How Jane Got Her Groove Back: The Jane Austen Phenomenon in the Twenty-First Century
I conducted my project as a part of my English Senior Seminar with my advisor, Dr. Carol Boggess. I choose this particular topic because Jane Austen has always fascinated me. I began this presentation for my English Senior Seminar, because I have always enjoyed Jane Austen’s works. I first read Austen in my Senior AP English Class in high school. Since then, I had not been able to study her works. This seemed like the prime opportunity to delve into Austen once again. My project got off to something of a rough start because there were so many aspects of Austen that I wanted to concentrate on: the portrayal of religion, the role of women, the juxtaposition of male and female characters, and even the issues of social class that are prevalent in her works. I also wanted to include all six of Austen’s most famous works. It became very clear that my project would not be strong if I tried to cover all six works. With the help of my advisor, I finally settled on looking at Austen from a contemporary viewpoint with fewer works. This would allow me to do a more critical analysis and not be as broad.
The authoress of some of literature’s greatest romance novels, Jane Austen has regained immense popularity in the twenty-first century. Through my study, I began to see that I was not the only one who was becoming immersed in Jane Austen. It was all around me. Mainstream stores like Target had as many as nine different Austen-influenced titles in their small book aisle. I found Jane Austen action figures, board games, even clothing. Her works were literally everywhere. Seeing this surge in Austen’s popularity, I wanted to explore in more depth why readers are still intrigued with her, 200 years after she was first published. Would the immense popularity of Austen impact or skew the way mainstream audiences read her? In my study, I sought to see what contemporary readers were getting “right” and “wrong” about Austen’s work, in comparison to scholars’ interpretations of her. I decided to examine three different aspects of Austen’s works that I believed that readers could possibly be distorting: the view of Georgian England, the depth of the romantic relationships, and how the heroines are flawed. I concentrated on only three of Austen’s six main works: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion.
What was so interesting about this study, for me, was that it was a fusion of different analyses. I used various literary criticisms, such as feminism, but it was also a cultural study. I needed to first examine the works from a literary perspective in order to see how Austen was being viewed by literary critics. I read various criticisms on Austen from her contemporaries and more modern criticisms. What themes were important to literary critics? What did they view as the most important aspects of her works? For the traditional critics, it seemed like the problems with Georgian England social class, the importance of morality, and the importance of marriage were some of the biggest and most important themes (among others). Once I was able to see what they viewed as critical aspects of Austen, I then was able to take a closer look at how she was being viewed by the mainstream audience. To better understand the mainstream view of Austen, I examined fan sites, displacements, adaptations, movies, and reviews. What were these mainstream fans doing with Austen? What was important to them about Austen’s works? I think that looking at the mainstream view of Austen was when I learned the most. It was intriguing to see what others were taking from Austen: what characters they loved, what themes they carried with them, and what they viewed as “Austen”. Fans seemed to love the romantic relationships most of all, especially that of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.
My study’s purpose was to see if the literary critic’s reading of Austen and the mainstream reading of Austen still maintained what I saw as pivotal features of Austen. In some ways, I felt that readers were not getting the “heart” of Austen, but in other ways they were. Aspects that readers romanticized (like Georgian society, characters, and romantic relationships) often seemed to be slightly skewed. However, things that were universal themes (like the importance of morality, the importance of marriage, and the importance of family) all seemed to resonant with readers. These themes were why Austen has survived so long. Her themes, characters, and ideas still hold true with readers. Austen shows readers aspects of human nature and human nature does not change. Through this study, I found that Jane Austen is not just included in the canonical works anymore; she has become a part of our culture. The study combined orthodox literary analysis with cultural study and explored the Jane Austen phenomenon.
I was fortunate enough to not only use this paper as a part of my English Senior Seminar, but I was also able to take it to the Undergraduate Research Symposium at Appalachian and at the Student Liberal Arts Symposium at Mars Hill. During my Student Teaching, I was able to take my research and apply it to the classroom. One of the classes I taught was English IV Honors and I was able to read Pride and Prejudice with them. I relied heavily on two movie adaptations of Pride and Prejudice from 1995 and 2005. The class would read some of the book, and then we would watch that section in both of the movies. It was interesting to see their reactions to two extremely different interpretations of Austen. I enjoyed seeing what themes and ideas they were taking from the work and how they responded to the text. In the future, I hope to continue studying Austen and to take this project to a different level both in the high school classroom and in the graduate classroom.