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10 Takeaways from Our "Austen at 200" Series!

Yes, Virginia, there are new things to be thought about the novelist
December 13, 2017

Assistant Professor Elaine Auyoung presents on Austen to crowd

Assistant Professor Elaine Auyoung presents on Austen to crowd
Professor Elaine Auyoung talked about in and out groups and reading Jane Austen for our fall 2017 "Austen at 200" series

After two centuries of Jane Austen appreciation and interpretation, one might think that there is nothing new to be said. But one would be wrong, as those who attended this fall's Department of English bicentennial celebration series can attest. Below, a small sample of what we learned.

           1. Austen scholars can be as funny as Austen herself (see photo above). Attendees to our November 14 professor mini-talks in particular laughed ruefully as Professor Elaine Auyoung described some Austen admirers' need to "advertise their membership in Austen's ingroup in public, conspicuous ways and to keep this group exclusive by refusing to let in other members."

           2. How does Austen make each reader feel like she or he is, as Katherine Mansfield put it, Austen's "secret friend"? According to Professor Auyoung, Austen's "impersonal, indirect style," and a reader's private comprehension of her implicit insights, promote a feeling of intimacy with her. Austen's implied criticism of certain characters' morality and intelligence then "permits readers to perceive their alliance with her as evidence of their own elevated status."

Columbia University Professor Jenny Davidson
Columbia University Professor Jenny Davidson

           3. Because postage was expensive in England before 1840 (and paid for by the recipient), "a long letter might be seen as a gesture of simultaneous generosity and aggression," explained Columbia University Professor Jenny Davidson. Davidson's elegant, humorous October 13 talk on Austen's fictive and real-life letters argues strongly for her new book Reading Jane Austen (Cambridge University Press), out December 31. Check out a short video of Davidson on Austen.

           4. Playing a game of whist, popular in Austen's day, is simple enough to provide opportunity for mischief, but relentless enough that one will pay for one's inattention. Attendees to the December 13 "Celebrating Jane" salon received whist instruction—along with fantastic homemade scones in Earl Grey and cranberry flavors, all presented by muslin-gown sporting English graduate students in the 18th- and 19th-Century Subfield. Also: An 18th-century card deck has no numerals.

           5. When, in Northanger Abbey, Austen depicts her characters Catherine and Henry in thrall to the experience of reading Mysteries of Udolpho, it's not simply to satirize gothic novels like Mrs. Radcliffe's. It is, as Professor Amit Yahav emphasized at "Austen Minis," to celebrate the pleasure of reading as a time out of productive time, "the kind of absorption that solicits undivided attention and fully embodied presence." Yahav went on, "Here eager reading is characterized not as an alternative to life, but by resistance of commerce between reading time and other times."

           6. Persuasion is the only Austen novel that takes place during peacetime, so of course, as Professor Brian Goldberg pointed out in his mini-talk, it is her one novel  about "the centrality of ongoing warfare to the making and perpetuation of early-19th-century British culture." Within Austen's realist vision, said Goldberg, "victory brings anxiety because peace might not last, but also because it might," as "without war there is no love and no money."

Gloved hands holding cards for whist game
A game of whist at the December 13 salon

           7. Austen's silence talks. As Professor Auyoung noted, Austen often allows her characters extended speeches without authorial commentary. "The text permits readers to feel that their responses to this character are so in step with the narrator's," Auyoung said, "that there's no need to make them explicit." A prime example: when Lady Catherine de Bourgh pronounces, "There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient," the narrator says nothing—but the reader hears volumes.

           8. The marriage plot kicks readers out of the swoon of immersive novels, and back into everyday life. "The form of the marriage plot undercuts [narrative] duration by positioning the moment of union at the end, omitting all that may follow," Professor Yahav said. In addition, "in the marriage plot, marriage functions as an abstracted moment," Yahav continued, "rather than a durational one, clearly marking the end of absorption in narrative duration and, thus, ejecting readers from their immersion."

           9. Hearing Pride and Prejudice read aloud is almost as funny as reading it yourself (on September 25, six Twin Cities actors enacted scenes from Austen's six novels).

          10. Jane Austen is still beloved enough to draw standing-room-only audiences to events in her honor through the thickening darkness and chill of a Minnesota fall. Thank you to all who attended!