Thia isn't meant to be a book that focuses on Jane Austen's biography, or that analyzes her works, and the title tries to make it clear: it's a book about her readers, and especially the "cults" of fans who sometimes--certainly not always--think of Jane Austen books as pure escapism, as nice comfy reads reminding them of a supposedly simpler, more civilized, sweeter time. Pour a cup of tea from the Wedgewood pot into the Regency teacup, put another log on the fire and pretend it was your butler who put it there, snuggle down and read dear old Jane Austen . . . and that's a perfectly fine way to read her; but Johnson suggests that too often readers ignore Jane Austen's wit and her ability to chop pretentious people up with the machete of "regulated hatred" (as a classic essay about her work has it) with which she handles many of the foolish, pretentious, annoying characters in her novels.
Instead, people who consider themselves to be "Janeites" are likely to pick up a copy of the recent magazine with titled something like "Jane Austen Knits", which contains pretty pictures of lovely scenes and (frequently kind of silly) knitting projects (which, apparently, the editors think Jane Austen might have made. I like to knit, but I don't know, maybe she made lots of lace fingerless gloves and knitted book covers in a cable stitch and gave them out right and left. But I wonder.)
Johnson suspects that some of Jane Austen's most fervent readers ignore a good deal of what Jane Austen was actually trying to accomplish--and providing escapism wasn't really on her program. Anyone who has read her letters with care will notice how scathing and sometimes heartless she could be about her acquaintances when writing to people she loved, how she liked to puncture their pretensions and get her claws into them, and how aware she was of the world around her, complete with the War with France and the issue of slavery. Not a sweet old biddy, then; not someone I'd necessarily want writing about me. That's just it, Johnson says: many of Austen's devoted readers miss the fact that they may be exactly the kind of people she is satirizing, exactly the kind of people she'd turn into fatuous characters unwilling to live in reality, blinded by sentiment or selfishness.
Johnson isn't writing about Austen's work, then; she's writing about how some readers have turned her into a cult figure whom they sentimentalize and misread. That's not exactly comfy, cozy reading if you begin to feel you might be one of those people. And I'm not excluding myself.
On the other hand . . . this is without question the most fun piece of literary criticism I've ever read, and over 40 years I've read a lot. Johnson is having fun here, looking at what people have made of Jane Austen, how they sentimentalize hugely--to the extent of thinking Jane is speaking to them, or that a hand pump still standing in the middle of a empty field where one of her homes once stood is a touching, deeply meaningful relic worthy of raptures, say, just to mention two instances of the kind of things she discusses. (The conversations fans have with Jane are, as it turns out, unutterably boring. You'd expect better of Jane, frankly.) Could someone please write an equally clear, equally acute, equally funny book about the Brontes?