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Teaching Romanticism XXXIII: Jane Austen, part 1

As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review, and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with proposals for future subjects. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months. This twinned volume was guest-edited Kerry Sinanan.

Katie Halsey (University of Stirling): Teaching Jane Austen: The Manuscript Works

For several years now, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of running an advanced optional (fourth year) undergraduate single author module on Jane Austen. The students spend eleven weeks reading the six completed novels, the juvenilia and unfinished works, and then looking at different kinds of responses to Austen: sequels and prequels, spin-offs, adaptations, biographies, biopics and fan fiction. The purpose of the module is to introduce students to new ways of thinking about a canonical author, and to teach them about different theoretical approaches to Jane Austen. Each week, the students read a source text (one of Austen’s novels, the juvenilia, the later works, Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘The Janeites’, Paula Morris’s short story ‘Premises’, and James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen), watch an adaptation (either film or TV), and read either two or three critical articles, chosen to represent particular schools of criticism. They write two 2,500-word coursework essays, and they also write an assessed collaborative online reading journal reflecting on their experiences of encountering all of these different kinds of texts. Over the course of the semester, we cover a variety of theoretical schools, from New Historicist and Feminist theory to Reader Response and Adaptation theories, and we spend a lot of time discussing the thorny issues of canonicity, reputation and literary legacy. Because of Austen’s near-unique status as a writer who straddles the divide between the Academy and popular culture, she allows us to think seriously about fandom (particularly in the digital era) as a particular kind of creative response to Austen, as well as allowing us to engage in productive and fruitful close readings of the source texts.

Normally, the students will have taken either my Long Eighteenth Century or my Romanticism survey courses before taking the Austen module, although these are not formally prerequisites for the course, so it is possible to come to the Austen module with little or no knowledge either of Austen herself, or the literature of her contemporaries. Nonetheless, I tend to find that students who take the module have usually had plenty of exposure to Austen (if not her contemporaries!) through television and film adaptations. Sometimes they are themselves writers of Austenian fan fiction. This prior knowledge has its pros and cons. Much of the literature on teaching Jane Austen focuses on the difficulties of attempting to break through students’ existing preconceptions and prejudices (see for example, Jokic, 2014, Krueger, 2014, Spratt, 2014), and I certainly recognise that this can be problematic. But on the other hand, in my experience, having a few devoted Janeites in the module helps to raise the overall level of engagement and participation in the class, and certainly contributes to the success of the collaborative online reading journal that is part of the assessed coursework on the module. 

Since the explicit and stated aim of the module is, though, to introduce students to new ways of thinking about Jane Austen, I have had to take seriously the pedagogical difficulties involved in working to disrupt students’ expectations, and here I wish to reflect on the value of teaching the manuscript works to this particular pedagogical project. Whether their expectations arise from the literary critical tradition, the choices made by the makers of films and television adaptations, or from the marketing choices of the film and publishing industries, my aim is always to show the students where they are making assumptions based on what they think they know about the author, as opposed to thinking about what they actually see in the text.

James-Edward Austen-Leigh’s ‘hagiographic portrait’ of ‘St. Aunt Jane of Steventon-cum-Chawton Canonicorum’ (Sutherland 2005: 130) has a surprisingly long legacy, not just in the critical tradition, but in the popular imagination, as demonstrated in Figure 1, where the humour of the Punch cartoon clearly lies in the disjunction between what is expected from an Austen novel (elegance of language, gentility, good manners, politeness), and the “effing and blinding” that “has to go”.

On my Austen module, I deliberately set the juvenilia and unfinished works to show the students another side of Jane Austen: the Austen who was, in the words of the biographer David Nokes, ‘rebellious, satirical and wild’ (Nokes 1997: 7). The anarchic fun of the juvenilia, the bitterness of ‘The Watsons’ and the astonishing excesses of ‘Sanditon’ help to dispel any idea of Austen’s ‘starched Notions’ (Jane to Cassandra Austen, 4 Feb 1813, in LeFaye 1995: 203). As I point out to the students, the juvenile works blithely, indeed joyfully, deal with subjects such as suicide, theft, drunkenness, murder, violence, bigamy and incest. They flout taboos at every turn, and they mock and parody not just the literary conventions that Austen knew, but the social conventions and pieties that the later novels might seem, on the surface, to uphold.  It is inconceivable to imagine an Austen heroine in one of the completed novels knocking down a pastrycook, as the ‘beautifull Cassandra’ does in the brief sketch of that name, but it is perhaps not so difficult to imagine that they might very often wish to resort to violence (and this is, of course, the premise behind the very funny Jane Austen Fight Club, a parodic mash-up available on YouTube). In the juvenile and unfinished later works, then, we see some of the things which get left out of or toned down in the completed novels. There is less self-censorship. In my view, this helps us to identify some of the most interesting ironies – those surrounding her endings, her heroines, her minor characters – in Austen’s works, as well as pointing up some of the subversive energies in the prose style.

In the juvenile and unfinished works we also see a writer at work. The writing is patchy and uneven, the grammar and syntax often even ugly. The extent to which Austen revised her work is made evident in the cancelled chapters of Persuasion and in the revisions to the MS of ‘Sanditon’. I show the students these using Kathryn Sutherland’s excellent Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts digital edition, which makes available facsimiles and diplomatic transcriptions of the manuscripts online. It is exceptionally helpful for the students to see the inherent messiness of the creative process in this format. But the extent to which Austen changed both her style and her subject matter to conform to the demands of her particular marketplace is best demonstrated through a comparison of the juvenile works to the mature novels. Such a comparison opens up discussion about Austen as a serious professional writer, which helps to dispel another untruth about her: the myth started by her brother Henry that she was an ‘authoress’ only through ‘taste and inclination’, writing for neither ‘fame or profit’ (p. 149).

Thinking about the kinds of revisions Austen might have made between first drafts and publication is also, of course, pertinent to discussions of Northanger Abbey, given its complicated genesis and publication history. Indeed, I often find that discussion of the juvenile and unfinished works leads us back into discussions of the mature novels, and helps us to identify concerns that preoccupied Austen from childhood through her maturity and even onto her deathbed.

Most of all, perhaps, the manuscript works remind us insistently of the fundamentally satirical, parodic and ironic nature of Austen’s creative genius. From the moment she proclaims herself a ‘partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian’, and warns her readers that there will be ‘very few Dates’ in her ‘History of England’, Austen signals to her readers that hers will be works that deliberately and comically violate the generic and gendered expectations of her period (Austen, 2008: 176). What better introduction to her work could we, as teachers, hope for?

Works Cited

Austen, Jane, ‘The History of England’, in Juvenilia, ed. Peter Sabor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 176-89.

Austen, Henry, ‘Memoir of Miss Austen’ (1833), in A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family recollections, ed. Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2002), pp. 135-43.

LeFaye, Deirdre, Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Nokes, David, Jane Austen: A Life (London: Fourth Estate, 1997)

Jokic, Olivera. “Teaching to the Resistance: What to Do When Students Dislike Austen”. Persuasions Online 34.2 (Spring 2014) http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol34no2/jokic.html

Krueger, Misty. “Teaching Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as a ‘Crossover’ Text”. Persuasions Online 34.2 (Spring 2014) http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol34no2/krueger.html

Spratt, Danielle. “Taking Emma to the Street: Toward a Civic Engagement Model of Austen Pedagogy”. Persuasions Online 34.2 (Spring 2014) http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol34no2/spratt.html (Accessed 21/06/2017).

Sutherland, Kathryn, Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: from Aeschylus to Bollywood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Kerry Sinanan (University of Texas at San Antonio): Teaching Mansfield Park: Contrapuntal Reading and the challenge to White Supremacy

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is the text that I have been teaching for the longest and that I always choose to put on a syllabus if it can be included. It carries an unusual status in this regard because my general rule is to vary what I teach and to refresh myself and my syllabi with some frequency. I have taught Mansfield Park in universities in the UK, Ireland and, most recently, here at the University of Texas at San Antonio in the Fall Semester of 2018. In each place I have learned that there is an ongoing need to stress the imperial narrative within the novel and its relationship to eighteenth-century slavery. The overwhelming majority of students to whom I have taught Mansfield Park are largely unaware of the context of slavery and British imperial history. This was true even in Bristol and field trips to Merchant’s Square and Bath became necessary to make history visible. More than this, I have repeatedly found that that the novel’s complex narrative delineates and critiques systemic white supremacy in ways too valuable to be left out: Fanny’s simultaneous oppression and assimilation by the Bertram family combined with the economic fabric of their estate, dependent on of Antiguan slavery, depict the reproduction of a social order that requires exploitation while proclaiming moral and cultural superiority, a contradiction that is fundamental to white supremacy. Outside of the novel white supremacy, in its various iterations, is not confined to one or other side of the Atlantic but permeates students’ attitudes to English literature and Austen offers a particular site for reading the co-incidence of whiteness and literature assumed by students, most often unaware of their own bias. Mansfield Park seems to become more important every year I teach it.

The defense of this perspective comes in the context of weary responses from colleagues who take issue with what they regard as the fashionable co-opting of an Austen novel for putatively outdated postcolonial theory, once fashionable but now ‘over’. As one colleague who was covering my course while I was on maternity leave said, ‘do I have to do the “Said thing”?’ Here in the US, many critical race theorists regard Edward Said himself to be a member of a white academic elite, now all but dispensable. The other main context is, as I’ve noted, the persistence of white supremacy, as distinct from white fragility, in the classroom that takes several forms. In the most obvious one students are simply unprepared to consider that race and slavery might have anything to do with Austen. Austen, they assume, is that ‘safe place’ in literature where an Arnoldian sense of ‘sweetness and light’ can reign undisturbed. Those who come to read for the romance plots of Austen’s novels often bring invisible and unquestioned assumptions about white primogeniture and gendered roles: they feel sorry for Fanny and most are glad that she gets her just rewards. The idea that there may be a dark side to the light is not welcomed by many students and, in particular, they do not want Austen to be ‘sullied’ by the realities of her time. Like many of us who teach Austen, I’m very invested in unsettling these assumptions and revel in showing students how Austen herself does the unsettling. Is there a happy ending in the union between Fanny and Edmund? Are we satisfied with Sir Thomas as any kind of moral authority albeit one who is now ‘Sick of ambitious and mercenary connections’ wanting only ‘domestic felicity’? Will Fanny have or want to have any power to reform? These uncertainties cannot be resolved by the novel and most students do not enjoy being denied narrative closure.

The overarching thrust of how I teach Mansfield Park, then, is to find various ways to ask students how they think it delineates the forging of a British, imperial, white supremacy even as it relentlessly exposes the dark side of the Enlightenment. It is the unresolvable ambivalence of the novel that remains its most powerful aspect, pushing me and my students to keep thinking about how these systems work and if they may be dismantled—or not.

As we know, it was Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993) that offered a powerful reading of Mansfield Park, bringing to the fore the exploitative contexts of empire and colonialism that he deemed to be fundamental to the novel. Said’s thesis has generated much response and criticism. As Bartine and Maguire argue, while groundbreaking, Said’s reading of Mansfield Park leads to him oversimplify and he regards the structure of the novel as going hand-in-hand with ‘Austen’s tacit acceptance of the injustices perpetuated by a morality that embraces imperialism.’ (41). While I, too, cannot wholeheartedly agree with Said’s accusations of Austen being ‘implicated’ in the rationale of empire, I nevertheless find that some of his statements remain indispensable for revealing the structures of empire and their relationship to domesticity. I invariably provide students with this observation: ‘[Austen] sees clearly that to hold and rule Mansfield Park is to hold and rule an imperial estate in close, not to say inevitable, association with it. What assures the domestic tranquility and attractive harmony of one is the productivity and regulated discipline of the other.’ (Said, 104).

As a response to Sir Thomas’ wish to disentangle the two at the end of the novel, I therefore entitle my opening lecture to Mansfield Park, ‘Domesticity and Empire’ and I begin by asking a basic question of students to invite them to think about what might be less immediately apparent to them.

Said helps students to make these very fundamental links between the drawing room in Mansfield Park and the global-imperial dimensions that enable that space to exist. The prompts I use from his work make it easy for students to make clear links between these two apparently disparate spaces and the activities and moralities that occur within them. Notwithstanding his blind spots or oversimplifications, Said will continue to provide the entry framework for my teaching.

Moreover, Austen’s own vocabulary reveals to students that these are not tentative links and I ask students to undertake word searches in digitised versions of Mansfield Park for words like ‘freedom’, ‘restraint’ and ‘oppression’ with a group discussion on the specific context in which each word is used. This ensures that some degree of close reading underpins the theoretical approach being taken. Offering students some key passages from Mary Wollstonecraft allows them to see the wider discourse within which Austen is participating. Course structure allowing, I include other texts on the syllabus such as The History of Mary Prince (1831) which, among other things allows students to learn more about Antigua as a site of rebellion. Having read other abolitionist texts it then becomes possible to set essay questions such as this:

“Am I not a woman and a sister?” (Anti-slavery slogan). To what extent do the texts you have studied suggest that the concerns and dilemmas of female characters and/or writers may be usefully compared to those of slaves?

I find that this kind of question that engages directly with the dilemmas and ambivalences raised by Mansfield Park produces sophisticated responses from students as it is not easy to simplify these issues and they are encouraged to give their opinions in a considered way.

As George Boulukos argues in his disagreement with Said, it is indeed the ambivalence of all this that Austen explores and this is what makes Mansfield Park so valuable.

Austen’s most influential innovations as a novelist–using free indirect discourse rather than omniscient narration or epistolary form, psychologically complex characters rather than moral exemplars–militate against offering authoritative opinions on moral and political questions like that of colonial slavery. One of the clearest distinctions between Austen and her contemporaries is her complete refusal of didacticism . . .’.[1]

The intertwining of Fanny with the issue of slavery complicates the moralistic dimension further and, departing from many of my Austen readers, I see Fanny as another irresolvable problem, one which might well end up lying on the sofa, literally and figuratively (to quote Maria).

And it is this ambivalence which I repeatedly face in the classroom. None of our students would quite condone slavery – it is universally acknowledged to be a ‘bad thing’. But when it comes to unravelling what slavery actually involved and how it was in fact perpetrated by people like Sir Thomas, not an obvious monster, and how it directly enriched estates like Mansfield Park, then the reticence to condemn slavery becomes palpable. The ‘silence’ on slavery that Fanny faces in her uncle’s drawing room echoes down the centuries into our classrooms. One response that I had from students when I introduced them to the context of slavery in UTSA this year was that I was making white Protestants ‘look bad’. When I used John Newton as an example of the complicated moral positions held by slave traders, students told me they were going to ‘fact check’ what I was saying because they would not accept that the same man who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’ also captained three slave-trading voyages between 1750-1753.

Mansfield Park is a ‘penetrating’ (to modify Austen’s word) critique of a decaying and corrupt world, not a celebration of moral reform.[2] It is a satire on the inadequate compromises that must be made by the nouveau riche of imperial Britain leaving us with persistent questions about whether change is gradual or whether amelioration is replication of power in other guises (see Boulukos). Because the ambivalence of the novel is irresolvable, ultimately, I regard the novel as offering a challenge to white supremacy, an assumed superiority forged in the colonies and in relations of racialized domination that are replicated in domestic spaces which, most insidiously, assume the mantle of moral guardianship.  That this reading remains urgent in higher education, especially in North America, is testified to by the rise of right wing and neo-nazism on campuses: in the very semester that I taught this novel at UTSA one of the several incidents that occurred was a swastika etched on a car bonnet on campus. On one of my feedback forms from student evaluation I received the comment, ‘She says she’s British but she doesn’t look British to me’ (I am a brown-skinned woman of mixed Irish and West Indian heritage). It was palpable to me that many students questioned my very right to be teaching ‘British’ literature and Austen in particular. What may seem, to some, rather ‘old hat’, has become vital.

I’ll end with a long passage from Sarah Raff’s recent book that perfectly describes how Mansfield Park, in its plot, characterization and narrative, exposes the internalization and repetition of systems of power that oppress women and slaves and that co-opt would-be ameliorationists in insidious ways. By the end of the novel, Raff states, Sir Thomas has

indirectly shaped Fanny to fit his desire, and by the end of the novel, Fanny’s point of view has been entirely coopted by that of her guardian and father-in-law . . . Fanny resembles in this respect the reader of the novel. In the novel’s final chapter, where morals are announced, judgements doled out, and narrative threads tied by a hand that, to many, seems hasty and intrusive, the narrator stands so close to Sir Thomas that she gives the reader no room to look around, no position from which to gain a broader view. In deliberately obfuscatory free indirect discourse, Austen’s narrator delegates her moral instruction to the guardian, for the didactic communications of the narrator are inseparable from the self-applauding ruminations of Sir Thomas. By consigning the novel’s most conspicuous lessons to Sir Thomas’s self-celebration and self-justification, his sense of having “reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all, and acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline,” the narrator invites the reader to participate in Fanny’s indoctrination in the cult of her guardian. . .[3]

I do not see Fanny as a vehicle of improvement: I see her as assimilated into the very systems that oppressed her. Given that we are living in a time in which 58% of white women voted for Trump, and 60% of women over 50 voted for Brexit, this remains a vital novel.[4]


[1] George Boulukos, ‘The Politics of Silence: Mansfield Park and the Amelioration of Slavery’ Novel: A Forum on Fiction. Summer 2006, Vol. 39 Issue 3, p. 361-383.

[2] ‘But where is Fanny? . . . and on perceiving her, came forward with a kindness which astonished and penetrated her, calling her his dear Fanny, kissing her affectionately, and observing with decided pleasure how much she had grown! Fanny knew not how to feel, nor where to look. She was quite oppressed. . . He led her nearer the light and looked at her again’. Mansfield Park Broadview, 195.

[3] Sarah Raff, Jane Austen’s Erotic Advice. Oxford University Press, 37.

[4] https://www.statista.com/statistics/567922/distribution-of-eu-referendum-votes-by-age-and-gender-uk/


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