Sigma Tau Delta lecture explores truth about Austen

On Feb. 23, English professor and Dean of Residential Living Celia Easton presented a paper titled “Who Needs Vampires? Jane Austen’s Wit Was Biting Enough” as part of the Sigma Tau Delta lecture series.

Easton argued that the common view of Jane Austen as a “prim and proper lady novelist” is a misconception, as is the belief that her novels are about romance.

“If you loved Jane Austen when you were 12, you didn’t really know her,” Easton said. “For readers who pay a little attention … Austen turns out to be a novelist only partly interested in romance.”

“It was good to get a take on Austen that wasn’t the popular view,” said senior Gretchen Barkhuff. 

“Jane Austen is a victim of an overzealous PR team,” Easton said.

After Austen died, her sister destroyed her letters and her brother wrote a biography painting Austen as the prissy woman modern readers envision. Austen’s writing, however, proves that she was nothing of the sort. Easton called her writing witty and satirical, and said that it exposes “human failings with an eye for improvement.”

Easton discussed Austen’s novels with a focus on the female protagonists, particularly Emma of Emma.

“Emma is handsome, clever and rich … a manipulator, but not self-serving … she doesn’t have to be,” Easton said. 

Emma is cruel at times, snubbing her neighbor and spreading a rumor about her, but she’s also generous, taking care of her hypochondriac father. Emma is one of Austen’s most complex characters.

“Austen likes Emma without entirely approving,” Easton said. “Emma’s mean sense of humor echoes Austen’s own.”

Austen’s novels reveal her clear sense of the world around her, even the parts of society to which she didn’t belong.

“Austen understood the power of sexuality … the struggle of middle class women,” Easton said, going on to describe Susan, of Lady Susan, as someone who does everything she can to survive and help her daughter.

Susan is beautiful and charming, but she seduces men and pursues multiple affairs to support herself. Due to the epistolary style, readers are able to see Susan’s true character, her deceitfulness and her disdain for the men with whom she sleeps.

“Austen doesn’t approve, but she has some sympathy for desperate women,” Easton said.

In this sense, Easton argued that Austen believed it was less abhorrent for a woman to have an affair, as Lady Susan does out of necessity, than to spread cruelty like Emma.

Sense and Sensibility was originally written in the epistolary style as well, but only the final version in the third person survived, restricting readers from accessing the characters’ deepest thoughts.

Northanger Abbey, both a coming-of-age story and a satire of the gothic novel, was the first novel Austen wrote but the last to be published. Like all her novels to follow, the characters of Northanger Abbey are complex, often presenting facades to discern.

Like Lady Susan, Isabella Thorpe – a friend of the protagonist Catherine – presents a charming character to society, but in actuality she is a vicious social climber. Although Catherine receives her happy ending, Austen never reveals what happens to Isabella. The same goes for almost every antagonist Austen created; there is no retribution.

“Austen doesn’t give people their just desserts,” Easton said. “In the real world, lousy people get away with it all the time.”

Austen’s letters that did survive support Easton’s opinion that the novelist was far from a prim socialite.

“’I do not want people to be agreeable,’” Easton read from a letter.  “‘It saves me the trouble of liking them.’”

“‘Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked,’” Easton read from another letter, displaying Austen’s resemblance to Emma.

Students attending the lecture asked Easton her opinion on the Austen mash-ups – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters – published in the last decade. Although Easton said she didn’t care for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, she did like how readers have found their way to Austen through the mash-ups.

“It’s a way to draw people in,” Easton said, however “you don’t need fantasy and monsters to liven up Jane Austen.”