Reading and Teaching Our Way out of Jane Austen Novels (Naval Options)

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THE NOVELS OF JANE AUSTEN are as important for their historical value as they are for their literary merit. As Christopher Kent states in his essay, "Learning History with, and from, Jane Austen," "The French Revolution ushered in the age of historicism. Jane Austen lived and wrote at the threshold of this new era of and for history" (59). Austen's characters inhabit fringe social positions in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British society; moneyed members of the growing middle class begin to challenge knights, baronets, and other lower members of the gentry for power and influence in this increasingly acquisitive society. In her characters we see a changing of the guard where money now has the potential to eclipse--or at least compete--with landed status for social power and influence. Austen reveals "the first genuine consumer culture in history," a world where social climbing--either through marriage, trade, or military success--enables characters to advance up the social ladder (Copeland 34). Correspondingly, those Austen characters who do increase their social stock are virtuous members of this new and improved social order. Characters who lack righteous and honorable intentions are usually villainous members of the gentry or aristocracy whose social stock is decreasing, or at best stagnant.

When reading Austen's novels, however, we are faced with a dilemma: Austen is painstakingly selective about the British society she reveals. Due perhaps to her gender and position in society, Austen's novels are limited in their ability to represent the total experience of British culture at the turn of the nineteenth century. Capitalism fueled by industrial and consumer revolutions, Britain's growing dependence on colonial endeavors, and the Napoleonic War are not easy to locate in her work. Although Austen's marriage plots are rich in texture, complicated, entertaining in plot, and provocative in their development of character and gender identity, her world is indeed less British than it is English. During a time when enclosure, war, and revolutionary ideology are creating change of a magnitude that this society had never before experienced, the Austen reader is pondering marriage, social etiquette, English country dancing, card games, country estates, fidelity and infidelity in marriage, English gardens, carriage rides, dowry, inheritance, courting rituals, landed titles, class distinctions, education, and the entail. The content of Austen's novels is substantial, but shouldn't we also know that concurrent with the history that Austen records in her novels, millions are being forced into cities with no choice but to participate in backbreaking labor--poor women and children forced into factory work, and thousands of common sailors with no alternative but to enlist or be conscripted into the Royal Navy?


Austen's novels reveal, as Franco Moretti argues, "two Englands," "the industrializing Great Britain of Austen's years; [and] the small homogeneous England of Austen's novels" (14). The challenge then is this: How can we read the one England, the presence, and at the same time locate the other England (Great Britain), the absence? How can we read and teach our way out of Jane Austen novels? I decided to meet this challenge in the college classroom. Could a group of freshmen find their way out of the provincial early nineteenth-century English country towns that populate Austen's tales and reemerge in the wider sphere of the early nineteenth-century British Empire? I wasn't sure, but I was encouraged by Julia Prewitt Brown, who claims that the first question her students ask when they read Austen is "In what sense are Jane Austen's novels historical?" (57).

The course I proposed was appropriately entitled "Jane Austen's Great Britain," and the description read as follows: "The novels of Jane Austen present us with many themes to consider from the standpoint both of literature and of history. …


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