Halsey K (2021) From Samplers to Shakespeare: Jane Austen’s Reading. In: Wilson CA & Frawley MH (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Jane Austen. Routledge Literature Companions. London: Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/The-Routledge-Companion-to-Jane-Austen/Wilson-Frawley/p/book/9780367027292
Making use of new digital resources (such as the recently-digitised Godmersham Park Library catalogue) and other new scholarship, in this paper Ire-visit the question of Jane Austen’s literary influences in the context of a discussion of her reading practices. Recent scholarship (by Jocelyn Harris, Peter Knox-Shaw, Olivia Murphy, Janine Barchas, Peter Sabor and others) has conclusively proven that Austen’s reading was more daring, more eclectic and more demanding than previous generations of critics had thought. In addition to ‘the old guides’ (Johnson, Cowper, Crabbe, Richardson, Goldsmith, Hume, and Robertson), named by her first biographers, we now know that Austen read both deeply and widely in a variety of genres, from socially-sanctioned conduct books and histories to titillating French novels such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the latest scandal-sheets.
Austen was, it seems, a magpie reader, and everything she read was grist to her creative mill, lending itself to parody, satire and critical re-working. As Jocelyn Harris suggests, Austen’s reading energized her creative practice in fundamental and exciting ways. Austen was also, as Kathryn Sutherland has persuasively argued, an inveterate recycler, of characters, plots and ideas. Drawing on these insights, in this essay, I consider how an increased understanding of her wider reading habits both within and outside the family circle should now inform our literary criticism of the novels, juvenilia and unfinished works.