Two Centuries After Persuasion, Austen Still Speaks to Us, English Faculty Member Says

Thursday, September 27, 2018
Jane Austen

English author Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, was published 200 years ago.

But you wouldn’t know it from the continued interest in her work. From meticulously costumed recreations on the BBC to more modern interpretations like Clueless to whatever Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, Austen’s reputation as one of the innovators of the novel and one of the foremost figures in Western literature has only grown in the time since her death. Just last weekend, hundreds gathered in Kansas City for the annual conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America, celebrating Persuasion’s two centuries with a weekend of conversations and costumes.

Does Austen’s work still have anything to teach us? According to Laura Forsberg, Ph.D., Rockhurst assistant professor of English, yes — Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility among others endure because they have an ability to meet readers wherever they are. Specifically, Austen’s characters, and the way she writes them, have a lot to say in the sometimes overwhelming, globally connected world of social media and device-centered living.

“We are in a world in which being louder is better, being louder is how we have a voice, and I think Jane Austen kind of cuts through that,” Forsberg said. “She suggests that understanding the people around us, truly understanding our neighbors, is far more profound than claiming we have some understanding of the globe.”

Forsberg has not only studied Austen’s work and its context in her academic career — she’s also a lifelong fan whose father read Pride and Prejudice to her when she was young. She’s hooked.

“I can’t remember a time when Pride and Prejudice wasn’t my favorite book,” she said.

Austen’s relatively small body of work has attracted obsessive fans and undergone waves of renewed interest for two centuries, even among authors whose works aim more for epic depictions of masculinity. Forsberg said Austen herself spoke of her work in terms of miniature paintings, recognizing how it most often centered on a small number of characters interacting on a rural English estate or village. At a time when prestigious literature was considered the domain mostly of men and were often long, Austen’s works were concise, with intimate settings and characters expressing complex emotions — a way of claiming as virtue what some considered trivial. Forsberg said the relatable way she writes about human connection might be part of the reason Austen’s novels are constantly being re-read, reinvented and repurposed, even as the plots to those novels are considered conventional for the time.

Clueless remains one of the most highly regarded Jane Austen adaptations, because it suggests that there is something about the way that she comments on relationships that just sort of endures forever, that is eternally new and eternally fresh,” she said. “What we read her for is not the plot — what we read her for is the richness of how she understands the world.”

Take, for instance, Persuasion — Forsberg said there are a number of reasons this novel in particular resonates today. For one, the novel traces Anne Elliot as she experiences a second “bloom” in her late 20s that in turn leads to a second chance for lifelong love — it’s the kind of story that Forsberg said is not often told, at least not in the same way. Secondly, Anne Elliot’s journey, like so much of Austen’s work, offers lessons that are as fresh today as they were at the time of its publication.

“Maybe what we need to be valuing are those people who are patient, and maybe it’s time for them to come into their own voice,” Forsberg said. “Maybe it’s the people who we don’t pay attention to who we need to value most — maybe we should make them our heroines.”

What would Austen herself think of all the continued attention to her work? Forsberg said it’s hard to imagine exactly, but it’s likely she would have appreciated the continued interest in her work and the push to reinvent it.

“Jane Austen certainly saw the absurdity in everything, which means she would certainly see the absurdity of a bunch of people gathering to discuss her work 200 years later and to debate the ways that nuances should be interpreted and celebrate that,” she said. “The flip side of that is I think she really enjoyed that as well; she enjoyed the absurdities of who we are.”