The Accidental Austen Professor
In 1997, I was asked by my department chair at Marquette University to teach a course on Jane Austen. I had read all of her novels, some of them as a child, but had taught only one of them, Sense and Sensibility, as part of an undergraduate survey on British literature from 1800 to the present. I was not an expert nor had I done any appreciable research on Austen or her works, so I assumed this would be a one-term assignment. I was wrong.
The course was enormously popular, with many students unable to enrol because of our cap of 30 for undergraduate classes. All of the students in that first class were women. Twenty-two years later, I have taught undergraduate and postgraduate courses on Austen every year. The occasional male student has wandered into my classroom but this has remained a course that appeals primarily to women.
I could speculate as to why this is the case, but the truth, universally acknowledged of course, is that Austen’s novels address what her sister novelist, Frances Burney, called female difficulties. Those difficulties, mostly due to dire economic circumstances, seem to be dismissed in the fairy tale ending of Pride and Prejudice. They are squarely confronted in the darker Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, but these two novels also conclude with the heroine’s marriage to the man she loves, a suitably sentimental payoff for readers. Thus, typically but mistakenly regarded as fantasy machines, Austen’s novels have come to occupy a prominent place in our popular culture, with Austen herself becoming a mega-celebrity on a par with Shakespeare.
When my students read the novels, they become aware that there is more to Austen than Regency-style dressing up in film adaptations of the novels or the Austen tie I occasionally wear to class. Austen’s popularity has obscured her important and necessary role, in her time and ours, as cultural critic and public intellectual addressing questions of the utmost social and political urgency. Simply put, Austen’s novels were pedagogical interventions in a culture which, while ostensibly valuing women, kept them from achieving their full human potential.
The Sentimental Novel in the Eighteenth Century, a volume of essays I have edited and contributed to, and just published by Cambridge University Press, explores the historical and literary context from which Austen’s novels emerged. Austen had a complex response to sentimentalism. She began her writing life by satirizing the conventions of sentimental novels; her last completed novel, Persuasion, strikes many sentimental chords. However, during her final illness, she was writing Sanditon, which, in its anti-sentimentality, recalls her beginning. As I have already noted, Austen’s novels end with sentimentally satisfying marriages. But Austen expects her readers to read her novels with feeling and judgement, to be moved but not be stupefied by their sensibility.
A legacy of the Enlightenment, the language of sensibility permeated the period of the American and French revolutions and their aftermath; it remains our dominant language. Sentimental novels represent the post-revolutionary modern self, shaped by sensibility—in later sentimental novels, usually a female self, trapped in a courtship plot. Because gender, racial, economic, and political inequalities continue to define our historical moment, Austen’s novels remain relevant and compelling.