Austen published anonymously (as “A Lady”); in her own lifetime she had no public life as a writer among writers. She had a generous critic-champion in Walter Scott, but if her work was read at all (and after her death she was out of print for 12 years) it was thought of as being on the genteel, female margins of literary culture. It’s a teasing conundrum that she could not possibly – could she? – have imagined the scale and the kind of the appreciation that was to follow. (“Did Jane Austen know how good she was?” Mullan asks at the opening of his book; a conundrum even more difficult to unpick.) By the end of the 19th century enthusiasts were making pilgrimages to “Austen-land”, imagining themselves communing with her “mind and heart”, fancying “girlish forms … walking among trees and flowers at Steventon”. Like other pilgrims, Johnson is haunted in pursuit of Jane, disappointed because the cottage at Chawton is “charmless … a functional edifice, not a cosy one”, and by the labels on the furniture: “Although this piano is not the one Jane Austen used, she bought a similar type”, and so on.
Johnson identifies different elements in the enthusiasm. The late Victorians, tired of sensationalism, wrote about her “magic”, and needed her to reinvest “the world with wonder”. She was carried to the remote corners of empire as a talisman of English values; hardened soldiers in both world wars hung on to her disabused clear-sightedness. Kipling writes a short story about the Janeites, mystifying them as a sort of Masonic sub-cult. But what is it about these novels that makes them into the repository for so much longing?