The Latest from Devoney, Back to School Edition

Jane Austen on Screens, Mary Shelley Scores a Museum, and Pandemic Arguments Over Packing Paper Clips

Dear Jane-Friends,

How are you holding up? All you fellow educators, and anyone who has kids in school, must be with me on this. This is the most bizarre “back-to-school” moment I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve been doing these August routines as a student, teacher, or parent nearly every year of my life. I cannot have a consistent feeling about this moment. I’m bouncing between hopeful anticipation of a “return” and complete dread. If you’re with me on this, then I sympathize, and I hope you are holding up okay, in every way.

It gives me just a little solace to think that Jane Austen knew what it was like to experience an outbreak of illness as a schoolgirl. Not everyone around her did, but she survived. Later, she expressed the joy and possibility of being around fellow students, writing to Cassandra in 1796, “I could die of laughter at it, as they used to say at school.” I guess I realize as I type this that maybe I’m not completely ready to put the words die, laughter, and school in the same sentence.

We’re about to send our son off to his first year of college, and tensions have been running very high in our household, as he packs up his things. The most insane moment of this fraught process was a long, many-sided argument about whether he should pack paper clips. He was loud in his argument that they’re totally unnecessary and that the regime of paper clips is over. I was just as aggressively pro-paper clip. I didn't realize how very attached I am to a world in which paper clips still hold value!

I’ll be trying to keep it together over here this weekend, in what is sure to be a tear- and fear-filled process. In the meantime, I thought I’d write to share a few quick updates.


When I last wrote you, the Times Literary Supplement had just published an essay of. mine, with some new information and discoveries about the Austen family, slavery, and anti-slavery. That story was picked up by the Associated Press and CNN. From there, incredibly, it made its way into more than 200 newspapers across the globe. I’ve received a number of moving email messages afterward, from people who have deep feelings about and strong connections to this material. I hope it’s a harbinger of much further popular attention to, and scholarly discoveries about, Austen and the history of race, racism, colonialism, and abolition.


I got a chance to talk about this, and a lot of other things, too, as a guest on an amazing new podcast, The Austen Connection, started by my dear friend Janet. I hope you’ll have a listen to our conversation, and the other six episodes with amazing guests, from Gretchen Gerzina to Claire Tomalin. If you aren’t a podcast person, then you might want to read the abbreviated transcripts of each episode to get the upshot. There’s a newsletter, too! I can’t wait to hear and read what she gets up to next.


Jane-friend Gabrielle Malcolm suggested that I should mention here the new Mary Shelley Museum in Bath, next door to the Austen museum. It’s called Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein, and it sounds maybe like a mash-up of literary museum and haunted house? It’s being billed as the first literary museum dedicated to Mary Shelley. Watch Gabrielle’s space for more information. I can’t wait to get back to Bath at some point, to both the Austen Museum and now this Shelley space. I’m intrigued.


Austen’s plots and characters are headed for more screens, large and small, in the coming months and years, including in one film in production, called—I kid you not!—F***ing Jane Austen. Here’s how that one is described in a 2010 précis of that (then failed) script: “Two friends angry at Jane Austen for creating unrealistic romantic expectations among women today get sent back in time to the nineteenth century. The only way for them to return home is for one of them to get Jane Austen to fall in love and sleep with him.” The only word that comes to mind here is “Yikes.”

Maybe that film will get made and maybe it won’t. There’s actually a long history of never-made Austens. I wrote in Persuasions No. 39 about a 1974 Pride and Prejudice that was never made. But it turns out there’s a much, much earlier never-made—a planned silent film version of Pride and Prejudice from 1917. The advertisement called it "A sweetly simple tale of a mother's hunt for daughters' husbands," from a company that liked to boast that its films didn't involve breaking furniture or crockery.

My article on this discovery appears in the July/August issue of Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine. How I wish this and these other advertised films had been made (Gaskell’s Mary Barton! Brontë’s Shirley!), even with their unpromising tag lines. (Sweet? simple? Focusing on the mother? Oof!)

Thanks for reading this far. Please let me know if you find any things that you think I should be reading or should know about, in the Austenverse, the roller derbyverse, or the history of strong women?

Next time I write to you, it will be with more information about the upcoming release of my biography, Sister Novelists: Jane and Anna Maria in the Age of Austen, in 2022. In the meantime, I’ll be organizing my paperclips and readying for the Hester Piozzi conference online and the JASNA AGM in Chicago in October. Maybe I’ll see some of you there? Fingers crossed.

Your humble and obedient servant,



23-25 September 2021, “Advanced Style Piozzi,” Speaker at “Celebrating Hester Thrale Piozzi (1741–1821),” William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, Los Angeles, CA. (MOVED TO VIRTUAL MEETING; Free and online)

15-17 October 2021, “Sisters and the Arts,” Plenary speaker at "Jane Austen and the Arts," Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting, Chicago, IL. (In-person and registration required.)


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