PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.34, NO.2 (Spring 2014)

Discovering Jane Austen in Today’s College Classroom

Devoney Looser


Devoney Looser (email:, Professor of English at Arizona State University, is the author of Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850 and British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820 and the editor of Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism.  She is writing a book on Austen and the women’s movement.


It is hard to imagine a more exciting time to be teaching Jane Austen in the college classroom.  With a series of bicentennial celebrations having occurred in 2013 (for Pride and Prejudice [1813]), and more set to arrive this year (with Mansfield Park [1814]), and with the great success of video blog The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012-13) bringing her characters to a younger audience, Austen seems likely to remain in the public eye for years to come.  This certainly makes it easier to convince students of her continuing relevance—if they need any convincing at all.  At the moment, Austen seems to be everywhere.  Most students come into the college literature classroom with some knowledge of her writings.  If they have not actually read them, they seem disposed to like them.  The same can still be said of Shakespeare, although teachers of Chaucer and John Milton are no longer so fortunate.  Those four figures remain the most likely author-candidates to have a semester-long English literature course devoted to them.  Austen, perhaps alone among them, draws in large numbers of college students (many of them female) who enroll not only to increase their cultural capital but because they consider themselves her “fans.”


Many come with enthusiasm then, and prepared to be pleased, but what most do not come to our classrooms armed with is prior knowledge of Austen’s place in late eighteenth- early nineteenth-century literary history.  If students have previously thought about Austen in a historical context at all, it is usually as a back-in-the-day woman writer struggling for recognition in a male-dominated environment.  Or it is as a lone voice writing in the wilderness of the English countryside, hiding her writing as she completed it, unrecognized for it until after her death.  Of course, there is a sense in which each of these preconceptions holds a smidgeon of truth.  But both are also gross misunderstandings of Austen’s relationship to the literary marketplace and to her contemporaries.  Students are often surprised to learn that in the early nineteenth century, the novel was not a well-respected literary genre.  At the time that Austen wrote novels, prose fiction was dismissed by some readers as feminized literary trash, even seen as potentially morally harmful to women readers.  Our students also do not realize that, for a period of years up until about 1820, the novel’s most valued contributors—when the novel was valued at all—were women writers.  And there were hundreds of them.  Teaching Austen in the context of her once-famous (and now mostly forgotten) female contemporaries affords us the opportunity to see her in stunning new ways.  This is no small feat for the study of an author whom so many of us think we know so well.


That, at least, was the theory I set out to test in the summer of 2012, in directing a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers on “Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries” at the University of Missouri.  The NEH Summer Seminar program is a competitive one, with sixteen participants selected from a large pool of applicants.  Our charge from the NEH was to extend and deepen knowledge and understanding of the humanities by focusing on significant topics and texts; to contribute to intellectual vitality and professional development; to build communities of inquiry and provide models of civility and excellent scholarship and teaching; and to effectively link teaching and research in the humanities.  We read seven novels together, by Austen, Anna Maria Porter, Mary Brunton, and Jane West, along with many excerpts, critical articles, and reviews.  We enjoyed visits from guest speakers on scholarly editing, digital humanities, and research methods.  We traveled together to the University of Kansas’s Kenneth Spencer Research Library to do hands-on work with paleography (the study of old handwriting) and archival research.  The participants themselves—who ranged from graduate students to full professors—also brought significant talents to the table.  Thanks to them, we drank homemade shrub together and enjoyed impromptu English country dance lessons.  Participants also engaged in individual scholarly research projects of their own choosing, presenting their findings publicly at the end of our five weeks together.  One of the most enriching parts of the seminar involved our conversations about what is gained by teaching Austen alongside her contemporaries.  It is from this part of our seminar’s work that the following essays emerged.


Despite valuable scholarship that considers Austen alongside canonical greats like Sir Walter Scott, Mary Wollstonecraft, or the so-called “big six” Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats), there remains a tendency to write and teach about Austen in a restricted frame of reference.  This does not get us where we ought to go in order to understand the many influences on, conversations surrounding, and impact of her work.  With these limits, we cannot hope to teach students to see very far into Austen’s complex literary and social context.  Such restrictions are both the benefit and the limitation of a “Major Author” course; depth is possible, but breadth is a challenge.  It is difficult to make references beyond those that a savvy undergraduate may have previously studied in an introductory survey of British literature.  An instructor might mention Austen’s use of Byron in Persuasion and hope that students might have some notion of what is at stake, but to mention Austen and Frances Burney or Austen and Maria Edgeworth?  Even those high-profile literary connections are likely to fall on deaf ears in a Major Authors course structure.


Those of us in the NEH seminar set out to find new ways to bring both depth and breadth to the study of Austen in the college classroom.  Whether we were seeking to understand Austen’s fictional techniques, political views, religious beliefs, reception in her lifetime, or posthumous reputation, we recognized that all of us—scholars and students alike—stand to learn a great deal by reading Austen and a wider range of her contemporaries in tandem.  This imperative applies whether we are undertaking collective close readings and discussions of primary texts or providing students with new tools for pursuing the study of Austen, using both emerging digital and traditional archival research techniques.


As these essays demonstrate, the ways we are able to teach Austen among her contemporaries have changed dramatically in the wake of greater access to rare materials.  Through proprietary databases, such as Eighteenth-Century Collections Online and Nineteenth-Century Collections Online, as well as freely available texts, such as those available on Google Books, instructors and students both can download a rare eighteenth-century edition to read on screen in a matter of moments.  A decade ago, such editions were available only to those able to travel to a great research library, such as the Huntington or the British Library.  Wider access to rare editions means that more of us can test for ourselves how Austen’s fiction was similar to and different from that of her contemporaries, to explore their mutual resonances and dissonances.  We like to make arguments about Austen’s greatness, innovation, uniqueness, universality, and/or achievements, but we often make them with scant reference to the contexts in which she wrote or the authors with whom she was clearly in conversation.  Was Austen such an innovator?  If the answer remains yes, how precisely was she innovating?  What specifically led her novels to endure, in comparison with the now-forgotten (and, in many cases, once celebrated) productions of her contemporaries?  It is time that we tested all of these claims of originality and greatness and encouraged our students to test them along with us.


It is true that we have a tradition of doing some of this kind of work in the Austen classroom.  For instance, teachers have long told students that in order to read and understand Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818)—itself a kind of literary mash-up—you have to be aware of the conventions of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction.  But how many scholars and teachers assign any of the seven “horrid novels” mentioned in Northanger Abbey?  You may or may not remember the titles of these novels—Eliza Parsons’s Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) and The Mysterious Warning: A German Tale (1796), Regina Maria Roche’s Clermont: A Tale (1798), Ludwig Flammenberg’s The Necromancer, or The Tale of the Black Forest (1794), Francis Lathom’s The Midnight Bell (1798), Eleanor Sleath’s The Orphan of the Rhine (1798), and the Marquis de Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries (1796).  How many readers, even among those well-versed in Austen, have perused them?  Beyond these obvious titles, how many of us have read the countless texts in multiple genres that Northanger Abbey both spoofs and pays homage to?


We stand to learn so much more by scrutinizing a greater range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic works in conversation with Austenís novels—more about the Gothic, more about Austen, and more about their mutual cultural concerns.  Over the past century, we have relied on a handful of scholars to tell us what the Gothic tradition means to Austen, without doing much of the homework.  It’s now easier than it has ever been to do that homework and to have our students do it alongside us.  What might more of us studying the texts of Austen’s contemporaries in our classrooms add to our collective ability to read Northanger Abbey—and all of Austen’s writings—in new ways?  What discoveries lay in wait?  Of course, it may be that we find little more than the type of disappointing laundry list that Catherine Morland discovers (and temporarily mistakes for an old manuscript) at the Abbey.  But I am hopeful that insights of a greater magnitude await us, as we reread long-forgotten texts, make new connections, and offer fresh interpretations.


The following essays engage in such hopeful, illuminating classroom experiments in the full range of Austen’s writings, refocusing our attention to rarely explored subjects.  Each contributor, in thinking about Austen among her contemporaries, reflects on how such a focus might affect her or his classroom practice.  More conversations about how we teach Jane Austen are certainly needed.  It is time we moved beyond close readings with our students about what repels and then attracts Darcy to Elizabeth (and vice versa) to look at how precisely Austen’s courtships are similar to and different from the hundreds of other stories she (and readers of her time) would have read, judged, and enjoyed.  In so doing, teachers and students alike stand to learn more, not only about the early nineteenth century and about Austen’s development of the novel but about the literary and historical processes that eventually made Darcy and Elizabeth household names.


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