Jane Austen wasn’t writing romance; she was satirizing it, says Professor Sarah Eron.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that few, if any, novels have had greater influence on the romance genre than Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Credited with writing the definitive marriage plot novel of her age, Austen and her work have spawned an enduring industry. Netflix’s Bridgerton and PBS’s Sanditon are two recent iterations in a long line of Austen-inspired novels, movies, television shows, and plays. You can buy Austen-inspired dolls, tarot cards, clothing, bobbleheads, teapots, candles—even air fresheners.
But to read Austen’s novels as romances is to miss their meaning, says Sarah Eron, English professor and Austen scholar. Austen is a satirist whose books take aim at the marriage plot novels of her day, Eron says. In her undergraduate course, ‘Jane Austen, Therapist,’ Eron teaches what Austen’s work reveals about the mind, how her novels transform and console readers, and what close reading yields, Eron says. “I want my students to see that literature has the power to change lives.”
Your thoughts are not your own
“I want my students to see that literature has the power to change lives.”
—Professor Sarah Eron
Eron’s research is in cognitive studies—the mind and its workings. The author of Mind Over Matter: Memory Fiction from Daniel Defoe to Jane Austen, Eron is specifically interested in how our memories aren’t really our own. Rather, they are affected and shaped by what is happening around us. “I start the course with Emma because students see that Austen renders an ambiguity between whether thoughts belong to one character, another character, or the narrator. And suddenly, this idea that our thoughts are our own, that we have ownership of our personal, internal ideas, is completely exploded.
“In everyday life, we go around and wonder what other people are thinking of us. We have this constant desire to have access to other people’s thoughts, and that’s where all the miscommunications arise in Emma, because she’s really bad at mind reading. This is the power of reading Jane Austen.”
Who can’t relate to that?
Close reading rewards
Hannah Slater-Grace ’25, an elementary education major, was already an Austen fan. Eron’s class gave her a deeper app-reciation of the author.
“Professor Eron had us dive into every detail of the text. We sometimes spent an entire class on one sentence or a couple of words, and I was like, ‘Wow!’ I’ve never had a professor take us so closely into each word, each comma, each phrase. Each punctuation mark signaled something,” says Slater-Grace. “I realized—after going from reading Austen to reading other books—that not every author is able to do that. Understanding more of how Austen writes has helped me understand the way other authors write and why.”
Austen knows what ails you
The most gratifying moment for Eron as a teacher is when students recognize that their experiences and those of Austen’s characters are essentially the same. “Students, too, are people embedded in social systems; their memories change, and they have the power to overcome distress. “That’s the reason for the course title, Jane Austen, Therapist. That is, she might be able to bring the kind of consolation, the kind of answers we seek,” Eron says. “The texts have a kind of therapy to them. When I see the students living these books and interacting with these books—and their lives influenced by these books—I know that, in some sense, I’ve done my job.”
Besotted with Jane?
Professor Eron has recommendations.
READ JANE AUSTEN
For an immersive reading experience, consider The Jane Austen Annotated Editions (Harvard University Press). Start with Emma. Notice how Austen’s free, indirect style creates a question about whose thoughts are being expressed.
GO BACK TO SCHOOL
Attend a virtual lecture, “Slavery, Anti-Slavery, and the Austen Family,” by Austen scholar Devoney Looser (about 1.5 hours) on the Austen family’s connection to the West Indian slave trade and how that may have informed the writing of Emma and Mansfield Park.watch the Lecture
For a cinematic treatment of Austen’s early work, watch Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, based on the epistolary novella, Lady Susan. The film is a reminder that Austen is, at heart, a satirist, fluent in caricature, irony, and mockery.
For more about the enduring phenomenon that is Jane Austen:
- Jane Austen’s Letters by Deirdre Le Faye offers a view intothe author’s life and family through correspondence andrecent scholarship.
- The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser centers onAusten’s rise to celebrity status.
- Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees by Deidre Lynchexamines Austen’s most devoted readers and fans.
- Jane Austen and Sciences of the Mind, ed. Beth Lau,examines Austen through the lens of cognitive science.
- Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel by Claudia Johnson, looks at Austen as social critic, satirist, and feminist.