Jane Austen and deep time; my pathetic quest for immortality

shakespeare“It will be a favourite, I believe, from this hour,” replied Crawford; “but I do not think I have had a volume of Shakespeare in my hand before since I was fifteen. I once saw Henry the Eighth acted, or I have heard of it from somebody who did, I am not certain which. But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”

Henry Crawford says this to Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park. He has been reading to Edmund, Lady Bertram and Fanny Price selected passages from Henry VIII. Crawford is trying to impress Fanny Price with his oratorical skills.

I started writing this a few days after watching the Beatles television special, marking the 50th anniversary of their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. I was a little too young to be affected by Beatlemania but I nonetheless understood the importance of the anniversary.

This year is, of course, the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park and it may be the 201st anniversary of Shakespeare’s play, assuming the play was new when it was performed at the Globe theatre in 1613.1 And soon we’ll have the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare in 1616 and the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death in 1817.

Recognizing these relative distances is very much like my husband’s annoying habit of remarking, when watching an old movie that was itself a self-conscious period piece, that we are further removed in time from the release date of the movie than the movie was from the events depicted in the movie.

Late middle-aged reflections
As you can guess from these observations, I’ve been in philosophic mood lately and indulging in late middle-aged reflections on mortality and posterity. Too many things in life we leave unfinished, unattempted or even unaware of—for instance the five decades of my life before discovering Jane Austen.

My musings were also triggered by the meeting of the Denver-Boulder region of the Jane Austen Society of North America this past Sunday. We listened to author Deborah Yaffe talk about her book, Among the Janeites, and someone I was sitting with asked (through a convoluted thread of conversation) what Jane would have made of the railroad.

That, of course, made me think of the circumstances that resurrected Austen’s star after her books had fallen out of print (about 1820–1832). Before 1814, an author’s copyright lasted only 14 years (although it could be renewed for another 14 years2 if the author lived that long).

It was also a common practice to sell the copyright to your book, essentially giving up rights to your work. Austen sold the copyright to what would become Northanger Abbey for £10 and the publisher sat on it for twelve years until she bought it back.

The act of 1814, however, lengthened the duration of the copyright to 28 years or the author’s life, so the copyright of Mansfield Park, published in 1814, would expire in 1842.

Steampunk Jane
In 1832, publisher Richard Bentley bought from Austen’s heirs (Austen’s sister Cassandra lived until 1845) the remaining copyright to five of the novels for what I understand was a good price and published them in his Standard Novels editions. By the 1840s, however, Austen’s novels were becoming public domain and anyone could print them, which is coincidentally about the time that train travel was becoming commonplace. I doubt many read on trains in 1832—between the novelty and the fear of death, most passengers were too preoccupied to read, but by mid-century, passengers needed something to entertain themselves.

Of course, we think it nearly impossible that anyone could have read on a Victorian train—lighting was poor, carriages weren’t heated and rails were not welded—but it was undoubtedly easier than reading in a horse-drawn coach. Book stalls at railway stations became common and understandably book sellers wanted maximum return. Selling public domain books made good sense and unlike today, public domain books were of relatively recent vintage.

I find it a troubling thought that a technological coincidence helped ensure Austen’s popularity to the present day. Would we be reading her today had copyright laws and the growth of the railroads not kept her in the public consciousness? Would James Austen-Leigh’s biography of his aunt, A Memoir of Jane Austen published in 1869, been as successful had Austen’s novels not been a staple of railroad reading?

Austen goes to war
Armed conflict
also played an improbable role in keeping Austen read. Considering Austen’s reputation today as chick lit, it’s important to remember that her earliest champions were literary men. Men continued reading her when England went to war, most famously in  Rudyard Kipling’s World War I story The Janeite, and again during World War II when editions of her works were printed to fit in standard uniform pockets.


Many famous things have been forgotten and rediscovered as this clever self-promotional piece by Barter Books suggests.


Austen belongs to the ages
So many coincidences and collisions have contributed to Austen’s popularity since the nearly 200 years since she died. Most recently we’ve seen the confluence of a spate of Austen film and television adaptations in the mid-1990s (movie studios needn’t pay Austen or her descendants a dime for her stories) and the rise of the Internet (resulting in things like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries).

One assumes Austen is now in the company of authors who will never go out of print. To borrow from what was said after the death of Lincoln3, she belongs to the ages. There are too many physical copies of her works, too many future high school students who will be forced to read her, too many Austen adaptations still to be made. And yet tastes change and after the embarrassment of Austen riches in the past two decades, I sometimes wonder if the passion among muggles has cooled. Austen adaptations will always have a ready market, but obviously the more of them there are, the further they are removed from the source and the more they dilute the source.

A desperate hope of immortality
Like any author, I hope that through my words I achieve some kind of immortality. I hope that someone will read Jane, Actually long after I am dead and temporarily resurrect me. In some ways, the Internet fosters this hope. We think that with enough dissemination, our words become digitally immortalized.

I well remember the first time I stumbled upon my own words online. I can’t quite remember the circumstances; perhaps I was googling myself during that unfortunate period when another Jennifer Petkus had sullied our good name.
A Feeling of Electricity in the Air was a short story I wrote for Softalk magazine back in 1984, six or seven years before the birth of the world wide web. When I found it had been archived at The Cult of the Dead Cow (without my permission, but I am unruffled) way back in 1989 I felt a twinge of that immortality. It might only have been a span of twenty years or so, but I still felt as if the digital world had preserved me in some way.

It is, of course, a false impression that digital archives can preserve anything. Film archivists are now bemoaning the decision of film studios to switch entirely to electronic distribution. Properly stored 35mm film can last a very long time and even old celluloid film and wax audio recordings can still give up their analog secrets. Digital files, however, often become inaccessible just a few years after their creation, either because file formats change or become the technology to retrieve them is no longer common. I have boxes of old floppy disks and Syquest and Iomega Zip cartridges that I can’t read because I don’t have a computer that can read those formats or those physical devices. Archivists face a future where every few years they must remember to save as documents in new file formats and on new recording mediums. This is made even harder as computer manufactures decide to eliminate external storage devices and force users to depend upon cloud services for storage.

The very phrase “out of print” has increasingly little meaning. Many Jane Austen adaptations have far more electronic sales than physical. That is certainly true for my novels. I could take heart in the sheer numbers of people who have downloaded free copies of my books, if it weren’t for the fact that none of those people actually own my book; they merely have acquired a license to read them, a license that Amazon or Google or Apple can revoke if you violate the terms of the licensing agreement (and when you die, your heirs don’t inherit your vast library).

So ubiquity, not even for Austen, might not mean permanence.

Jane Austen and deep time
Of course none of this relates to deep or geologic time, which was the tease that I hoped would entice you to read this story. The two hundred years that separate us from Jane Austen or the four hundred that separate us from Shakespeare are as nothing compared to the age of the earth and even less compared to the age of the universe. It is as hard for us today to think in those terms as it was for the poor maligned Bishop of Usher.

There are efforts to familiarize people with the implications of longer periods of time. The Long Now Foundation is building a 10,000-year clock inside a West Texas mountain.

But as ambitious as it is, the 10,000-year clock is still meaningless compared to deep time. Few human achievements can set pace with a geological clock; even the pyramids will be ground down to dust by erosion or even just the exhalations of the tourists.

Will the genius of Pride and Prejudice outlast the collapse of civilization, once zombies rule the earth or when a gamma-ray burst destroys all life on the planet or the Yellowstone super volcano explodes? I would like to think so. I hope someday someone reads Pride and Prejudice on Mars. I hope some distant civilization visits the blackened cinder that is Earth and finds a Dover Thrift Edition of Emma.

Perhaps one of the reason I wrote Jane, Actually, is that I liked the idea that Jane Austen—and P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle and Arthur C. Clarke and Robertson Davies—could belong to the ages and that in some infinitesimal way, I could ride their literary coattails. Sorry to ramble, but it’s been a long winter.

1 A cannon blast during the performance (an Elizabethan-ish special effect) set fire to the roof of the theatre, which then burned down.

Statue of Anne

3 Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, either said, “Now he belongs to the ages” or “Now he belongs to the angels.” The room in which the president died was very crowded and noisy.

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