I begin this section of my website with copies of three brief essays I wrote on Frances D'Arblay, and a review of a book offering a fresh perspective on Burney, all of which were published in the Burney Letter. This is also a link to a good scholarly bibliography.
Now I have a story to tell about life on the Net and in particular one which records the kinds of experiences that can occur on an unmoderated list dedicated to a cult figure when someone tries to lead a serious reading in public space of a supposedly popular or a novel which is well-known by those who read or who have gone to college and taken "English" courses. This story may be of use to those who study group dynamics in cyberspace. It reveals some of the reasons it is very difficult to hold intelligent informed conversation in cyberspace without strong moderation or threshold control.
In January 1998 while a group of people on Austen-l were reading Austen's Northanger Abbey together, I proposed to lead a group read on Austen-l of one of the novels Austen defends in her Northanger Abbey: Belinda by Maria Edgeworth, or Cecilia or Camilla by Fanny Burney.
After considerable discussion, I proposed to hold two elections across the list. First we would see how many people wanted to read any book by a contemporary of Austen's and then which one. More than 200 people voted to read either one of the books mentioned by Austen in Northanger Abbey or a book by Austen's contemporary, preferably one Austen had read or alluded to in one of her novels. We then went on to nominate books. By the time I held this second election, the list of books to be voted upon included another novel central to Northanger Abbey, Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho; and a novel not mentioned in Northanger Abbey, Burney's best-known novel, Evelina. In effect this second round of voting showed two groups of readers at odds: those who wanted to read what they hoped would be a pleasant entertaining book and at a quick pace and those who wanted to read a book as part of a serious literary study and slowly. As so often happens on lists when list-wide elections are held, the election process itself turned into a popularity contest. What happens is the novels whose titles are most familiar and thought to be the "easiest" win at first. Thus Evelina , which is nowadays assigned in college courses for undergraduates, won.
Since Evelina had received the most votes, we went on to read it. I told myself that even though it was not one of those praised by Austen in her Northanger Abbey, it was after all about "a young lady's entrance into the world." Afterwards if enough silent and active people wanted to continue, the active participants in the list could read, study, and write about Cecilia. From previous experiences on other list, I knew that the active people who posted about reads were those who wanted to study them and read interesting posts about them. I hoped that Evelina might stir enthusiasm, and that, since group reads are "staged" performances, the people who posted and had thus invested time and effort in what they had done, would want to themselves to carry on or induce others to. Thus the group read might itself spin into Cecilia and perhaps even Camilla-- and who knew, maybe even Edgeworth's Belinda -- though I always doubted group enthusiasm could last that long.
Well, until nearly the end of this staged conversation I can say that a very large group of people read Evelina together on Austen-l because a very large group of people posted about it regularly. This was a remarkable phenomena. We also discovered interesting things about the book and the way modern readers responded to it today. For example, Evelina is set into a grid of a calendar, and adheres pretty closely to 1774, and women readers today identify readily with the young Evelina when she is confronted by aggressive young men. For an etext of Evelina, click here. Here is one thread typical of those written at the time; the rest may be found in the archives of Austen-l between January and May 1998 by typing in "Burney: Evelina," which was the header those joining in on the conversation used.
Alas, during the time of the group read on Evelina, a group of people on Austen- l opposed to intellectual talk and seriousness and only willing to "countenance" group reads of Austen's "big six" novels (that is, against having group reads across list on other than the six well-known novels), heckled, flamed, and mocked those reading Evelina. Those who have experienced the nature of group dynamics in cyberspace will be able to imagine how painful this could be as others on the list jumped onto misunderstood postings, distorted subtexts and the like, and gradually the reading group had become the "Burney subgroup," and went down to about 20 active participants.
There was, however, an extraordinary amount of "backchanneling" on Austen-l during these years: among other things, people posted to one another about Evelina and Mansfield Park, one of Austen's novels most frequently exploited for fodder for outrageous flame wars. (This list was basically unmoderated.) So I first ascertained that at the end of the read of Evelina, we still had some 40 people who were getting into communication with one another over Evelina or saying that they had enjoyed the group read and wanted to see the Cecilia read go forward. Although several of the original people now said they would not want to post onlist, they did want to read Cecilia in a group setting. I felt I could not go it alone so asked Jill Spriggs to facilitate with me; when she agreed to, I decided to carry on with what I had begun.
The result was she and I began to post weekly on Cecilia, and, together with a several other stalwart people, we posted over a number of months on this enormous novel. Backchannelling increased. Onlist we outlined the novel, and talked about Cecilia in ways which may be of interest to people who study Burney, and are interested in women's literature or the eighteenth century novel, especially as Cecilia remains a novel which is not much read and about which there is much less in print than Evelina. Here are most of the postings as they occurred in the same story format I used for the group reads which occurred on Trollope-l (now on Yahoo).
Since despite the many attempts to disrupt the reading of Cecilia, the read had been a success, I ran another election, and the same group of people who had read and those who had posted on Burney's Cecilia, read and wrote about Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story and Mary Wollstonecraft's The Rights of Woman. By this time most people participating had long forgotten or did not know about the original connection of the subgroup with Austen's Northanger Abbey. The group also had a new name: " Austen's Contemporaries Subgroup."
However, these two reads survived in the face of the same problems that the reads of Burney's Evelina and Cecilia had had; and by the end of them, although Jill and I were preparing to read Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, and hoped for Belinda, we and others were worn down and tired of the harassment. We backchanneled with various people about the reality that the active members of the subgroups had decreased to such a small number of individuals (about 4) that posting made those who posted, and especially me, a target and often turned Austen-l into a bizarre hellhole of ugly personal attacks in cyberspace. I have omitted incidents where people came on pretending to be poignant victims of some sort or other, and people on the list were fooled into publicly offering to help and were then promptly humiliated through jeering exposures; incidents where others would write parodic emails of apparent imbeciles joining in the conversation, emails written in such a way as to nearly be plausible and which included the kind of language which would signal to a naive person he or she belonged to his or her group. There were so much trolling and poisonous banter that I can't begin to catalogue the specific varieties, much less record details.
Finally, there had been a movement offlist where 9 people posted to one another over a series of weeks to formulate rules they hoped the listowner would put in place: if he was not willing to moderate himself, they offered to do so in his place. Their proposal was rejected by the simple expedient of silence. Around that time Jill and I unsubscribed and Janeites was begun by two of the nine people.
Later that summer of 1999, we found ourselves on Janeites (a Yahoo list), which was now an alternate to Austen-l for those who wanted courteous intelligent discussion. Janeites still exists as a strongly moderated list and is now quite large (over 400 people). Jill and I proposed to facilitate a reading of Burney's Camilla, but when we found that we could not do it without unpredictable restrictions over length of posts, who would write facilitating posts and other kinds of (however well-meant) constricting and frustrating intervention, we withdrew from the read -- though not from the list. Nevertheless, the read went on and there were some interesting conversation and postings on Camilla. These may also be found in the archives of Austen-l (where Camilla was also discussed) as well as the archives of Janeites. We never got very far on The Wanderer on either Austen-l or Janeites, but there was some good talk about it as a gothic novel of the French revolution on Trollope-l, and when we read Burney's diaries and letters on EighteenthCentury Worlds (on Yahoo, a list I now own), we placed The Wanderer in an autobiographical and romantic context. There is an etext of Camilla at the Penn State Celebration of Women Writers. I include a very few brief postings on Camilla that I managed to write on Janeites and various rich threads on The Wanderer from Trollope-l and EighteenthCentury:
During these years and since the summer of 2000 (by which time both Jill and I had become inactive on Janeites), I wrote postings on Burney D'Arblay's life-writings on C18-l. Beginning in January 2002 on EighteenthCentury Worlds I led and participated in a read of Burney's Journals and Letters which went truly splendidly. It was stimulating and great fun. We did not have as many people reading and contributing on EighteenthCentury as we once did for Evelina on Austen-l, but we had about 30 people who contributed as well as read, and a number of these people also read one or other of the biographies and turned either to Charlotte Barrett's original 1842-46 edition of her great-aunt's journals and letters or to the modern scholarly unabridged editions of the journals and letters as edited by or under the general "supervision" of Joyce Hemlow (Volumes 1 - 12 of Fanny Burney: Journals and Letters covering the years 1791 - 1840) and Lars Troide (a projected 12 volumes of The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney covering the years 1768 - 1791). An essay-description of this online conversation was published the Burney Letter.
One last comment: The largest perspective one can place on what happened at Austen-l and Janeites is one which includes the behavior of fans over their cult figure. The intensity of emotional adherence and identification of people who see themselves as fans of a celebrity figure to an often distorted picture of that figure and his or her work prevents unbiased reasoned discussion from going forward. It also shapes how other readers are led to see and experience the figure. Jane Austen has been a cult figure since her nephew first published his emotional memoir about her life; Fanny Burney seems to be turning into one. Since the existence large fan communities generates money and favorable partisan coterie publicity, it is in the interest of anyone who works or becomes involved with any projects involving Austen and (lately increasingly) Burney to begin with an exaggerated respect; any sharp criticism must be presented in somewhat disguised forms. The phenomenon of the cult figure or group of texts is an important one in our era, and we need frank discussion of how different cults arise, what imagined characteristics cult figuresare typically endowed with by their fans, what kinds of people become fervent fans of literary writers and their characters, and what is the effect of such cults on serious study of works of the imagination.