New ASU English professor skates to Jane Austen
A recent book on Jane Austen fandom, a 2013 film “Austenland” and a fervor over the English novelist’s appearance on the British bank note proves that Jane Austen is not dead – at least not as a cultural icon and feminist symbol.
Devoney Looser, a professor of English at Arizona State University and an Austen specialist, was recently interviewed by the New York Times about the controversy over Jane Austen’s picture on a British banknote. According to the Times, the controversy started when Caroline Criado-Perez, a blogger and co-founder of The Women’s Room website, proposed the change, noting “the only woman currently featured among five historical figures, the social reformer Elizabeth Fry, would be replaced by Winston Churchill, indisputably male.”
The announcement of Austen’s likeness replacing that of Charles Darwin on the 10 pound note brought a barrage of online harassment for Criado-Perez and feminist supporters, including threats of rape and death.
Why would Austen’s appearance on a banknote ignite such a passionate response, in both her fans and detractors alike? “She has a wide popular and a varied political appeal,” Looser was quoted as saying in the article. “She’s embraced by conservatives and progressives both.”
And apparently vehemently disliked, as well.
ASU’s Looser has first-hand knowledge of the kind of following held by Austen, herself skating as Stone Cold Jane Austen in roller derby contests. Dubbed “Janeites,” fans of Austen do these sorts of things and more: look for hidden codes in Austen texts, dress in costume to attend period balls and – in film at least – visit Austen-themed amusement parks (see “Austenland”).
Looser’s literary-inspired roller derby handle was featured in a book by journalist Deborah Yaffe, published this August titled, “Among the Janeites.” The book – which introduces Looser as “the only Jane Austen scholar ever to star in a roller-derby vampire movie” and which devotes an entire section to the Austen-influenced courtship and marriage between Looser and fellow Austen scholar, George Justice (also a professor of English and the dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU) – was reviewed on Oprah.com and in the Christian Science Monitor.
Meanwhile, on August 8 in the New York Times, Looser merited her own square in a board game illustrating a "A Year of Austen Glamour" and helped devise a tongue-in-cheek "Janeiac Quiz," designed to "separate the Lizzys from the Lydias, the true devotees from the casual admirers" among Austen fans.
Looser will teach a graduate course this fall on “Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries” (ENG 635).
The Department of English is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.