I just finished teaching a course on Jane Austen that focused on Pride and Prejudice in honor of the novel’s 200th anniversary. The class consisted of 12 women and a man, which is perhaps not surprising: Mark Twain set the tone early in the 20th century, when he dismissed Austen as having no interest for a masculine reader. She only began to garner real respect from the male academic establishment when critics F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling championed her in the middle of the 20th century. Trilling argued that there were two Austens: the trivial one and the serious one. One appealed to Janeites; the other, to Austenites, as one might term this division.
My class straddled the divide. The students came from a range of academic majors—from biology to digital media—and were all high achievers. They could analyze the role of nature versus nurture, the complications of class hierarchy, and the function and limitations of social rituals in Austen’s world as these related to our own. They were also attuned to the novel’s potent romantic element. They could move easily from a discussion of whether Austen was a Kantian to what sort of scones she might have liked. The Regency gowns, tea parties, visits, and balls also appealed to them.
Moreover, they all had one overwhelming desire: they wanted to find Mr. Darcy (or, as the case may be, Ms. Darcy). They wanted to find “true” love. Of course, this ultimate Janeite aspiration if also the ultimate Austenite one: to forge intimacy without losing one’s sense of self, to overcome prejudice and see beyond superficial defects of appearance, to help another become better and to improve oneself in the process. These are not trivial aspirations. They are fundamental to a good life.
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