwriting. It directs attention to some salient questions in Austen’s moment in literary history, questions having to do with the ways in which text might be preserved, productively received, reproduced and commemorated.”

Lynch said she is surprised that scholars have overlooked Austen’s relationship to the anthologizing, excerpting and quoting culture that emerged during her lifetime, as the character of Fanny Price appears to prophecy what the world will later make of Austen –
“an author of quotes and not the author of books,” Lynch said.

Even today fans seem to relish Austen relics with the same voracity as Fanny Price. Lynch added that in 2013 a new scrap of Austen writing was found, a scrap which is curiously enough a quotation jotted down from her brother James Austen’s sermon. The scrap reads, “Men may get into the habit of repeating the words of our prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding, certainly without feeling their force or meaning.”

“As it is a scrap in which Austen is not writing in propria persona, one encounters in it as well a demonstration that Austen too could turn her pen to the scrapbooker’s work of excerption and transcription,” Lynch said.  

She concluded, “In this respect, James Austen’s line chimes the investigations his sister had undertaken in Mansfield Park, a novel and a quotation book, as I’ve suggested, that goes to some pains to join up its heroine’s passions to other people’s eloquence, and through that conjunction explores what happens to real feeling when it is in quotation.”  

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers events for the women’s studies program for the College of Humanities. She is pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.

Photos courtesy of Deidre Lynch and Wikimedia Commons.