Devoney Looser, Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University and Guggenheim Fellow, is the author or editor of nine books, including The Making of Jane Austen and The Daily Jane Austen: A Year of Quotes. Her essays have appeared in the Atlantic, New York Times, Salon, Slate, TLS, Entertainment Weekly, and the Washington Post, and she’s played roller derby under the name Stone Cold Jane Austen. Looser’s next book, Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës, will be published by Bloomsbury US on October 25, 2022.
What is something you learned in the last month about the nineteenth century?
I’m working on a piece of scholarship on Jane Austen’s family, collaborating with another scholar who is a retired lawyer. I’ve learned so much from him about nineteenth-century money and the law. When an early nineteenth-century British person of means decided to make a bequest in their will, they understood it would be taxed at varying rates, depending on the degree of relationship to the deceased. No “legacy duty” was required for spouses, but bequests were taxed at one percent for children and their descendants, three percent for brothers and sisters and their descendants, five percent for uncles and aunts and their descendants, six percent for great uncles and aunts and their descendants, and ten percent for more remote relatives and what were called “strangers in blood,” such as servants or friends. So, a person of means was taxed at a higher rate if they chose to leave money to a servant rather than a distant cousin. That must have served as something of a disincentive to spread wealth beyond one’s closest legal ties.
What was the first nineteenth-century-themed item you bought with your own money?
Now there’s a question. I think it was in my early teens—using money earned from babysitting—that I bought a cheap reproduction of a cameo brooch. They were all the rage (again) in the 1970s, long before anyone thought to call it “regencycore.” I eventually also bought one on a stick pin. I don’t still have that piece, alas. Thanks for reminding me about the weird, wonderful, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trend for putting everything on stick pins!
What was the last experience that made you a stronger scholar-teacher?
I think it’s important for teachers to do things that take us out of our comfort zones. The last thing I did like that was training for banked-track roller derby as a rookie with the Arizona Derby Dames. For many reasons (including an injury), I didn’t end up drafted to compete. Even so, it was amazing, exhilarating, and humbling to try. Although in the literature classroom, as a professor, I don’t wonder anymore if I belong there, I think it makes me a stronger scholar-teacher to have fresh access to that sinking feeling of being new at something or wondering if you’re good enough. It helps me work better with students who may be starting out the semester feeling uncertain about what they can accomplish. I can more easily reinforce for them that they are bound to move forward.
If you had the opportunity to go back to the nineteenth century and have one two-hour dinner with one person, with whom would you want to dine?
Well of course, Jane Austen! But I’m sure we wouldn’t have dinner. We’d just sit together on the sofa, beside the fire, serving as a sort of chaperone for the room, while drinking as much wine as we’d like.