Back when the Kindle was still a relative novelty, I came across a digital essay entitled Jane Austen’s Clerical Characters by Anglican priest, Michael Giffin. His paper, originally presented at the 2012 meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), led me in turn to Irene Collins’ book, Jane Austen and the Clergy (Hambledon Press, 1994). For those seeking a serious orientation in the profession of the Church as portrayed in Jane Austen’s novels, her book is an accepted and authoritative resource.
Collins provides an overview of the obligations of a working cleric and the constraints under which that class operated. The book is a counter-balance for those who think Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice was the tiresome norm. It is informative and well-structured, covering the basics of education, income, housing, etc. Where I perceived a gap in her work was in the chapter covering Worship and Belief. Collins provides an overview of the spirituality of the period but not much in the way of common day-to-day requirements. The chapter lacked the depth of detail needed for today’s students who may never have set foot in a church of any sort, much less the Church of England with its historic decentralization, formal liturgical practices and heritage of the Book of Common Prayer. The reader lacking exposure to the service of Morning Prayer would come away no wiser. They still wouldn’t understand why one might maneuver to escape (as Lydia Bennett does) the tedium of hearing one of Fordyce’s sermons.
The gap in Collins’ work has recently been filled by Brenda S. Cox. I learned of her new book published in 2022 through one of the many Austen-oriented blogs praising its usefulness and, specifically in the case of one or two, praising the value of its bibliography. Familiar with the joys of a really worthwhile bibliography, I downloaded an ebook edition of Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England.
How does Cox fill in the gaps? There are both general as well as specific examples. She takes the time to differentiate between the services of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and the family gathering for daily morning prayers. She identifies in a fairly simple manner the various groups labeled as dissenters in Georgian England as well as discussing the reforms and revivals that the Evangelical clergy sought to introduce.
Cox also aids the reader in understanding some of the passing references appearing in Austen’s novels that might otherwise be passed over. As an example, a comment or two appears in Mansfield Park regarding sermons written by a clergyman named Blair. Querying Google with something as basic as [Blair sermons “Mansfield Park”] can produce relevant material but the results are disordered and combing through the result set is time-consuming. A chapter by Cox provides sufficient information on the sermons by Hugh Blair, James Fordyce and a variety of others without overwhelming the reader. The detail included is appropriate to the context of Jane Austen’s familiarity with them and useful in a way that the Wikipedia entry on Blair simply doesn’t replicate.
Collins’ book, Jane Austen and the Clergy references the reform work of William Wilberforce but only at a very high level, focusing on avoidance of individual acts of behavioral vice. She offers no discussion of any movement to abolish the slave trade in England. By contrast, Cox in Fashionable Goodness offers a full chapter on the activities of Wilberforce, subsequently followed by another chapter on the topic of abolitionist movement and one on parishioners of color.
Fashionable Goodness is an enjoyable book for any Jane-ite but, in my opinion, if funding allows, it belongs as well in a larger library collection. It is a well-researched complement to the scholarship of Irene Collins, illuminating some of the odd corners, some of the overlooked cultural elements encountered in reading Jane Austen. I’d like to think that both volumes would sit side-by-side on the library shelf. Sadly, there will be challenges in ensuring that kind of inclusion. At least in part, that is because the book was self-published.
Now the author did everything she ought to have done to deliver a good product and enable discovery. Her copyright page includes the name of the independent book editor who gave her assistance as well as the name of the cover artist. She has an ISBN for the book (9798986601601) – not just Amazon’s own proprietary ASIN. The Library of Congress cataloging information is present. Her book launch used influential blogs in the community. I assume additional marketing efforts will include some kind of presence at future JASNA meetings, where the author has previously presented.
Once I’d finished reading Fashionable Goodness, I went back to Amazon and purchased the printed paperback. Why? Because I have no idea how long my access to the digital file of a self-published title might last. I am skeptical when it comes to guarantees of licensed access through Amazon. Before anyone asks, I did check library availability in WorldCat. The system tells me that the two closest libraries to me with this title are one in Durham, NC and the other in Fredericksburg, VA. I dislike print-on-demand paperbacks, but they do seem to be the most prudent avenue of access.
Most of us in the information community are dubious when it comes to self-published titles. There are legitimate quality concerns. What are the author’s credentials? Who has vetted the manuscript for accuracy? Are editorial or production values of the print product “off” in any way? If a monograph is self-published and therefore not part of a provider’s package of titles, how much additional manual processing is required to get it on the shelf? Is it time to re-examine the bias associated with self-publication? Open access opportunities won’t appeal or be an option in all cases.
Through no fault of their own, university presses have to make choices about what they will deliver to the marketplace. It may well make sense to focus solely on scholar-to-scholar communication. The trade sector may have similar reasons for not expanding their lists. Collection development and management practices in the library have changed. This is the elephant in the room when it comes to publishing long-form scholarship in the humanities. What does the information community do to support the publication of useful (if somewhat niche) titles like Fashionable Goodness? Granted that the book is not scholar-to-scholar communication but not everything is about tenure and promotion. Good content springs up and may be useful in a variety of ways.
I mentioned the work of Michael Giffin in the first paragraph of this blog post. While Giffin has a PhD, having authored scholarship on Jane Austen published via Palgrave Macmillan and Wiley-Blackwell, he also self-publishes much of his work. If credentialed researchers and scholars are choosing this route, perhaps what the community really needs to know is why. Is it too intimidating or just too time-consuming to go through the usual publishing processes?
What is the community’s current thinking? If, over the next six months, I were to be inspired to write on some facet of Jane Austen (being sure to include a worthwhile bibliography), would my most practical and strategic option be that of self-publication? Need the fact of self-publication be held against good work?