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Teaching Romanticism XXXIV: Jane Austen, part 2

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.

Andrew McInnes (Edge Hill University): Teaching Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility

At Edge Hill University, we spend two weeks on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility at the end of our second year compulsory period survey module, ‘Romanticism’. We deliberately set up the two lectures as a debate spread over the fortnight. In the first lecture, my colleague contextualises Austen’s first published novel as developing out of the revolutionary debates of the 1790s, positioning Sense and Sensibility – and Austen herself – within the Anti-Jacobin tradition of British responses to the French Revolution, suspicious of sensibility as a dangerously foreign and potentially subversive force. This first lecture gives a brief account of the polemic about the French Revolution from Richard Price, Edmund Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and William Godwin, before turning to Godwin’s novel, Caleb Williams, as an example of ‘English Jacobin’ fiction: writing which fictionalises the debates of the French Revolution into a critique of aristocratic tyranny. Godwin, in turn, is contrasted with fiction by Jane West, whose A Gossip’s Story is compared with Austen’s better known novel. The first lecture concludes with Marilyn Butler’s argument in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas that ‘Jane Austen’s version of “sensibility” – that is, individualism, or the worship of self, in various familiar guises – is as harshly dealt with here as anywhere in the anti-Jacobin tradition’[1], focusing specifically on Marianne Dashwood’s disenchantment and re-education in these lines from the novel: ‘Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims’.[2]

My lecture the following week begins by directly disputing Butler’s influential reading of Austen as an Anti-Jacobin writer, drawing on Peter Knox-Shaw’s recent rebuttal of Butler’s arguments in Jane Austen and the Enlightenment. Instead of contrasting Austen’s later works with the revolutionary content of Caleb Williams, Knox-Shaw shows how Austen shares a surprising amount of common ground with Godwin through a comparison of Sense and Sensibility with his later novel, St. Leon. For Knox-Shaw, Godwin and Austen share concerns about the integration of individuals with their communities and the need for social stability in a post-revolutionary era, labelling these writers Post- rather than Anti-Jacobin.

The remainder of my lecture uproots Austen from the context of the 1790s to think about her in relation to the 1990s, both in terms of the wealth of literary adaptations of Austen at the end of the twentieth century (from Andrew Davies’ immensely popular version of Pride and Prejudice through Amy Heckerling’s superb updating of Emma in Clueless to Emma Thompson’s famous film version of Sense and Sensibility itself) and in relation to the development of queer theory and its new perspectives on Austen’s writing. I use Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s countering of what she calls ‘the spectacle of a girl being taught a lesson’ in her brilliant article ‘Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl’ to reread Austen’s seemingly damning conclusion about Marianne’s discovery of her own false opinions quoted in the previous lecture. By focusing on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century anxieties about masturbation and female desire (as well as riffing hilariously on their late twentieth-century analogues), Sedgwick reveals an ‘alternative, passionate sexual ecology’ available to Austen’s readers which moves beyond the ‘punitive/pedagogical’ readings which have blighted our appreciation of Austen’s writing.[3] After talking students through this counter-reading of Sense and Sensibility, I return to Austen’s description of Marianne’s ‘extraordinary fate’, quoting more of it in order to undermine the reductive analysis of it as straightforwardly Anti-Jacobin:

Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and no sentiment superior to strong and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another! – and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom two years before, she had considered too old to be married, – and who still thought the constitutional safe-guard of a flannel waistcoat! (267-68)

I admit that the lines quoted in the first lecture ventriloquize Anti-Jacobin sentiments but the whole passage undercuts their significance as much as it gently mocks Marianne’s opinions and maxims. Anti-Jacobin fiction deals brutally with erring women who end up abused, prostituted, pregnant, and/or dead in varying combinations by their climaxes. Marianne, on the other hand, survives and succeeds, with no real punishment for her self-absorption than the bathetic realisation that she does not know everything at seventeen and can live happily with a beflanneled gentleman. Austen may not be a radical, but she is by no means the harsh Anti-Jacobin she has been painted by Butler and others. Instead, the queer theory of the 1990s delivers to us a queer Austen: strange, shifting, surprisingly sexy.

Many of our students are drawn to the conservative version of Austen described in the first lecture and remain resistant to the idea that Sense and Sensibility encodes anxieties about masturbation in its representation of Marianne as distracted and depressed. However, some students are attracted to an alternative account of Austen which seems to explain something of the strangeness they discover in their close readings of the text: an Austen who seems to resist the reductive formulation of her as a bastion of sense ridiculing sensibility by depicting in Elinor a woman of profound feeling and in Marianne a charismatic heroine who triumphs rather than languishes. Moreover, in a debate my seminar group held last year, the group arguing against Austen as an Anti-Jacobin triumphed because some students in the ‘for’ group swapped sides in a free vote – which I hope had more to do with persuasion than sycophancy. Finally, by staging a debate which offers two contrasting, critically informed visions of Austen, students see a model of academic dissensus at work.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility, ed. by Claudia L. Johnson (New York and London: Norton, 2002)

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975; repr. 1997)

Knox-Shaw, Peter. Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. ‘Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl’ Critical Inquiry 17 (1991), 818-37


[1] Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975; repr. 1997), 194.

[2] Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, ed. by Claudia L. Johnson (New York and London: Norton, 2002), 267-68.

[3] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl’ Critical Inquiry 17 (1991), 818-37, 834.

Lauren Gillingham (University of Ottawa): Austen, the Brontës, and Their Afterlives

Presented with the opportunity to teach a second-year course for non-majors with the catalogue title, Women and Literature to 1900, I chose to focus this as a course on the fiction of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Emily Brontë, with a specific interest in the ongoing liveliness and relevance of these authors in our contemporary moment. The course attracts a fairly even mix of Arts, Social Science, and Science students, with only a small number of English majors. The majority of students thus come to the course from other disciplines, and have little training in university-level English literary study. Given the diversity of experience in the classroom, my principal objective is to get them thinking about why these nineteenth-century novelists remain so popular after 200 years, and how our historical moment and theirs might speak to each other. What does the study of historically-distant fiction teach us about women, literature, and culture in an earlier age, and what do these texts allow us to understand about our own culture? What kind of contact is possible between these historical moments, and what sorts of translations need to occur to set them into dialogue? How do the media platforms of each era and each text inflect that encounter?

To facilitate this dialogue ourselves, we study contemporary adaptations of Austen and the Brontës alongside a selection of their fiction. To date I have focused on film, television, and web adaptations, with one or two forays into music, but in future iterations it would be interesting to include other media such as graphic fiction. We use the adaptations to investigate dynamic relations among texts, as well as the translation work that allows movement between cultural and linguistic idioms associated with different eras and social groups. This analytical process invites us to reflect on the workings of language and culture, especially the complexities of meaning-making in encounters between historical moments. For some students, this exercise presents a rare opportunity in their studies to conceptualize their own culture as simultaneously historically embedded and perpetually redefined in relation to earlier texts, images, media forms, customs, and fashions. For other students, the course expands their familiarity with the historical period out of which some of their favourite novels emerged, and challenges them to investigate what their interest in this fiction and its ongoing relevance to their own moment might mean. Collectively, we aim to move beyond an understanding of adaptation based solely on a notion of fidelity ­– what does the adaptation get right or wrong? what is film unable to capture in the written word and novel genre? – in order to think instead about forms of remediation and the different perspectives that adaptation enables. As Deidre Lynch suggests with reference to contemporary adaptations of Emma, an “adaptation … has the capacity to furnish us with a new angle: an additional perspective on the story of a heroine who herself comes to learn that there are multiple perspectives on [her] ‘world’” (191).

We begin the course with Emma, in part to present students at the outset with the challenge of a heroine whom, as her author famously suggested, “no one but myself will much like” (119). We consider what cultural work the unlikeability of the heroine might enable, and how we are to reconcile Austen’s choice of heroine with her narrative’s unshakeable preference for its heroine’s point of view. We juxtapose Emma with two contemporary adaptations that notably flout any notion of fidelity: Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film Clueless and Brian Su’s 2013-2014 YouTube series, Emma Approved. Questions of likeability (or annoyance) and irony crop up in relation to all three versions of Emma, as do interesting discussions about the limitations of the heroine’s perspective on the world around her, the social privilege that structures that world, and the relation of her sense of the “world” to a reality that all three texts suggest exists just beyond the range of her vision. We further explore the question of Emma’s “world” through the lens of Iggy Azalea’s 2014 music video “Fancy,” an homage to Clueless that updates the social privilege and insularity of both Emma Woodhouse and Cher Horowitz by invoking a twenty-first-century global elite of jet-setting, couture-wearing youth, moving “in the fast lane / From LA to Tokyo.”

We undertake a similar pairing of texts with Pride and Prejudice and the 2008 television series Lost in Austen, an adaptation about adaptation that examines the culture of the modern Jane Austen fan base and the way in which contemporary audiences read, engage with, and adapt Austen novels. Lost in Austen features a twenty-first-century Janeite, Amanda Price, who literally falls into Pride and Prejudice through a portal in her bathroom, and proceeds to move through the novel like an infection as her very presence in the story wreaks havoc on the plot. Lost in Austen provides an exemplary occasion to reflect on the work not only of adaptation but of reading itself: the series invites us to examine how we read and make meaning of literary texts, and how texts teach us to be individuals, giving us a language and a story architecture through which to understand ourselves and our world.

Having begun with adaptations that self-consciously keep questions of fidelity at bay, we turn with the Brontës to more conventional period pieces that offer differing interpretations of the novels, and foreground the relations among visual and print media and among synchronic historical moments – to the extent that each new adaptation exists in relation to earlier ones – as well as the dynamic web of textual and cultural references engendered by celebrity actors and directors. We study Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Jane Eyre, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, setting it against both the 1970 version with George C. Scott and Susannah York and Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. These adaptations allow an in-depth interrogation of our perspectives on Jane and Rochester’s relationship in particular, insofar as the film adaptations tend to marginalize or excise entirely various secondary storylines and characters. The issues that Brontë’s Wuthering Heights raises with respect to narrative perspective and framing become pressing in new and different ways in the films, since each adaptation makes distinct choices about whether to frame the novel’s central relationships through a witness-interpreter such as Lockwood or Nelly Dean, and whether to privilege one generation, usually the first, over the other. For this final step in the course, we expand our consideration of the interrelations among texts, media, and especially celebrities by considering Laurence Olivier’s casting and performances in, first, Wuthering Heights (1939), the film that launched his screen career; then the following year, Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name that is in part a retelling of Jane Eyre; and finally – bringing us almost full circle in the course – Pride and Prejudice (1940), where he plays Mr. Darcy, once again assuming the male lead. The juxtaposition of these three male protagonists – Heathcliff, de Winter/Rochester, and Darcy – in the space of just eighteen months in the ascendant career of one of the period’s most notable celebrities draws together the threads of our course by inviting us to reflect on how any act of viewing, reading, or otherwise engaging with cultural texts necessarily occurs in a dense intertextual field, and requires of us a critical lens trained on the dynamic work of historical encounter.

Works Cited

Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen, ed. Kathryn Sutherland (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002; first published in 1871)

Lynch, Deidre. “Screen Versions.” The Cambridge Companion to ‘Emma’, ed. Peter Sabor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 186-203

Further Reading

Braudy, Leo. “Knowing the Performer from the Performance: Fame, Celebrity, and Literary Studies.” PMLA 126.4 (2011): 1070-75

Hazette, Valérie. Wuthering Heights on Film and Television (Bristol: Intellect, 2015)

Johnson, Claudia. Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012)

Lynch, Deidre, ed. Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)

Rubik, Margarete, and Elke Mettinger-Schartmann, eds. A Breath of Fresh Eyre: Intertextual and Intermedial Reworkings of ‘Jane Eyre’ (New York: Rodopi, 2007)


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