The Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen

GreatForgettingThe Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen is a free podcast series addressing the lives and works of eighteenth-century women writers,  devised and produced by one journalist and three academics.  One day while chatting on Twitter, Helen Lewis (deputy editor of the New Statesman, a leading British weekly magazine focusing on politics and culture) Jennie Batchelor (University of Kent), Sophie Coulombeau (Cardiff University), and Elizabeth Edwards (University of Wales) discovered that they shared not only a love of eighteenth-century women’s writing but also a conviction that the world needed to know more about it.  An idea was born: a six-part podcast series, aimed at the non-specialist listener, about the lives, works and legacies of the women who changed the face of literature – but had, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, been gradually subjected to what Clifford Siskin calls “The Great Forgetting.”

Each week, we came up with a different theme to shape our conversation.  In the first week, Rewriting the Rise of the Novel, we asked: who gets overlooked when we let Defoe, Fielding and Richardson hog the “rise of the novel” narrative?  In this episode we aimed to explain the importance of some of the eighteenth century’s most prolific and innovative female novelists; from Aphra Behn and Frances Burney to Eliza Haywood, Maria Edgeworth, and Delarivier Manley.  We asked what sorts of challenges these women overcame in order to make it as successful writers, and what flak they received in return.  And we spoke about some of our favorite moments in female-authored novels: from Evelina’s odd monkey to the glorious butch of Harriot Freke.

In the second week, we put Bluestocking culture under the microscope.  Who were the Bluestockings, why did they matter, and was their footwear really as lurid as we’ve been led to believe?  We explained how, through salons hosted by the likes of Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey, and Hester Thrale Piozzi, this group of highly educated women helped shape a new age of sociability and creativity, making it commonplace rather than controversial to assert that a woman might be the intellectual equal of a man.  And we also revealed juicy details about Elizabeth Carter’s snuff-snorting habit.

Week three saw us turn to the subject of Sociable Spaces.  We focused first on the Lady’s Magazine, asking who wrote it, read it and published it, and how far its subject matter might be defined as “feminine.”  We then turned to think about the proliferation of all-female debating societies, such as La Belle Assemblée, in the early 1780s.  What topics did women want to chew over?  How were their debates alternatively valorised and satirised?  And why did these societies die out?  Highlights included discussions of eighteenth-century mansplaining in the pages of the Lady’s Magazine, and #everydaysexism in the galleries of the debating chamber.

In week four, we examined the Unsex’d Females, advocates of radical politics – and the conservative powerhouses who opposed them.  Novelists, poets and pamphleteers including Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, and Mary Wollstonecraft all engaged with major political questions of their day including the French Revolution, the slave trade, and women’s rights – and argued for radical reforms.  But not everyone approved of their zeal: Hannah More and Hester Thrale Piozzi argued in favour of conservative agendas, and Richard Polwhele lamented the “Female Band, despising Nature’s Law” in his memorable poetic rant, “The Unsex’d Females.”

Week five saw us roll up our sleeves and enter the ring for Fight Club, each of us slugging it out on behalf of our favorite woman writer of the eighteenth century.  Sophie was in Frances Burney’s corner, Liz flew the flag for Hester Thrale Piozzi, and Jennie championed an unusual candidate – “Anomymous.”  Who won? Listen to find out…

In the sixth and final week of the podcast, we put the idea of “The Great Forgetting” under the microscope.  Why, exactly, do the vast majority of people now draw a blank at the mention of these women’s names?  How did they go from enjoying fame and success to obscurity?  How did their works shape the literary canon?  And why is it important that we remember and celebrate them in an age when female writers and scholars still face disadvantage and marginalization?

The podcast was devised and recorded in early 2016 and broadcast in April and May via the website of the New Statesman.  It remains available to stream or download here and through iTunes.

Our hope in creating The Great Forgetting was that we would be able to help a wide non-academic audience to become familiar with these writers and their works, and to stimulate reflection on the gendering of literary prestige in the past and present.  In that, we seem to have succeeded: in just the first three weeks, the podcast received almost 3000 listens, exclusive of iTunes downloads.  We continue to be delighted and excited to think that, as the podcast remains online, more thousands of people might encounter the writing of women like Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Delarivier Manley, Frances Burney, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Hannah More, Ann Yearsley, Phillis Wheatley, Elizabeth Montagu, and Charlotte Smith.  We’re beginning to think about ways in which we might integrate the podcasts into our teaching curricula, and we would love to hear from anyone else who has done so.

But, although making the podcast was a rewarding experience, it also provoked some sobering reflections about what happens when traditional academic methodologies meet new media.  For example, we were chagrined to discover – even faced with the luxury of over three hours’ airtime – how many women writers we still ended up leaving out.  We were abashed to realize that we hadn’t managed to give novelists such as Sarah Scott and Sarah Fielding any attention, while our paucity of female playwrights was another sore point.  We spoke far more about the second half of the eighteenth century than the first.  In light of this, we were forced to ask ourselves what criteria (aesthetic? biographical? canonical?) we had unthinkingly imposed on our selection process for subjects for the programe, even as we railed against ideas of “literary value” that had been dominant in the past.  On a similar note, it was difficult – almost impossible – to credit the academics whose works we drew upon, heavily, in our conversations with Helen.  In other words, you can’t add a footnote to a podcast (though we did try to remedy this a bit by providing reading lists every week – see here).  With initiatives like this, then, might we run the risk of appearing to present ourselves in glorious intellectual isolation – ironically erasing the work of previous scholars (many of whom are women) even as we argue against that very process?

These, and other issues, preoccupy us as we evaluate the success of the podcast series.  If readers of The 18th-Century Common have any feedback, we’d be delighted to hear it.

Jane Austen Summer Program

jasp-2014-flyer-as-pngDon’t miss this year’s Jane Austen Summer Program:  held on UNC’s campus June 12-15, 2014.

This four-day summer program takes a closer look at Sense and Sensibility. Learning experiences include lecture formats and discussion groups daily. Discussions will focus on Sense and Sensibility in its historical context as well as its many afterlives in fiction and film. Additional events include a Regency ball and the chance to partake in an English tea.

The Austen Summer Program is designed to appeal to established scholars, high school teachers, graduate students, and undergraduate students:  anyone with a passion for all things Austen is welcome to attend!

Learn more and register at http://janeaustensummer.org/

Flyer for JASP 2014

The Eighteenth-Century Settings of Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels

Sir Walter Scott, 1771 - 1832

Sir Walter Scott, 1771 – 1832.  National Galleries Scotland

This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Waverley, Walter Scott’s novel about a naïve English soldier’s involvement in the Jacobite Uprising of 1745.  Scott’s first novel and the nearly 30 works that constitute the Waverley Novels had a dramatic effect on the course of not only fiction, but history writing as well.  Scott’s synthesis of historical subject matter, supernatural mystery, and romantic intrigue made his novels both enormously popular and critically acclaimed—no small feat considering the depths to which the genre’s reputation had sunk by the early nineteenth century, as Ina Ferris has shown.

Scott’s influence extended across Europe and into the United States.  His works inspired paintings by (among many others) J.M.W. Turner, John Everett Millais, and Eugène Delacroix, as well as operas by Gaetano Donizetti and Arthur Sullivan.  When Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he chose his new name based on a character from Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake.  In the Virginia town where I grew up, there is a street called Waverly [sic] Way, not far from Rokeby Farm Stables; I currently teach about 100 miles away from the town of Ivanhoe, VA.  Along Central Park’s Literary Walk, a statue of Scott accompanies ones of Shakespeare and Robert Burns.  Even his critics acknowledged his enormous influence: Mark Twain blamed the Civil War on Scott, “For it was he that created rank and caste [in the South], and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.” To illustrate his distaste, Twain named the wrecked steamboat in Huckleberry Finn the Walter Scott.

In short, Scott was enormously popular and influential as both a poet and a novelist—but few people today read his work for pleasure. [1] Go to a bookstore, and you’ll find maybe one or two of his novels, while his contemporary Jane Austen has rows and special displays devoted to her work, not to mention sequels and rewrites featuring zombies and vampires.  Scott’s broader cultural presence has declined as well.  Although Season 3 of Downton Abbey included a couple of references to his poetry, to my knowledge the BBC hasn’t adapted a Walter Scott novel since it produced Ivanhoe in 1982. The 1995 film Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange, bears no relation to Scott’s novel of the same title.  Perhaps the most recent popular film at all relevant to Scott is the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, in which Andie MacDowell’s character scolds Bill Murray’s with lines from Lay of the Last Minstrel.  (Murray, who plays a weatherman, expresses surprise when she tells him the author of the lines: “I just thought that was Willard Scott.”)  Outraged politicians occasionally recite Scott’s lines from Marmion—“O, what a tangled web we weave, / When first we practise to deceive!”—but invariably attribute them to Shakespeare.

Why is Scott so forgotten?  The scholar Ian Duncan explains that he “tell[s his] students: everybody loves Jane Austen.  The real challenge is to say you love Walter Scott.” [2] And a challenge it can be, for a handful of reasons, including Scott’s convoluted plots, digressive narratives, and heavy use of dialect.  But perhaps what deters most general readers from picking up a Scott novel is precisely why most readers of this website would be interested in doing so: the novels draw their dramatic intensity from specific historical events—and very often these events are rebellions, riots, invasions, and other crises of the eighteenth century.

It’s only a slight overstatement to say that the Waverley Novels can be understood as a fictional history of the eighteenth century, albeit from a distinctively Scottish perspective rather than the England-centric model to which most readers may be accustomed.  Scott himself explained that his first three novels were meant “to illustrate the manners of Scotland at three different periods. Waverley embraced the age of our fathers, Guy Mannering that of our own youth, and the Antiquary refers to the last ten years of the eighteenth century.”  Scott’s interest in the eighteenth century continued after this initial trilogy and he would return to Jacobite intrigue.  His fourth novel, The Black Dwarf, involves James III’s failed effort to invade Britain in 1708; the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 lurks in the shadows of Rob Roy; and Redgauntlet concerns a fictional aborted Jacobite conspiracy of the 1760s (and, unlike his other novels, is told in the very eighteenth-century epistolary style).  But Scott wasn’t exclusively a chronicler of various Jacobite failures.  The historical event behind The Heart of Midlothian is the more obscure 1736 Porteous Riots in Edinburgh, and The Bride of Lammermoor depicts the contrasting consequences of the Act of Union for two Scottish families.  (In the original edition of The Bride of Lammermoor, published in 1819, Scott set the action around the time of the Glorious Revolution.)  “The Highland Widow” and “The Two Drovers,” stories from Chronicles of the Canongate, portray Scottish characters struggling to reconcile their beliefs and customs with their nation’s union with England; the third and longest tale, “The Surgeon’s Daughter,” revolves around characters’ attempts to find fortune in India in the late-1700s.

Scott’s eighteenth-century résumé expands if you follow the lead of many scholars and broaden the timeline to include the Restoration.  Old Mortality concerns the Killing Time of the late 1600s, when Scottish Covenanters clashed with the government of Charles II; The Pirate is set in the Scottish islands of 1689 (and contains countless references to John Dryden and Restoration theater); and the Popish Plot is a major plot device in Peveril of the Peak.  These settings and events afforded Scott opportunities to explore his favorite themes, including the contentious and often violent transition from one set of laws and traditions to another, whether it be the last gasps of Highland feudalism in Waverley or efforts to reform the Northern Isles in The Pirate.

Although I have been emphasizing Scott’s interest in eighteenth-century subject matter, his interest in the period extends beyond that.  He was informed by eighteenth-century thinkers, particularly Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, and devoted much of his career to the study of eighteenth-century poets and novelists.  He published editions of John Dryden and Jonathan Swift, for which he also wrote biographies; and he was involved in an early attempt to canonize the British novel, contributing biographies of Daniel Defoe, Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Horace Walpole, and others to Ballantyne’s Novelists’ Library.

I don’t expect Walter Scott’s novels to be re-imagined to include kilt-wearing vampires any time soon.  But I am confident that readers interested in the eighteenth century would be drawn to Scott’s representations and interpretations of what he recognized as a tumultuous and exuberant age.

—————

Notes

[1]   My point about Scott’s lack of an audience pertains to general readers; among scholars, he has been enjoying a revival for some time.  Edinburgh University Press recently completed its new scholarly editions of the novels and has begun work on editions of the poems.  This is in addition to the many scholarly books and articles about Scott’s work that have been published in the last two decades.

[2]  Approaches to Teaching Scott’s Waverley Novels, 19.

Manners Envy

Elegant Company Dancing (undated). Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827, British). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Elegant Company Dancing (undated). Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827, British). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

One of the great pleasures of Austen’s fiction derives from her relentless focus on social conduct.  All of Pride and Prejudice’s characters, with the possible exception of thoughtless Lydia, are self-conscious about their own and judgmental of the behavior others.  As such, Austen has been long recognized as a brilliant observer of sociation, small group interaction, and the rules of conversation.  In her capacious understanding of not just the hows of behavior in public places, but the whys of behavior in public spaces, Austen prefigures the development of micro-sociology, those analyses of specific rituals, such as Georg Simmel’s study of cocktail party talk and flirtation, or Erving Goffman’s later analysis of civil inattention (how not to attract stranger’s attention on the street) or waiting room or elevator behavior.  While the connection of Austen’s novels to twentieth-century social science might seem dubious, any reading of her letters shows an active empiricist at work, recording the most minuet details of dress, expression, and conversation in her lab book, drawing quick and witty conclusions for Cassandra about fashion and character.

Reading Austen from a sociological perspective enables us to see more clearly not just the vivid description of social interaction, but her analysis of that action.  This distinction between the arbitrary rule and its ethical basis or form is perfectly exemplified in the following paragraph from Mansfield Park, at the visit to Sotherton, which proves to be a perfect playground for all the younger characters to exercise their selfishness.  Julia is unhappily left behind with the elders [Aunt Norris and Mrs. Rushworth], while everyone else scatters:

The politeness which she [Julia] had been brought up to practice as a duty made it impossible for her to escape; while the want of that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart, that principle of right, which had not formed any essential part of her education, made her miserable under it.

Julie understands the letter but not the spirit of the law, the outer form but not its object.

Pride & Prejudice is particularly amenable to the interests of Erving Goffman, for he meditates on first impressions in Presentation of Self in Ordinary Life, and more deeply in Stigma, which helps us to understand how Darcy is complicit in his first and terrible impression at the Merytown assembly.  Darcy and Elizabeth’s aggressive conversation at the Netherfield Ball demonstrates just about every imaginable violation of polite conversation.  And finally, if the first half of the novel charts a series of offences up to Darcy’s disastrous and wounding proposal at the Huntsford parsonage, everything from his exculpatory letter onward is remedial, and follows the essential form of apologies that Goffman lays out in Relations in Public.

Austen’s Domestic Fiction and the Network Form

The Sense of Sight (1744-7).  Philippe Mercier, active in Britain (from 1716). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The Sense of Sight (1744-7). Philippe Mercier, active in Britain (from 1716). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Counter to my own argument in Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987)  that domestic fiction proposes a self-enclosed household as a model for the modern nation, I’m contending that each Austen novel tears open the traditional household and disperses its members (especially daughters) by putting them into circulation. This is indeed what it means for a woman to be “out.”  It is thus because Austen’s novels propose a network as the model of a nation increasingly dependent on international trade that I now see them as the very examples of what a novel is and does.

If Austen’s households eventually settle down and the boundaries of her imaginary shire prove less permeable than at the novel’s opening, it is because she figured out a way of regulating the risk of self-devaluation that accompanies the dispersal and circulation of propertied families through a relatively open system of courtship. “The social season” was supposed to ensure that women of some breeding but little claim to property traveled in what Leonore Davidoff calls “the best circles.”  But Austen’s pump room and country dances never fail to include a few people–usually men–who exploit the rules of civility in order to put romance at odds with finance.  Those who engage with such people risk happiness, on the one hand, and security of position on the other.  In exposing the gap between emotional and economic value, the destructive energy of romance allows Austen to reorganize her household as a hub–a kind of relay station in a network whose managers minimize the risks of courtship.

What Jane Saw: New Virtual Gallery Reconstructs Art Exhibit Attended by Jane Austen

What Jane Saw 201331959

What Jane Saw.  (Photo by Marsha Miller).

I am proud and pleased to finally be able to invite you to attend an online reconstruction of a famous art exhibit as novelist Jane Austen saw it on 24 May 1813 – exactly 200 years ago to the day.  Our website and virtual gallery is titled What Jane Saw (www.whatjanesaw.org).

The original exhibit featured 141 paintings by British portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds, which were displayed at the 1813 exhibition at the British Institution in Pall Mall, London.  The show amounted to the first large commemorative exhibition devoted to a single artist.  The What Jane Saw e-gallery displays these same Reynolds paintings on virtual walls, in precise imitation of the show’s original curatorial “hang.”

Although I provided the historical research for the site, this digital humanities project was a large collaborative and interdisciplinary effort.  What Jane Saw was constructed over several years by a talented team of student assistants and staff in the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) at the University of Texas at Austin.  For a short narrative about the making of the site and some of the people involved, see this story on the UT English Department’s website: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/english/news/6550.

Even if Jane Austen had not attended this public exhibit, it would still be well worth reconstructing.  The British Institution’s show was a star-studded “first” of great magnitude for the art community and a turning point in the history of modern exhibit practices.

Among the canvases in the retrospective gallery, the many celebrity portraits of 18th-century politicians, actors, authors, and aristocrats offer concrete examples of just how someone like Jane Austen, who did not personally circulate among the social elite, was nonetheless immersed in Georgian England’s vibrant celebrity culture.

In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen joked how she would be searching for a portrait of Mrs. Darcy among these pictures. Two hundred years to the day after Austen attended, the What Jane Saw website restages this Regency blockbuster.

The website takes advantage of the current digital toolkit to help transport visitors back to a specific event in 1813, the same year that Austen published Pride and Prejudice.  Today, the paintings that took part in the 1813 exhibit are dispersed across the globe while the original building in Pall Mall that once housed the British Institution is so altered as to be unrecognizable.  Virtual reality was the only way to put these objects back together.

Seeing the art in situ also revives the interpretive consequences of proximity and distance.  For example, some sitters are judiciously juxtaposed while others – rival politicians or high-profile socialites – are hung at painstaking removes from key members of the royal family.  Only a visual reconstruction allows the retrieval of these hidden narratives, hinting at the implied concerns of the original curators.

We hope you will take a look at: www.whatjanesaw.org.  This educational website is free and open to the public.  So, come and see the celebrities Jane Austen saw in 1813.  Step back in time to walk among the paintings in the virtual gallery.  This may be the nearest thing to time travel on the web!

Afterwards, let us know what you think on the What Jane Saw Facebook fan page: https://www.facebook.com/WhatJaneSaw.

Pride & Prejudice at 200

Pride and Prejudice, First Edition. Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University

Pride and Prejudice, First Edition. Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University.

Jane Austen scholars are currently marking the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.  Here are just a few of the many commemorations from around the web:

Megan Mulder, Special Collections Librarian at Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University, describes the novel’s long path to publication, its reception by critics, and the larger context of Austen’s publishing career in a post for the Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections Blog.  Her informative post includes several photographs of Wake Forest’s first editions of Austen’s work, as well as those of her predecessor Frances Burney.

Devoney Looser, in an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, reviews two recent scholarly books that attempt to make sense of Austen’s enduring appeal:

The permeable boundaries between the popular and sometimes absurd Austen and the scholarly Austen surely matter in ways that will be long in unraveling. Recent Austen scholarship has capitalized on this high-low traffic, mirroring the marketing of “I [Heart] Darcy” bumper stickers more than we might like to admit — and I don’t exempt myself from the charge of opportunism. I am an English professor who has the good fortune to teach Jane Austen by day. By night, I skate on the local roller derby team as my alter ego, Stone Cold Jane Austen. As a result, I regularly field such farcical questions as “What would Jane Austen think of tattoos?” and, from my son, “Mommy, who is Jane Austen? Are you Jane Austen?” So I do not speak here from on high. The shrines to Jane Austen in my life involve sweat-stained wrist guards, not 19th-century editions of her works. But even I find myself asking on occasion, “What is the point of our sifting through and documenting all of today’s Austen-infused dreck?” It is especially heartening, then, to find emerging work on Austen and popular culture that moves beyond recounting how she has been mashed up with zombies, vampires, or porn. The best new work asks not only the multivalent, unanswerable question, “Why Austen? Why Now?” It also carefully charts “How did we get here?”

Both Claudia L. Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures and Janine Barchas’s Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity are exemplars of this more sophisticated work on Austen and popular culture. Johnson’s book makes sense, directly and indirectly, of the factual-fiction impulse behind novels like Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life, telling the fascinating story of how the mystique of Austen was gradually created, maintained, and spun out in unpredictable ways in the years after her death in 1817. Johnson unearths both the many-sided truths and the wide-ranging implications of our false fantasies of Austen, drawing conclusions from evidence ranging from portraits and memorials to fairy tales and relics. By contrast, Barchas makes a compelling case for our acknowledging some of the real-life 18th- and 19th-century people who may stand behind Austen’s fictional characters, in order to reveal long occluded ways of seeing Austen’s relationship with history and celebrity culture.

Elsewhere in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Susan Greenfield and Audrey Bilger offer an engaging account of the fate of Pride and Prejudice over the past 200 years, and Ted Scheinman reviews a new biography of Austen.

In 2006 Linda V. Troost published an analysis of three film interpretations of Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley in Eighteenth-Century Fiction.  You can read the entire article without charge here.

Want to celebrate?  Pride & Prejudice 200 collects listings of commemorative events worldwide.

Happy (Recent) Birthday, Jane Austen!

Autograph note concerning the "Profits of my Novels, over and above the £600 in the Navy Fives" ca. March 1817

Detail of Jane Austen’s autograph note concerning the “Profits of my Novels, over and above the £600 in the Navy Fives” ca. March 1817. The Morgan Library and Museum.

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and we want to highlight a few items around the web marking the occasion:

  • At Ms. Magazine Audrey Bilger (Professor of Literature, Claremont McKenna College) notes that on the occasion of Austen’s birth “Most likely much of the attention will focus on Austen as a writer of romances. Each of the novels concludes in marriage, after all, and the marriage of Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy is a particularly happy ending. We should also pay tribute, however, to Austen’s early adoption of feminist ideals and her insistence that women’s voices and experiences be taken seriously.”  Read her account of “Five Feminist Footnotes” to Jane Austen’s work here.
  • At the British Newspaper Archive, Ed King highlights the advertisements and newspaper notices for some first editions of Austen’s novels in the early nineteenth century.  The post includes images of the original newspapers (which are normally available only to subscribers).
  • The Morgan Library maintains an online version of its 2010 exhibit “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy” which includes images of Austen manuscripts owned by the Morgan, video of luminaries such as Cornel West, Fran Leibowitz, Colm Tóibín, and others describing what Austen means to them, and more.

Cognitive Science and the Humanities in 18th-Century Studies

Characters and Caricatures: subscription ticket for 'Marriage à la Mode' (1743).  William Hogarth

Characters and Caricatures: subscription ticket for ‘Marriage à la Mode’ (1743). William Hogarth. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, Gift of Chauncey B. Tinker, B.A. 1899

“This is your brain on Jane Austen…” declared the recent Stanford news description of the work of Natalie M. Phillips on fMRI brain images of graduate students reading Austen both attentively and in a more leisurely mode.  The story of this research collaboration among “neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars” was featured by news outlets around the world, indicating the broad appeal of research that applies the newer tools of cognitive neuroscience to humanities analysis.

Phillips’ work with cognitive scientists develops that of cognitive humanities scholars such as Alan Richardson, Jonathan Kramnick, Blakey Vermeule, and Lisa Zunshine.  These pioneers in the field of what some call “Cognitive Cultural Studies” ask how the new research on the brain should impact our analyses of cultural production in the eighteenth century.  Phillips augments this work by actually producing some of the new research on the brain.  While this collaboration between literary and scientific scholars seems exciting and new, in some ways it actually returns to the eighteenth-century model of discourse in which poetry and chemistry, music and astronomy mingled interactively (as Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder amply details).

The 18th-Century Common seeks contributions to a Collection on Cognitive Science and 18th-Century studies in which scholars engaged in this work–as well as those who critique it–will give readers tantalized by Natalie Phillips’ research on “your brain on Jane Austen” opportunities to learn more.

Meanwhile, here are some preliminary avenues of exploration:

Guns and Austen

The military contrast, print from 1773

The military contrast, print from 1773. Source: ECF Tumblr

Jacqueline Langille, Managing Editor of the journal Eighteenth-Century Fiction, offers a weekly post on the ECF Tumblr that features a thematic collection of articles from the journal’s archives.  The links she posts take you to abstracts of the articles, and from there you can freely download the articles in full.  As many journals charge hefty fees both to institutions and individual subscribers, Eighteenth-Century Fiction must be commended for allowing open access to its articles.  If you are an enthusiast of eighteenth-century studies, you should follow the ECF Tumblr!  This week’s ECF Tumblr post features the entire Special Issue of the journal from 2006 on War/La Guerre, including an essay that is a recurring favorite of my students: Christopher Loar’s “How to Say Things With Guns: Military Technology and the Politics of Robinson Crusoe.”

Susan Celia Greenfield, Associate Professor of English at Fordham University, has been writing a series of blog posts for the Huffington Post this fall called The Jane Austen Weekly.  She makes provocative and convincing connections between Jane Austen and contemporary events, demonstrating the continuing importance of the (long) eighteenth century, which is very much our goal at The 18th-Century Common as well.  This week she reminds us that we learn from Austen’s (in)famous narrative reticence to be suspicious of an unironic desire for narrative control such as we heard expressed repeatedly by both sides in the U.S. presidential campaign.

The Jane Austen Society of North America just released its Call for Papers for its Annual Meeting in Montreal in October 2014.  JASNA is famously open to academics and nonacademics alike, and as such is a real-life model for the kind of meeting of minds that we hope to achieve at The 18th-Century Common.  For all you know, we may even be administering The 18th-Century Common in Regency costumes…