Jane Austen and the Gothic

This essay describes an advanced undergraduate course on “Jane Austen and the Gothic.” Breaking with a literary-historical narrative of development in which Austen corrects the Gothic’s excess, the course interspersed a selection of Austen’s novels with Gothic fiction of the 1780s and 90s to explore what these works share, and what their differences could prompt students to see about Austen’s fiction, about the Gothic, and about novels and novel reading in general. Reading Austen with the Gothic helped highlight the uneasiness and “agitation” permeating Austen’s evocations of apparently ordered social worlds, and helped students understand disordering moments in both Austen and the Gothic through a shared network of formal and ideological concerns linking political and social debates to questions of narrative and the representation of character. As the course played out, the striking diversity of student responses to Austen and to the Gothic—responses shaped in part by the divergent afterlives of Austen and the Gothic in today’s popular culture—focused our discussion in surprising ways not only on the social and epistemological value accorded different genres and modes of writing, but also on the kinds of privilege accorded different modes of reading (for example, fast or slow, compulsive or disciplined, credulous or skeptical), both in the Romantic period and in our own classroom practice.