Photo by Madison Kirkman

Devoney Looser

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Spotlight Issue: November 2017
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Highbrow Hip-Checker

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen was so cleverly ambiguous, all her fans think she was writing about them. Conservative gentlemen, stone-throwing suffragettes and the alt-right have all embraced her as one of their own. Her novels are a hall of mirrors in which everyone sees themselves. Jane Austen scholar Devoney Looser is equally difficult to define. The Phoenix resident is a professor of English literature at Arizona State University. She is Stone Cold Jane Austen, roller derby dame. She once starred as Blood Stain Jane Austen, leaping out of a Hummer in a quest to slay an undead overlord in a roller derby vampire movie which, for reasons that defy explanation, never hit theaters. And she’s the author of The Making of Jane Austen, released this past summer upon the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death. The book takes readers on a two-century-long carriage ride through popular culture’s celebritization of literature’s most beloved single lady.

How did you become a “Janeite”?
My mother gave me a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility when I was an early teen. I couldn’t get into it. The language was challenging. The third time she nudged me toward it, it somehow took. I started to read humor, and the characters were fantastic. I really fell in love with these books. Later I learned my mother had never read Jane Austen.

And the making of Stone Cold Jane Austen?
I had two sons that were very young, and I wasn’t doing much that wasn’t work or parenting, and was going a bit stir-crazy. I overheard a graduate student and a special collections librarian… talk about going to retro night at the local roller rink. I said, “Oh, please take me with you.” One night the local roller derby team showed up and recruited my friend. I went home and googled the team’s web page, and I cried. I thought, “I really want to do this, but I’m way too old. I’m 42.” But my graduate student and the librarian said, “We’re not going to have anything to do with your moping around. You are not too old. You’re coming with us.”

Which of Jane’s personas do you inhabit as Stone Cold Jane Austen?
It’s fun to think of these early portraits of [Austen] trying to look so proper and imagining them with a mouth guard or pads. Those are the images I imagine – that take the polite and show something roiling under the surface.

You say Austen had a political side roiling under the surface.
My sense of her was that she was a liberal and a reformist on many questions… There’s a great conversation in Pride and Prejudice where Lady Catherine de Bourgh runs down Elizabeth Bennet’s family, saying she’s not good enough for Darcy. And Elizabeth says, “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” The use of the word equal was not innocent. The words liberty, fraternity and equality were very much in the air with the revolutions. These were loaded political words, and for a young, untitled woman… to say to a titled woman, “I am your nephew’s equal, I am not bowing to you,” is an amazing moment. It is definitely advocating for social reform. [Austen is] saying, “Things can be different. You don’t have to listen to the previous generation’s ideas about who you are and who you can be.”

Your husband is also an Austen scholar. What’s your story?
We met at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies meeting. The acronym is ASECS, so it doesn’t sound like it would be a very propitious place to meet a future spouse… He asked what I was working on, and I said Jane Austen. He wanted to know which novel was my favorite… I said if I had to choose, I’d say Pride and Prejudice. He said, “Mine’s Mansfield Park.” I said, “Mansfield Park is my least favorite.” So the gloves are off. I said, “I don’t like the heroine, Fanny Price, because she’s too much like me; she’s boring.” George says this is the moment he knew he wanted to marry me. I was in my late 20s, and I was very shy and quiet. A lot of things have changed since then.