A Place at the (Seminar) Table for Austen’s Popular Readers

A Place at the (Seminar) Table for Austen’s Popular Readers

Juliette Wells
Goucher College

1.        I offered an undergraduate seminar titled “Jane Austen and Popular Culture” in my first semester as a full-time faculty member, in 2003. Since then, at two liberal-arts colleges, I have taught versions of a course on Austen and popular culture at every level of undergraduate education, from academic writing courses for first-year students to upper-level research seminars. In both practical and philosophical terms, these experiences have shaped me as a teacher, and they have strongly influenced my research as well. The following account can, I hope, be taken in many different ways: as a reflective, qualitative contribution to the lively ongoing conversation about Austen pedagogy; as a source of ideas and classroom strategies that may be applied more generally to the undergraduate teaching of literature, especially in relation to archives; and as a narrative of professional development that explores the interplay between teaching, writing, and outreach in the relatively under-recognized realm of the undergraduate liberal-arts college. [1] 

2.        My first course on Austen and popular culture came about because my new colleagues at Manhattanville College—a small, private liberal-arts college in the New York City suburbs—asked me to invent an upper-level literature course that would appeal to their students, whom they described as having a wide range of abilities. Thinking quickly through my almost-finished dissertation on Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot, I decided regretfully that now was not the time to teach Middlemarch. I guessed, however, that even relatively indifferent students would know the 1990s Austen film adaptations—Clueless, at least. So I put together a syllabus that juxtaposed novels and films, with plenty of time to discuss each in depth: Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Ang Lee’s film (1995); Emma (1815) with Douglas McGrath’s film (1996) and Clueless (1995); and Persuasion (1818) with Roger Michell’s film (1995). [2]  As a gesture towards the rest of “popular culture,” I added Arielle Eckstut and Dennis Ashton’s Pride & Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen (2001) and one of Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mystery novels. A few essays from Jane Austen in Hollywood contributed some dignity to the proceedings. Each student wrote a short analytical essay about one novel and a long research essay that was to reach through analysis of adaptation to address what I called—and which, indeed, I still think of as—the “big question” of Austen’s popularity today. [3] 

3.        At the time, I didn’t know of anyone else teaching Austen in this way, and I had made no especial effort to consume—much less study—Austen-related popular culture myself. While enrolled in a very traditional doctoral program in literature, following equally traditional undergraduate studies, I learned of Jane Austen in Hollywood only by chance; it was a revelation to find established scholars writing so animatedly about films I had enjoyed. [4]  I had yet to read Claudia Johnson’s influential essay “Austen Cults and Cultures” or Deidre Lynch’s wonderful collection Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees—which, in any case, would have sailed over the heads of all but one of my Manhattanville students. [5]  On the sole visit I had made to the annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), in 2001, I had been impressed with the fervor of these Austen fans but didn’t have the foresight to seek out fellow academics.

4.        Nor did I know if I would offer an Austen and popular culture seminar again. Even if the course worked well once, it seemed entirely possible to me that within a year or so, Austen-mania would have receded far enough into history to be of little interest to undergraduates. Of course, I was laughably wrong about that. 2004 brought Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club, which not only put the name “Jane Austen” on the New York Times Bestseller list for months but also focused popular attention on why ordinary people might want to read, or re-read, Austen’s novels. 2005 gave us Pride & Prejudice with Keira Knightley, an adaptation that strongly appealed to young viewers. Based on the wholly unscientific testimony of my own students, audiences in their age group were further diverted by 2007’s Becoming Jane and the film version of The Jane Austen Book Club. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) confirmed that the popular Austen, far from being in decline, was in fact immortal (or perhaps just undead). [6]  And every year, one or two of my students brought to class more samples of the plethora of fiction and nonfiction “inspired” by Austen, from romance and vampire novels to dating guides.

5.         In addition to ensuring the continuation of my seminar, this flood of popular Austen material changed my approach to teaching literature at the undergraduate level in several ways. Philosophically, I’ve come to see the importance—I would now say, even, the necessity—of connecting major works of literature to the world that we and our students inhabit as readers, consumers, and creators. (I should acknowledge that very few of my students will pursue graduate study in English.) Considering up-to-the-minute popular works in relation to canonical literature encourages students to move beyond envisioning “the literary tradition” as the monolithic property of their professors, or of anthology editors, and instead to conceive of it as an ongoing conversation in which they themselves are taking part. Through asking how and why a particular Austen-related work might appeal to a mass audience (or not), or by examining the nature of a writer's or filmmaker’s credentials as fan or scholar, students begin thinking in new ways about the significance of literature in the marketplace, as well as about themselves as active participants in reception history. [7]  Not surprisingly, young creative writers tend to especially appreciate these approaches. Illuminating connections between traditional literary study and students’ wider lives as readers is essential, I would contend, not only to the students’ own future as lifelong learners, but also to the health of a future readership for literature outside the academy—and perhaps for the study of literature within the academy as well.

6.         Second, in more practical terms, the availability of a huge range of Austen-related resources has allowed me to experiment with incorporating more options and choices for my students, a tactic that has affected how I teach beyond the Austen realm. As I mentioned, in 2003 I had everyone read Pride & Promiscuity and a Stephanie Barron mystery; in the same spirit, I assigned Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club the next time I offered the seminar, in 2005. When students in both iterations of the course responded that they didn’t really see the point of devoting class time to those works, I decided to move towards a smorgasbord approach. These days I bring in a few shopping bags full of Austen-inspired books and let each student choose one to read, present, and recommend (or not). To help with the decision-making, I offer a thumbnail description of each, including mention of any particularly eye-opening content, whether gore or sex. Any student who owns and wants to present on a different work is welcome to do so. The ensuing presentations are invariably lively and often very creative, especially when I ask for an accompanying poster. Because these efforts have worked so well, I’ve incorporated both choices of readings and creative projects in several of my other courses as well, to equally good effect. [8] 

7.         I responded to the avalanche of Pride and Prejudice-related material in another way, too: by creating a first-year seminar course for Manhattanville that was devoted to P&P and its adaptations. General-education standards required that each seminar focus on principles of critical analysis, which turned out to be very well suited to a novel that concentrates so much on mistaken judgments and faulty reasoning. Austen’s themes of decision-making and self-discovery also fit nicely with the students’ efforts to acclimate to their new college environment. In accordance with my usual preference for depth over breadth, we spent about half of each course reading and discussing the novel, which proved especially advantageous with first-year students who were unlikely to be prospective English majors. The course culminated with a research essay in which each student developed a topic related to the novel and its adaptations in light of scholarly criticism. At their best, these essays were as strong as the ones produced in my upper-level seminar, thanks in part to the many stages of preparation the first-year seminar made possible. [9] 

8.         In addition to affecting me as a teacher, all the time I was spending with Austen-related popular culture in the classroom began to influence me professionally as well. The great hope of the liberal arts college is that faculty will find ways to bring their research interests into the classroom and their teaching experiences into their research, and I’ve certainly done both to a degree I couldn’t have dreamed of initially. I started by keeping up, for the sake of my courses, with popular material on Austen as well as with the growing body of relevant critical work. As I educated myself in this (to me) new area of study, I found myself wanting to contribute to it, a desire that over time led to the decision to write my book Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination. [10] 

9.         Presenting and writing on Austen and popular culture brought me into closer contact with JASNA, which in turn opened up new opportunities to connect students with the wider world of Austen’s readers and fans. I started small, by taking individual students to regional meetings of the society and by encouraging bolder ones to attend meetings by themselves and report back. After several years’ involvement with the New York region of JASNA, I was invited to coordinate a symposium at Manhattanville in March 2010, on a topic of my choice. The theme “Inspired by Austen” allowed me to showcase a wide variety of people whose professional and personal lives had been affected in some way by Austen. [11]  In addition to 80-odd JASNA members, students from both my first-year and seminar courses on Austen were in attendance and participated, respectively, in a poster session about popular Austen-related works and in a structured conversation with the JASNA members, the majority of whom were over sixty years old. Watching and listening to these authors and readers of all ages talk about their shared appreciation of Austen was delightful, and I consider the occasion a highlight of my career. [12] 

10.         My teaching of Austen took an exciting turn in 2012, when I moved from Manhattanville to Goucher College in Baltimore, home of the Alberta H. and Henry G. Burke Jane Austen Collection. Alberta Burke was a 1928 Goucher alumna who dedicated her life to assembling and curating a uniquely wide-ranging collection of Austeniana that includes everything from first editions and manuscript letters, to Regency contextual sources, to translations, popular books, and ephemera related to Austen. [13]  Goucher faculty have taught with the Burke Collection in a variety of innovative ways since the reception of the bequest in 1975. [14]  I am enthusiastically continuing this tradition by incorporating work with the collection into my English courses at all levels, from first-year composition to upper-level undergraduate seminars. Launched in fall 2013 was a seminar on “Jane Austen and Her Readers” that contributes as well to Goucher’s recently introduced and very distinctive minor in Book Studies. [15] 

11.         The proximity of the Burke Collection has made possible assignments and activities that go well beyond conventional historical and contextual research. Alberta Burke was passionate about reading from her historic editions; she did so in order to share as closely as possible the experience of Austen’s original readers. In that spirit, I have asked students to visit Special Collections and Archives, to read from a first or early edition of one of the Austen novels assigned for class, and to write about the experience. I asked students to consider the following questions as they encountered Austen’s text through the form of the historical edition:

  • Do you find yourself reading differently—perhaps more quickly or more slowly, or noticing different things—when handling this edition?
  • How does the physical form of the book—its size, shape, printing, and quality of paper—affect your reading experience?
  • Does your knowledge of Alberta Burke as a Goucher alumna and collector affect your appreciation of this Austen volume? If so, how?
Here are some of the students’ (unedited) responses:
I felt, however fleeting, connected to Austen’s time. … All of the sensory aspects of the book—the yellowed, stained pages, the faded ink, the “old book smell”—combined to put me into the world of Hartfield and Highbury and Donwell Abbey. Physically however, the text startled me. I found myself counting the words per line—as if I were reading a poem.
The reading experience definitely differed from the others I had with this text [Pride and Prejudice]. I felt almost as if I read it for the first time again, and the very first sentence made me wonder whether it would be taken seriously by the contemporary audience, at least during first reading.
It is interesting to think that these volumes, which now have specific rules for handling them and such, were just books to be read for pleasure by people who, I am supposing, enjoyed reading them as much as I do.
Typically when I read, I curl up in a chair or in my bed. … Now I sat with remarkably held posture and two hands on the book, which rested on foam supports on the desk in front of me. I was forced to be a bit more civilized due to the pricelessness of the historic book I sat studying. My stature was in fact quite fitting of the novel’s time. I venture to say that my imagination, prodded by the historical edition in my hands, allowed me to more readily enter the world of Elizabeth Bennet.
I did notice small stains and marks on each page, presumably left by previous readers. This made me consider the fact that readers before me have left their presence behind, like a signature. I feel that part of the value in an old book is that it has been used by so many different people, each of whom likely had a slightly different experience while reading it.
Acute and thoroughly personal, these responses demonstrate that the experiment achieved just what I had hoped for: focusing students’ attention on the way that a book as historical, physical object affects both how we read and how we think about ourselves as reading.

12.         Whole-class visits to the Burke Collection offer a different opportunity for expanding students’ understanding of an Austen novel. After discussing Northanger Abbey, students in an intermediate-level literature course spent a class session looking at and reading from first and early editions of that novel, as well as contextual sources from the Regency period. Below are some of the answers students submitted anonymously to my request for feedback on the experience. (My questions are in italics.)

What did you find most interesting about the books on display?

  • They were well kept and smelled really nice.
  • I really liked looking at the first editions. It was really cool to see and they smelled fabulous.
  • The size, the smell, and the delicacy.
  • It was a powerful experience to read and touch books that people from the Regency period also read and touched.

How, if at all, did what you saw affect your appreciation or understanding of Austen or Northanger Abbey?

  • I felt closer to the book by looking at the older versions of it. I learned there were two separately published volumes which made me think about how we publish books differently today.
  • It was a physical reminder of how long this book has been around.
  • I liked looking at some of the other sources in the collection, like The Mysteries of Udolpho and the book about Bath [Christopher Anstey, The New Bath Guide, or, Useful Pocket Companion (1799)], which helped me understand the references Austen makes in Northanger Abbey. [This student subsequently incorporated Anstey’s Guide into her research essay for the course, certainly a desirable outcome.]
  • Seeing first editions of The Mysteries of Udolpho and other period novels helped me to connect with Jane Austen and Catherine.
As I plan future teaching, I will continue to refine my approach to introducing Burke Collection material to students, especially at the introductory and intermediate levels, with the aim of creating a more substantial pedagogical experience.

13.        Given the exceptional international popularity of Austen, as well as the growing status of book history and reception studies within literary scholarship, my librarian colleagues and I are working on a variety of endeavors to make the Burke Collection more accessible to teachers, students, and readers outside the Baltimore area. [16]  In the meantime, if your institution owns first or rare editions of Austen, you can try a version of my experiment by having students read from a historic edition. If not, your local public library likely holds a variety of Austen-inspired books that you and/or your students can sample. Your local JASNA region may have a lending library as well. I’d strongly encourage you, if you haven’t already done so, to contact the regional coordinators of that JASNA group in order to explore how you and your students might connect with their programs. [17]  And, if and when a new Austen film is released, by all means meet your students at the multiplex—and reconvene around your seminar table.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane, and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009. Print.

Barron, Stephanie. Jane and the Genius of the Place: Being the Fourth Jane Austen Mystery. New York: Bantam, 2000. Print.

Becoming Jane. Dir. Julian Jarrold. Miramax, 2007. Film.

Benedict, Barbara. “Sensibility by the Numbers: Austen’s Work as Regency Popular Fiction.” Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Ed. Deidre Lynch. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. 63-86. Print.

Brodie, Laura Fairchild. “Jane Austen and the Common Reader: ‘Opinions of Mansfield Park,’ ‘Opinions of Emma,’ and the Janeite Phenomenon.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 37.1 (1995): 54-71. Print.

Clueless. Dir. Amy Heckerling. Paramount, 1995. Film.

Cohen, Paula Marantz. Jane Austen in Boca. New York: St. Martins, 2002. Print.

—. Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs. New York: St. Martins, 2006. Print.

Duquette, Natasha Aleksiuk. "Laughter over Tea: Jane Austen and Culinary Pedagogy" . Persuasions On-Line 29.1 (2008). Web.

Easton, Celia. “Dancing Through Austen’s Plots: A Pedagogy of the Body.” Persuasions 28 (2006): 251-55. Print.

Eckstut, Arielle, and Dennis Ashton. Pride & Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen. New York: Fireside, 2001. Print.

Emma. Dir. Douglas McGrath. Perf. Gwyneth Paltrow. Miramax, 1995. Film.

Folsom, Marcia McClintock. “‘I Wish We Had a Donkey’: Small-Group Work and Writing Assignments for Emma.” Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Emma. Ed. Marcia McClintock Folsom. New York: MLA, 2004. 159-68. Print.

Fowler, Karen Joy. The Jane Austen Book Club. New York: Putnam, 2004. Print.

Gilroy, Amanda. “Our Austen: Fan Fiction in the Classroom.” Persuasions On-Line 31.1 (2010). Web.

Halsey, Katie. Jane Austen and Her Readers, 1786-1945. London: Anthem, 2012. Print.

The Jane Austen Book Club. Dir. Robin Swicord. Sony Pictures, 2007. Film.

Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005). Ed. Susan Allen Ford and Jen Camden. Special Issue. Persuasions On-Line 27.2 (2007). Web.

Johnson, Claudia L. “Austen Cults and Cultures.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. 211-26. Print.

Klass, Perri and Sheila Solomon Klass. Every Mother is a Daughter: The Neverending Quest for Success, Inner Peace, and a Really Clean Kitchen (Recipes and Knitting Patterns Included). New York: Ballantine, 2006. Print.

LeClair, Annette M. “Exploring Artist and Audience through Austen’s ‘Opinions of Emma.’” Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Emma. Ed. Marcia McClintock Folsom. New York: MLA, 2004. 68-77. Print.

Mansfield Park. Dir. Patricia Rozema. BBC Films / Miramax, 1999.

McMaster, Juliet. “Talking about Talking.” Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Marcia McClintock Folsom. New York: MLA, 1993. 167-73. Print.

Persuasion. Dir. Roger Michell. BBC Films / WGBH Boston, 1995. Film.

Pride & Prejudice. Dir. Joe Wright. Perf. Keira Knightley. Focus Features, 2005. Film.

Pride and Prejudice. Dir. Simon Langton. BBC / A&E, 1995. Television.

Sense and Sensibility. Dir. Ang Lee. Columbia Pictures, 1995. Film.

Smith, Amy Elizabeth. All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year-Long Journey with Jane. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2012. Print.

Smith, Lori. A Walk with Jane Austen: A Journey into Adventure, Love & Faith. Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2007. Print.

Troost, Linda, and Sayre Greenfield, eds. Jane Austen in Hollywood. 2nd ed. Lexington: UP Kentucky, 2001. Print.

Wells, Juliette. Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination. New York: Bloomsbury Academic (formerly Continuum), 2011.


[1] Among the wide variety of published work on the teaching of Austen, I would especially like to acknowledge appreciatively the innovative and creative approaches of McMaster, Folsom, Easton, Duquette, and Gilroy. BACK

[2] I initially steered clear of Pride and Prejudice in the hope that less well-known Austen works would lead to more nuanced conversations about her popularity. I’ve since made space for P&P by alternating between Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park (paired with Patricia Rozema’s audacious film version [1999]). I dropped Persuasion because I found that Michell’s adaptation was just too likeable to lead to substantial discussion. BACK

[3] Two aspects of this course were especially successful, given the academic level of Manhattanville’s undergraduate students. First, students really rose to the challenge of approaching a film adaptation as an interpretation of an Austen novel for a cinema or television audience. Students who weren’t particularly adept at analyzing Austen’s prose on its own found that they could much more comfortably investigate the consequences of adaptation and appropriation. Second, students engaged very well with criticism of the film versions both in discussion and in their research essays. BACK

[4] Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield, the editors of Jane Austen in Hollywood, told me recently in conversation that they insisted that their contributors write accessibly, for an imagined audience of high-school English teachers who would want a fresh angle to share when teaching Austen. BACK

[5] Especially useful in the undergraduate classroom, I have since found, are the works of Benedict, Brodie, and Halsey. BACK

[6] Several of the 1990s film adaptations of Austen have proved to have enduring appeal among young people as well. My students continue to be reliably familiar with, and sometimes outright memorizers of, Clueless. While the BBC / A&E Pride and Prejudice miniseries was broadcast before this year’s entering college students were born, some have still seen it, largely thanks to mothers or aunts who are Austen fans. Gwyneth Paltrow devotees can be expected to be familiar with the Emma in which she starred (1996), while the truly bookish tend to have found their way to Roger Michell’s Persuasion (1995). BACK

[7] Austen-related books written by professors, such as Cohen or Amy Elizabeth Smith, can be especially thought-provoking for students to consider. BACK

[8] The smorgasbord approach can also be used for Austen biographies. An example of this approach from a non-Austen course is to assign an anthology of short stories and ask each student to read one and recommend it—or not—for the whole class to read, with an explanation of her/his choice based on reasons beyond (but perhaps including) personal liking. By justifying her/his selection, each student experiences, in a small way, what we teachers do when putting together our syllabi, and sharing those reasons adds depth to ensuing discussions. Creative projects, I’ve found, are especially beneficial to include in required courses, as a way of engaging students who didn’t choose to be there. In my British literature survey course, for example, each student develops a “personal canon project” that, in any medium, highlights and reflects on works from the syllabus with which she/he takes a particular interest or feels a particular connection. In any course, creative projects allow students to combine literature with their other interests and expertise, which many students tell me they appreciate. BACK

[9] Some standout freshman essays from 2012 included the following titles:

  • “Elizabeth Bennet: Miss Independent? Hopeless Romantic? Neither?”
  • “‘Bad Boys, Bad Boys Watcha Gonna Do?’: An Exploration of the Dastardly Mr. Wickham”
  • “My Carriage or Yours?: Sexuality in Modern Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice?”
  • “Dance: Jane Austen’s Most Important Narrative”
  • “Behind the Seams: A Deeper Look at Fashion in Pride and Prejudice and Its Adaptations”
  • “I Am Lizzie, Hear Me ROAR!: The Impact of Elizabeth Bennet’s Fierceness on the Sympathy of the Modern Reader”
  • “Who’s the Real Mr. Darcy?”

[10] I first dipped my toe into writing about Austen and popular culture with a short article on the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film for a special issue of JASNA’s journal Persuasions On-Line. I’ve subsequently assigned upper-level seminar students to choose and present an article from that special issue, which, like Persuasions generally, features reliably accessible, clear writing. BACK

[11] Our symposium speakers were Lori Smith, author of the memoir A Walk with Jane Austen (who also, thanks to a grant from the local Episcopal diocese, spent a week as writer in residence at Manhattanville); Sheila Solomon Klass and Perri Klass, the mother-daughter authors of the memoir Every Mother is a Daughter (who are also, respectively, a retired English professor turned young-adult novelist and a noted pediatrician, author, and early literacy advocate); Andrew Honey, a book conservator at the Bodleian Library; and Catherine Medeot, a librarian at Manhattanville. BACK

[12] Another highlight of my teaching in spring 2010 was a field trip to the Morgan Library & Museum’s landmark exhibit of Austen manuscripts, A Woman’s Wit : Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy. Selected images from the exhibit are available online. BACK

[13] My chapter “Alberta H. Burke, Austen Omnivore” in Everybody’s Jane provides an overview of Alberta’s life and collecting. In classes where I make use of the Burke Collection, I offer students a copy of that chapter, as an introduction to the college’s holdings as well as to the life of this exceptional alumna. BACK

[14] The Goucher Library’s publication Twenty-Five Years of Jane Austen at Goucher College includes mention of Austen-related courses and projects from 1975-2000, including Prof. Laurie Kaplan’s pioneering work with her students in the classroom and on JASNA’s journal Persuasions, of which she was then editor. Archive Journal has recently highlighted two projects from Prof. Arnold Sanders’ Goucher English course “Archaeology of the Text,” one of which features an Austen edition. BACK

[15] For more information about Goucher’s Book Studies program, see this site. BACK

[16] Please see this Website for information about Goucher's digital-humanities project centering on the extremely rare first American edition of Emma (Philadelphia, 1816). BACK

[17] From their webpage, you can find links to JASNA regions in the U.S. and in Canada. BACK