January 03-05, 2001

Jane Austen enjoys a popularity virtually unmatched among English literary authors. Perhaps only Shakespeare can boast a wider readership; indeed, much like the Bard himself, Austen is widely read by academics as well as by a vast popular audience. At a time when her novels are generating countless fictional and filmic adaptations, Austen has additionally become the subject of exciting revisionist criticism that is providing important new insights into the author and her work. Thus, the time is clearly right to assess the relevance of Austen in her time and our own.

Austen is frequently celebrated as a keen observer of social mores in late Georgian England, at once sympathetic and satirical in her depiction. Now more than ever, Austen is also identified as a penetrating and even prescient witness to transformations in conceptions of sex and gender in this period. No longer considered "merely" the comedian of domestic manners, her work has been restored to contexts that place her at the center of debates on gender and sexuality, from the culture of female homoeroticism to the reconfiguration of gender roles in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Alongside these contexts, the reception of Austen by generations of feminist readers presents a fascinating case-study in its own right, offering a unique perspective on some of the political uses to which Austen's work has been put.

In addition to rethinking Austen through categories of sex and gender, further developments in the political reading of the novels have produced some surprisingly new insights. For instance, while it is well known that few writers before or since Austen have depicted a burgeoning commercial society with such acuity and acid wit, more recent criticism has expanded and refined our understanding of Austen's engagement with the discourse of economics as well as with the consumer society of early 19th-century Britain. Another important topic to have emerged in recent critical writing is the question of Austen's relation to the constitution of the British empire in the years following the Napoleonic Wars. Largely catalyzed by Edward Said's landmark essay, "Jane Austen and Empire," critics have begun to shed new light on the complex relations between Austen's forms of imaginative world-building her artful construction of a tight, at times even suffocating, moral universe and the conceptual and geo-political work of nation-building in late Georgian England. In all, such developments have dramatically enhanced our understanding of Austen's life, work, and era.

What accounts for Austen's continued relevance in critical debate, or for her seeming ubiquity in contemporary popular culture? How have new contexts and critical approaches shed new light on the complex political dramas that unfold within the parlors and gardens of Austen's novels, or on those unfolding today in lecture halls, living rooms, and cineplexes, among other sites where Austen's followers can be found? Our seminar will bring together literary, cultural, and film historians in order to explore new developments in our understanding of Austen's work. Topics to be addressed will include the politics of Austen's reception among 20th-century feminist readers; the complex, often vexed relations between literary critics and the popular readers known as "Janeites"; the author's relation to English colonial rule; and the subject of Austen in film.

Speakers will include John Brewer (English and History), Mary Favret (English, Indiana University Bloomington), Sandra Macpherson (English), Saree Makdisi (English and Comparative Literature), Stuart Tave (Professor Emeritus, English), and Katie Trumpener (English, Comparative Literature, and Germanic Studies).