Option 2: Jane Austen In Text & Context

Dr Catherine Dille


The enduring appeal of Jane Austen’s novels crosses boundaries of gender, generation and nationality, as evidenced by book sales, the proliferation of films, spin-offs and Jane Austen societies worldwide. Austen is both the darling of the book club and the subject of serious academic study but the exact nature of her power as a writer resists easy explanation. As Virginia Woolf observed, ‘of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness’. This course invites students to explore in depth aspects of Austen’s narrative technique and themes in the process of becoming critically perceptive readers of her work.

In this five-week course participants will consider how Austen viewed her fiction within the evolving genre of the novel and how she departed from the models of her predecessors to develop her own narrative voice and method. An overview of the novels’ cultural and historical contexts will inform our understanding of her writings against the ideological and political background of Regency Britain. Structural and textual analysis will illuminate how Austen’s plotting reinforces her themes and how she employs irony, tone, syntax and dialogue. Particular attention is on narrative technique, especially innovative use of free indirect discourse.

In addition to studying the six principal novels, students will also read a selection of Austen’s letters, juvenilia and ‘Sanditon’, her final unfinished work of fiction as well as a range of key primary and critical texts. Seminar discussion will focus on a range of themes developed in the novels, including female reputation, economics and the rise of the female consumer, female education, the significance of social rank and the shifting dynamics of gender in Regency society. Throughout the course we will be attentive to how traditional Austen criticism is being challenged and revised by current trends in critical opinion.

Beyond the text and its interpretations, this course aims to situate Austen’s novels in the material realities of her time. We will consider how the conventions of the printing house shaped the production of Austen’s books and examine evidence from her surviving manuscripts now accessible in electronic form, including those held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. An awareness of bibliography and the physical transmission of texts can also help us recapture the reading experience of Austen’s contemporaries. Placing the novels in the context of Britain as the nexus of a growing trade empire likewise illuminates the significance of consumer practice and the economy of social exchange evident throughout Austen’s work.

Weekly Tutorial and Seminar Programme

Week 1 – Novel Approaches: Juvenilia, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility
Austen’s boisterous early experiments in epistolary fiction anticipate her handling of genre fiction in her first two novels. Northanger Abbey burlesques the features of the Gothic novel and parodies the novel of manners, while Sense and Sensibility more subtly subverts expectations for the literature of sensibility. Students will consider the form of the novel that Austen inherits and how she positions herself in its developing tradition. We will also explore how the experience of reading itself shapes Austen’s authorial choices.

Week Two – Economies of Affection: Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice depicts a social milieu in which young women must negotiate a careful course through the rituals of courtship while remaining ever mindful of the code of conduct governing female behaviour and the hard economic circumstances faced by women without independent incomes. This seminar will address the financial and reputational anxieties that underpin the narrative of this most celebrated of Austen’s novels.

Week Three – Revision of the Estate: Mansfield Park
Considered by many to be the most challenging of Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park has been read as both a deeply conservative work and as a text with a reformist agenda. This seminar will explore the significance of setting and space in the novel in relation to the changing social values and attitudes it reflects.

Week Four – Education and Enigma: Emma
The plot of Emma revolves around the ambiguities created by the fictions of its characters – most particularly Emma Woodhouse as its principal storyteller. The text abounds with riddles, word play and double meanings, and we will investigate its covert implications regarding social rank and moral development.

Week Five – The Rhetoric of Persuasion
In its treatment of time, the isolation of the self and the representation of speech, Austen’s last completed work anticipates many of the preoccupations of the modern novel. We will consider how Persuasion invites a new interpretation of the role of the individual in relation to gender and social expectations. In closing, we will look at how readers’ responses shaped Austen’s works and reputation and examine the ways in which her unfinished ‘Sanditon’ mark a departure from her earlier fiction.

Field Excursions
The visits to Bath and Chawton form an integral part of our course, enabling us not only to see where Austen lived and worked, but also to consider the ways in which the various exhibitions devoted to her writings represent her to the twenty-first century reader.

Primary Bibliography:

Recommended Reading:  Johnson, Claudia L. and Clara Tuite, A Companion to Jane Austen (Blackwell, 2012)

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life (Penguin, 1998

Students will please have read all six principal novels and short pieces indicated below before the start of the course in a modern critical edition. Please avoid using unannotated one-volume editions. Modern critical editions recommended for this course are Oxford World’s Classics, Penguin Classics, the Norton Critical or Broadview Press editions. The latter two editions also provide excellent supplementary materials that students will find useful. ‘Lady Susan’ and ‘Love and Freindship [sic]’, which will be covered in the first week, are often published together with other of Austen’s works.

Works by Austen: ‘Love and Friendship’ (c. 1790) (included in the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Catharine and Other Writings) ‘Lady Susan’ (c. 1794) (included in the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Northanger Abbey)
Northanger Abbey (1818) Sense and Sensibility (1811) Pride and Prejudice (1813) Mansfield Park (1815) Emma (1816)
Persuasion (1818) ‘Sanditon’ (1817) (included in the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Northanger Abbey)


© Dr Ken Addison, Oxford Academic Summer School Tours Ltd: for 2024

St Peter’s College Summer School at Magdalen College, University of Oxford