An Interview with Juliette Wells

Only one of Jane Austen’s novels appeared in an American edition during her lifetime (1775-1817): Emma, reprinted in 1816 by the prominent Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey.  Until now, virtually nothing has been known about how this edition came to be, who read it, or why so few copies—only six—remain today. Drawing on the Carey archives and on a study of the surviving copies, two of which she rediscovered, Juliette Wells illuminates American readers’ first encounters with Austen.

Professor Juliette Wells, Associate Professor and Chair of English at Goucher College, Baltimore, Maryland has been awarded the 2016 Isabel Dalhousie Fellowship, and will be giving the 2016 Isabel Dalhousie Lecture on 29 June at the National Library of Scotland. To complement this lecture, she is also holding a seminar on 27 June, right here at IASH. Claim your free ticket for the lecture and seminar now!

We had a chance to catch up with Juliette via email.

The Isabel Dalhousie Fellowship was established in 2012. How did you hear about it?

I heard about it directly from Alexander McCall Smith, who founded it and gave it the name of his Sunday Philosophy Club series heroine, Isabel Dalhousie.  Sandy was visiting Goucher College, at my invitation, to speak about his recent novel Emma: A Modern Retelling.  The first owner of Goucher’s copy of the 1816 Philadelphia Emma was Christian Broun Ramsay, Countess of Dalhousie (1786-1839), so I asked Sandy whether he had had the real Dalhousies in mind when he named his character.  He said no.  I explained that I’d just applied for access to Lady Dalhousie’s papers, which are privately held by family descendants, and was hoping to come to Edinburgh to see them.  He very generously suggested that the Isabel Dalhousie Fellowship might suit this project, for which I’m very grateful!

I expect everybody asks you this, but what was the first Jane Austen book you read? What stuck out for you, and what did you remember most vividly from that first reading experience?

Emma was the first novel of Austen’s that I read, as a class assignment when I was a junior in high school (aged 16).  I admired it and found Austen’s portrayals of women’s options to be very sharp.  I read the rest of her novels in college and graduate school, so always through an academic lens.  I envy readers who discovered her on their own, or through a family member, and read her first for pure pleasure—that’s an experience I’ll never have.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you rediscovered two of the surviving 1816 editions of Emma?

I feel I really can’t take much credit for sleuthing.  I just looked on WorldCat—a resource that didn’t exist when the gold-standard bibliography of Jane Austen was written—and contacted all the institutions that were listed as having an 1816 Philadelphia Emma.  Some libraries wrote back and said, “Whoops, that’s an erroneous entry,” and two replied that yes, indeed, they owned a copy.  There may well be more out there!

Have you been to Edinburgh before? What is your impression of the city?

Only once, briefly, when I was a teenager.  I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember very much.  My family is coming with me this summer—my children are aged ten and eight, and they’re very excited.   I hope that their memories will prove more durable than mine!

What are you reading at the moment?

Nelly Dean by Alison Case, which is a very astute and absorbing retelling of Wuthering Heights.  I’m drawn to new novels that interact with classics—I appreciate how creators address problems of interpretation from a different angle than scholars do.  I also tend to like fiction by English professors and am intrigued by people who publish their first novels later in life, both of which are true in this case.

Thank you!


On 29 June, 6:00 – 7:00pm, Professor Juliette Wells held the 2016 Isabel Dalhousie Lecture at the National Library of Scotland.