A Cross-Cultural Approach to Jane Austen's Novels

By Amano, Miyuki | Hecate, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Cross-Cultural Approach to Jane Austen's Novels


Amano, Miyuki, Hecate


How should we teach Jane Austen's novels? This is a question of great concern to many teachers. For example, the series 'Approaches to Teaching World Literature' includes Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and takes up this question. It shows many interesting approaches, focusing on various aspects of her works: the structure, theme, and language, and also the meaning in its social context, the influence of other writers, comic elements and so on.1 However, given that Austen's works are read around the world as 'world literature,' more attention should be paid to the effectiveness of a cross-cultural approach, especially for those with a different cultural background. This paper aims to show that the introduction of a cross-cultural perspective not only helps Japanese undergraduates to better understand Austen's novels and British culture but can also inspire a greater interest in literature generally.

My students belong to the Department of Intercultural Studies, the Prefectural University of Hiroshima, Japan. Many of them are interested in both British and Japanese culture, but are not familiar with literature. When I asked the students what was most difficult for them in reading Austen, they said that it was the English language. Many of my students read the translation outside class, and enjoy Austen's comedy and humour in general, even in translation. However, through analyses of the original text, they gradually come to understand the difference between reading the original and the Japanese translation. When they watch film adaptations of the novels, they realise that reading allows them to make interpretations of their own. This paper gives two examples of a cross-cultural approach to literature based on the experience of reading Austen's works with such students.

Thematic Teaching Device #1: The idea of the picturesque in Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey was written around 1798-1799, but was not published until 1817, after Austen's death.2 It is often read as both a defence of the novel as a form and a satire on popular and fashionable novels in the eighteenth century.3 The narrator presents Catherine Morland, the heroine of this work, as a sharp contrast to the heroines of gothic novels; she does this from the beginning and makes readers conscious of it throughout the story. Catherine was neither pretty nor clever, and resembled a boy as a child. She was brought up in a large family in the country, and introduced into a wider circle of society when she accompanied her neighbours, Mr and Mrs Allen, to Bath. Catherine becomes acquainted with Isabella Thorpe and her brother, John, and with Eleanor Tilney and her brother Henry, with whom Catherine immediately falls in love.

The gothic and sentimental moods in literature, art, architecture and landscape gardening flourished together, interwoven intricately in the eighteenth century and, as Marvis Batey points out, the gothic imagination further merged into the picturesque at the end of the century.4 William Gilpin (1724-1804), a British clergyman, formed and popularised a theory of the picturesque in the 1780s and 90s. Austen was 'enamoured of Gilpin' from an early age and 'seldom changed her opinions either on books or men,' according to her brother Henry; many critics have demonstrated the articulation of the theory of the picturesque, and a satire on it, in Northang er Abbey as well as her other novels.5 In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor are like picturesque travellers when they go with Catherine to Beechen Cliff, a hill on the southern outskirts of Bath:

They [the Tilneys] were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing nothing of taste: - and she listened to them with an attention which brought her little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her.

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