Austen's Competition: Teaching the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Century Literary Marketplaces

Austen's Competition: Teaching the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Century Literary Marketplaces

Emily C. Friedman
Auburn University

1.        Prior to my current job, I did not consider myself an “Austen scholar.” That said, I have long used Jane Austen as a way to anchor and engage students, which is the subject of this essay. I am aware that the Austen name sells not only her six complete novels, but endless adaptations, action figures, how-to guides, and other material. Within academia, Austen is a name to conjure with in times of declining enrollments: whether or not a student has read Jane Austen, the odds are high that they recognize the name. Rare is the institution where a course with Austen in the title will not fill rapidly.

2.        This is a double-edged sword: as an eighteenth-centuryist, I am keenly (and sometimes uncomfortably) aware of the way that Austen becomes an alpha and omega: the end of the eighteenth-century, and the opening salvo into what will be the Victorian novel. To people outside my profession, I found myself short-handing the “what do you study/teach?” question with “the stuff before and around Jane Austen.” My official specialty is the long eighteenth-century, a period roughly bounded (depending on who you ask) by the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the beginning of Victoria’s reign in 1837. Within my department my duties at the undergraduate level usually include the first half of the British survey (ending in 1778), the eighteenth-century novel course, and the late eighteenth-century/Romantic period course called the “Age of Revolutions” (1770-1830).

3.        This essay will primarily discuss a course that fell outside of the typical curricular needs I fill. In the fall of 2011, the annual course titled nineteenth-century novel needed to be covered and our usual Victorianist faculty were busy with leave and other administrative duties. The course is offered often enough that it is not taught as a survey, but as a topics course depending on the instructor’s particular interests, so long as the novels covered were produced between 1800 and 1899. I was asked, and accepted the offer to teach the course.

4.        What emerged was a class I called the “not-Austen” course: a course that invoked Austen in its title and referred back to Austen often without itself being an “Austen” course. I will show how courses can be fruitfully haunted by Austen. In addition, this course allowed me to experiment with a final project that has had a long life beyond this one course. Thus, I will also describe how the original course and its final editing assignment has dramatically altered the ways in which I teach my upper-division courses.

The Course

5.        It’s perhaps no surprise that when asked to teach a nineteenth-century novel course I would ask for permission to teach the course as an early nineteenth-century course. My very first use of Austen-as-rationale was in its title: “Two Hundred Years Since: Austen's Sister-Novelists in the Literary Marketplace” a title that obviously made use of Austen’s popularity (or at least name recognition) and more subtly nodded to Austen’s fellow-author Walter Scott, whose first novel Waverley (1814) was subtitled “’Tis Sixty Years Since.”

6.        For the purposes of the course, “Austen’s Literary Marketplace” was encapsulated in less than two decades, spanning from 1800 until her death in 1817. This focus could, with different justifications, be both narrower and wider: Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, did not appear until 1811, though Austen had been attempting to publish her work ever since 1797, when her father unsuccessfully offered First Impressions (later Pride and Prejudice) to Thomas Cadell for consideration. Those who might wish to widen the scope still further could of course reach back to Austen’s many influences: First Impressions, after all, was initially pitched as “about the length of Miss Burney's Evelina” according to J.A. Austen-Leigh–invoking a novel published in 1778. Equally justly, one could expand beyond Austen’s death date, especially as the last two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published posthumously. This particular course could not, by the parameters set by the department, reach backward, and I was loath to reach much further beyond.

7.        This narrow focus was repeatedly invoked in student evaluations as an aid to a feeling of student mastery. Even in a class with mostly English majors, Austen is known often only as a cultural signifier: erroneously referred to as "Victorian," representative of a certain set of costume-drama social codes—we know the shorthand "Austen" often stands for. Students were quickly yanked out of their preconceived notions about Austen's world by exposure to a variety of novelists working as rivals to Austen, many of whom couldn't be more different from one another. My goal was to explode their notion of what novels of the period were by showing them a diverse range of fiction produced in the same years that Austen was writing and publishing. Thus, it became unofficially known as the “Not-Austen” course.

8.        Auburn’s enrollment system means that students register early and very little shuffling occurs after the registration period, so I was able to email students and ask them to read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the first week of class. At a different institution with different enrollment rhythms, I might reserve early time in the semester to guide the students through a reading of the novel; in the course as taught, students made repeated reference to the novel throughout, with shifting understandings of this “baseline” text.

9.        In the course of the semester, students read Mary Robinson’s A Letter to the Women of England and The Natural Daughter (1799), Elizabeth Hamilton’s Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800), Anne Plumptre’s Something New (1801), Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), Lady Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806), Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809), Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810) and the anonymously-published The Woman of Colour (1808). These novels were selected in part for their availability in teachable classroom editions: for example, The Wild Irish Girl and Castle Rackrent have been printed together in a Riverside Edition, and Broadview and Valancourt each have an enormous number of texts from the period. Length was of course also a consideration, though one of the most popular texts of the semester was the substantial Scottish Chiefs.

10.        These long readings were punctuated by in-class readings of reviews and readings about the novel form from Cheryl L. Nixon’s Novel Definitions: An Anthology of Commentary on the Novel, 1688-1815. Depending on its length, a single review takes approximately 5-8 minutes in class for students to read with care, and they incorporate well into larger discussions. I began the semester with Nixon’s collection of prize-winning student essays on “The Love of Novels” from The Juvenile Library (1800). Each essay is extremely brief, and the authors are a few years younger than my students (14 or 15). Moreover, the question “Whether such a Love of Novels as excludes all other reading, or no reading at all, is most to be condemned?” resonates strongly with students familiar with the debates over Young Adult (YA) literature, especially the debate between the camp of “at least they’re reading” and that of “YA is brain-rotting and dangerous.” From the very first day, they understand that the novel’s history is one of an ongoing debate about its status, and its effects on its readers. Nixon’s anthology is full of similar essays and reviews from various eighteenth-century voices, and my students became deeply interested in these debates. Later in the semester, students were assigned to lead discussion on some of these assigned in-class readings, which I had chosen both to pair well with the novels as well as highlight different definitions and anxieties about the novel in the period. Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent is usefully discussed in light of her thoughts on books in A Practical Education (1798), for example. Nixon’s book is, as its full title suggests, useful for a much more substantial survey of the novel, but contains enough material within the two decades of this course to fill the semester.

11.        In a similar fashion, the data held in Cardiff University’s open-access British Fiction, 1800–1829: A Database of Production, Circulation, and Reception can also be fruitfully used to provide this sort of initial access. That database incorporates information about a book’s initial format, later editions and translations in the period, publisher information, and correspondence where available, as well as advertisements, reviews, and anecdotal information from private correspondence. Moreover, it includes information about subscribers and which circulating libraries owned copies, allowing students to discover important information about the way the reading public gained access to the fiction of the day.

Final Project: Making A Scholarly Edition

12.        Parallel to this analysis of Austen's literary marketplace was an investigation of the modern literary marketplace. Thus, in addition to key term exams, discussion-leading, and weekly responses, students were responsible for creating a proposal for a modern classroom edition of an early nineteenth-century text not yet edited. This aspect of the course might not have happened but for its experimental nature, but it also had some clear influences, most explicitly assignments created by Miranda Yaggi and Marta Kvande. [1]  I have worked with special collections librarians each semester in my courses since I was a graduate student, from surveys to graduate seminars, and was eager to do more. Because the focus of the “Not-Austen” course was so tight, I created a series of scaffolded assignments that allowed us to take advantage of the students’ emerging depth of knowledge and apply it to a concrete project.

13.        Prior to the start of the semester, I sat down with Greg Schmidt, one of the librarians in Special Collections, and we made a list of the materials we hold from the period under consideration so that students could select from a controlled lists of texts. These texts were checked against commonly-available modern editions as well as resources like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to ensure that at least some information about the author and other contextual information would be readily available to a diligent, if novice, researcher.

14.        It is worth noting at this point that I work at a flagship state institution in the South with decidedly modest physical holdings in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century texts in our Special Collections; our institution is renowned for its engineering school and for other STEM fields. Thus, like many other institutions, database access can be spotty: we do have Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), but microforms are considered sufficient for access to the holdings that are now offered as periodical databases like the Burney Collection of British Newspapers, British Periodicals I and II, and other major literary-historical databases such as Early English Books Online (EEBO). Because of our geographical location, the nearest institutions with more substantial holdings are over an hour or two away, often in the bordering state of Georgia.

15.        I mention all of this because while this course represents certain kinds of privilege (curricular freedom, multiple offerings in my subfield each year, modest teaching load, some access to major databases), I also navigate a series of uneven challenges as well. In this case, we found we needed to expand our list to include texts from the 1820s, as well as to embrace multiple genres (plays, poetry, and short stories) in order to create a substantial list of available choices.

16.        Within the first two weeks of the course, students were taken to Special Collections for an introductory session, where students were guided through both relevant works they might choose as well as supplementary resources they might use to consult as they researched their primary text. On that day they completed a substantial two-page worksheet analyzing one text of their choice, examining the physical and bibliographic features of the work in order to understand the initial audience [see Appendix 1]. As they found themselves gravitating to one text or another, they also began to talk to one another and discuss group formation. Ultimately, while most groups selected novels, one group selected a volume of short stories, and two groups selected collections of poetry.

17.        Each group had to read their chosen text, select a suitable amount to edit, and use that as the basis for a proposal for a modern edition. Composed in Word for the sake of (relative) simplicity, and ultimately submitted in both hard copy and PDF form, each "edition" proposal included justifications for their editorial choices, a group-written critical introduction, and sample chapters, as well as individual appendices. These appendices were primary source texts related in some fashion to the main text, which they individually edited to confirm to “house style.” Groups had a choice of how to convey extratextual information, but they were required to include some form of notes (either footnotes or endnotes). Each student also produced a critical essay on an aspect of their text. Group tasks were paralleled by individual tasks that demonstrated the same skills: individual and group text selection, editing and layout assignments, and individual and group papers. This mitigated some of the pitfalls of group work: unfair distribution of labor, etc.

18.        This project was aided immensely by my colleagues at Auburn: in addition to the work done by Greg Schmidt in Special Collections, English subject librarian Jaena Alabi guided students through hands-on research in order to find appropriate appendix items and scholarship (if any) on their individual text, as well as crafting useful footnotes. In hands-on lab time, my colleague in Technical and Professional Communication Derek Ross and his graduate students taught students about the basic principles of document design to guide their layout. During this in-class session, each group agreed on a “house style” and helped design an appropriate cover for their work. Students designed their own covers, relying on discussions they had with Brett McLethan of Broadview Press, who made himself available for questions about publishing and acquisition practices. In a later version of this course, Brett also brought a sample pricing sheet, which opened students’ eyes still further to the costs incurred even before books are printed and bound.

19.        During the last class day, students created exhibits in Special Collections featuring their proposals, including posters that advertised and explained their text, including examples of the transformation from nineteenth into twenty-first century type, historical and cultural information, and the like. They were able to display “their” editions alongside the original early-nineteenth-century originals. Because the final product was turned in both as hardcopy and PDF, we are able to display the physical copies in Special Collections, and are currently working on how best to curate their work digitally on the Library website.

20.        The groups from the first iteration of the course chose a diverse set of texts. Perhaps the most ambitious group tackled Robert Charles Dallas’s Percival, or Nature Vindicated (1801), the only full-length novel selected by any group. Two groups selected collections of “tales” by the novelist Maria Edgeworth: one group editing her Moral Tales for Young People (1809), another Tales of Fashionable Life (1809). One group selected a work of poetry: Maria De Fleury’s Divine Poems and Essays on Various Subjects (1804). The gravitation of students towards works that contain shorter fiction or poetry rather than a full-length novel is not very surprising in retrospect. While the intent of our initial curated list of works was to provide precisely this sort of diversity, I now think that more would be gained from more uniformity of text length and genre.

21.        According to students, this assignment opened their eyes in a variety of ways: to the rationale behind the cost of their assigned novels, to new career possibilities, and to the historical context in which these texts were written. Several students have gone on to take courses in document design as well as the eighteenth-century novel. Two members of this group, Shelby Chase and Amelia Dixon, would go on in the spring of 2013 to present their work to the University-wide Undergraduate Research Forum, where they won first prize.

Later Variations

22.        After the success of the “Not-Austen” class and its final assignment, I adapted the assignment for my eighteenth-century novel course. Because of the challenges of text selection encountered in the prior course, in this version the class worked as a single group, and I selected the text to be edited, assigned individual students chapters, and built the class around it. The novel was Mary Brunton’s Self-Control (1811), a novel that draws richly upon a variety of prior novels from across the eighteenth century, and was unavailable in a modern classroom edition. [2]  The novel also has the virtue of being available online in a plain-text form without notes, [3]  so students could focus on the work of formatting, creating notes, etc. rather than transcription. Similar work could be done with texts from Project Gutenberg, though they do not provide information about the source edition, eliminating a key piece of information. HathiTrust or Google Books, because they are presented as PDFs, generally include the relevant bibliographic data, though they do require transcription. Instructors wishing to replicate this assignment will often thus need to choose between the competing goods of the convenience of cut-and-paste and the important contextual cues. Given that my goal with this assignment is to impress upon students the importance of reliable and judicious selection of source text, I sacrifice convenience.

23.        In the editing portion of the Brunton class assignment, technical writing graduate student Stephen Carradini and I guided the class through the decisions relevant to creating a style sheet, which they discussed and voted on during class time. As with the first iteration of the course, students produced appendices and critical essays. If the edited text is read and given some class time at the beginning of the semester, this approach can work well for classes where access to original texts is particularly limited. As I have noted in Women’s Writing, Brunton was a direct contemporary with Jane Austen, and Austen read Self-Control with initial anxiety that they might be writing in the same territory–though Austen found herself relieved.

24.        In the spring of 2014 I taught my first class in a new active learning space, the E.A.S.L. (Engaged Active Student Learning) classroom being piloted at Auburn. This classroom is designed in five “pods” that can allow groups of up to nine students to work together with a shared oversized monitor, glassboards, and wireless connections that allow students to collaborate using their laptops or any mobile device that uses the iOS or Android operating platforms. As of this writing, I am beginning my first course in that classroom that includes a group editing component. Because such a classroom is designed to work best with in-class projects, I plan to shift more of the work of editing and researching into the classroom. This shift will allow me to more directly guide students through the work of editing while allowing me to return to the smaller-group format of the first version of the assignment.

25.        This course also has a further afterlife. In 2015, my colleague Derek Ross and I will team-teach a course on the “History of the Book in Theory and Practice,” where we hope to deepen and broaden the scaffolding around the previous iterations of the course. This course will give the students the ability to encounter both historical and modern methods of print production in a hands-on manner, embedding the textual editing assignment in the context of more reading in book history. It is our hope that we will be able to have our public and professional writing students will better understand the origins of terms and practices they learn in their document design and editing courses, while our literature students better understand the history and transformations that are connected to changing forms of media production. As unlikely as it seemed at the start, all of these future courses have their grounding in the experiment of the “Not-Austen” course.

Works Cited

Anonymous. The Woman of Colour. Ed. Lyndon J. Dominique. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2007. Print.

Austen, Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Pat Rogers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.

Austen-Leigh, J. E. A Memoir of Jane Austen. London: Richard Bentley,"  1870. Print.

Brunton, Mary. Self-Control. Ed. Anthony Mandal. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013. Print.

Butler, Marilyn. “Austen, Jane (1775–1817).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Web. Jan. 2010. .

Friedman, Emily. "Austen Among the Fragments: Understanding the Fate of Sanditon" Rethinking Influence, 1680-1830. Spec. issue of Women's Writing 20.1 (2013): 115–29. Print.

Garside, P.D., J. E. Belanger, and S. A. Ragaz. British Fiction, 1800–1829: A Database of Production, Circulation & Reception, designer A. A. Mandal. Web. <> 

Labrocca, P. J. Mary Brunton. 2003. Web. <>

More, Hannah. Coelebs in Search of a Wife. Ed. Patricia Demers. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2007. Print.

Nixon, Cheryl. Novel Definitions: An Anthology of Commentary on the Novel, 1688–1815. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. Print.

Plumptre, Anne. Something New. Ed. Deborah McLeod. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1996. Print.

Porter, Jane. The Scottish Chiefs. Ed. Fiona Price. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2007. Print.

Robinson, Mary. A Letter to the Women of England and The Natural Daughter. Ed. Sharon M. Setzer. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2003. Print.

Hamilton, Elizabeth. Memoirs of Modern Philosophers. Ed. Claire Grogan. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2000. Print.

Smith, James M., ed. Two Irish National Tales: Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent, Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan, The Wild Irish Girl. New Riverside Editions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Print.


[1] As a graduate instructor at Indiana University, Yaggi had led her students through an assignment culminating in digital editions of short Victorian-era texts to be posted online. Kvande, an associate professor at Texas Tech, has her graduate students do bibliographic work on texts found in Texas Tech's collections. BACK

[2] A new edition by Anthony Mandal was since published in November 2013 as part of Pickering and Chatto’s Chawton House Library series. See Brunton. BACK

[3] See P.J Labrocca’s website Mary Brunton. BACK