As my research interests have changed, and as I’ve realized the scope of 19th-century texts that took up the question of transatlantic slavery and the movements to abolish it, I haven’t read Austen the same way. I can appreciate her skill but feel an urgent need to teach and write about these other stories. With Austen as, often, the primary literary lens into her time period, it can be all too easy to forget how deeply invested English culture was not only in curtailing women’s choices, but also in enslaving millions of people. No matter how sparkling the wit of Austen and her characters, no matter the pleasure of the familiar texts, I want to spend my time and energy elsewhere, in another historical Britain, with authors like Maria Edgeworth, Hannah More, and Amelia Opie who grappled directly with the more pressing social issues of their time—not because I agree with or love the stories they tell, but because those stories show the fuller range of British culture in the 1800s.
Despite all this, my students and I have the most rewarding classes with Austen’s novels. I know that’s a politic thing to say, especially as we mark the bicentennial of her death, but it’s also true. I love teaching Romantic-era poetry (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats). And I’ve been thrilled to see my former students take what they’ve learned in my “The Novel to 1900” class on to graduate school and their own work as teachers.
But the first lecture of mine that a class applauded for was about Austen (Mansfield Park). One of my favorite speeches to teach is Willoughby explaining to Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility that he “had always been expensive.” Austen lets me talk about the fragility of 19th-century masculinity that she makes sympathetic in a world of Knightleys and Darcys. My students defend Marianne Dashwood when I say I want to shake some sense into her and are exasperated when I get some minor detail wrong (proving to me how carefully they’ve read). Some of the best essays my students write are about Austen’s novels.
I’ve tempered how I show off my ambivalence for the author, but my students know it’s there, which accomplishes two things at once: Austen is such a massive figure in literature that I think my coolness toward her novels invites my students to read her thoughtfully without worrying that they have to come up with the “right” interpretation. And my indifference to an author who is so widely admired leads to classes where we can read and wrestle with Austen’s work in myriad, fascinating ways, without necessarily agreeing with one another.
I could stop here and let you think I only care about Austen in class, but that wouldn’t be totally honest. For all my frustration with the way people often romanticize the world she writes about, Austen has been with me since I was a teenager. The first night in my very first apartment, I chose to read Northanger Abbey. The one movie script I’ve written is based on Emma (my co-author and I made errybody black). My most weathered, heavily annotated edition of a novel is Sense and Sensibility. On one of my visits to England, I walked the streets of Bath, and I couldn’t help but fall under her thrall. There’s still room in my research for Mansfield Park, a novel that I think feels so somber because Austen briefly acknowledges her country’s abolition debates. I take Austen quizzes (I am not Emma, but Anne Elliot) and enjoy every piece of Austen merchandise my students, friends, and family buy me (figurines, puzzles, coffee mugs, memorabilia books, a coloring book, and, most recently, a cozy).