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200 Years After Austen: The Continuing Significance of Jane

Why do the works of a quiet 19th-century author still resonate?
September 22, 2017

This fall, the English department honors the author whose output, a mere six novels, went out of print not long after she died in 1817. That those works are so treasured today, 200 years later, is a conundrum at the heart of our series of performances and talks.

A quick skim of the internet provides a variety of reasons for Austen's continuing popularity: her humor; her understanding of a range of human behavior; her dialogue; her sure puncturing of hypocrisy. The author primarily seen today as the foremother of "strong woman protagonist" fiction, someone men are supposed to find too girly, was not long ago widely beloved by male readers, as an article in The Guardian points out: "Talk of her 'limitations' is vain, it must never be thought that limitation of scene implies limitation of human emotion," one such reader noted in 1917.

On Tuesday, November 14, three English professors will offer "Austen Minis": brief talks about Austen and her fiction. As a preview, these scholars, who all teach 18th- and 19th-century English literature and the novel, describe why they—and so many others—remain fascinated with Jane:

  • "Part of the magic of Austen's work is how it continues to inspire readers to imagine that they are secret friends with 'Jane.' Literary scholars have struggled to explain how a slim corpus of just six novels can make readers feel like they're on exclusive and intimate terms with a writer who lived over 200 years ago. This is a mystery I'm determined to figure out!" — Professor Elaine Auyoung
  • "We value Austen for her irony and her subtlety, but one reason we still read her is to experience the straight-up difference between right and wrong—between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine, say, or between Anne Elliot and her father and sisters. Austen's world is a realist's world, made up of scarcity and compromise, but the characters in it are just a little outsized, and we are invited to enjoy despising its fools, liars, and hypocrites." — Professor Brian Goldberg
  • "I love reading Jane Austen for her sparkling sentences; they seem so sharp yet convey so much . . . and then so much more." — Professor Amit Yahav

See you at one of our Austen events! All free and open to the public. For disabilities accommodations, email Terri Sutton at sutt0063@umn.edu or call 612-626-1528.