Empathy is a curious thing. As a scholar of historical literature, I often point to it as a justification for the existence of my field. Studying Jane Austen’s novels is hardly a practical area of study, even in the best of times, and can seem downright frivolous in a year marked by the murder of George Floyd, a global pandemic, and an historic election. But literature also cultivates, in elusive and remarkable ways, the kind of empathy our world so deeply needs right now.
Let me share one example. This spring, I was scheduled to lead a Jane Austen Book Club at our local public library. With Kate Hamill’s new stage adaptation of Emma scheduled for its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in April, and a new film adaptation also set for release this spring, we planned group outings to see both following weekly discussions on each volume of Austen’s novel. The spirited group of mostly retirees—some of whom collectively researched forgotten women in history together to satiate their curiosity between book clubs—adapted to the online discussions gracefully. I pulled out my tried-and-true discussion guides and thought only of the change in style of our conversation, not anticipating one of substance. But for me, after reading this book many times and settling into an easy familiarity with it, Emma suddenly felt new again.
The novel’s exploration of home (a quick Project Gutenberg search found 137 instances of the term in the novel) took on new resonance under stay at home orders. We analyzed both the rampant privilege and anticipated turn of luck described in the novel’s opening line: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” We puzzled over the heroine’s disposition as a homebody; for all her privilege, “she goes so seldom from home,” the character Knightley notes, and Emma complains of being “envious and miserable” when others mention the sea, which she has never seen.
Especially resonant was the novel’s curious conclusion, which hangs on Knightley’s move from Donwell Abbey to Hartfield. Though Knightley parrots the kind of language on the economy of marriage that contemporary readers often find so troublesome about Austen—“A man would always wish to give a woman a better home than the one he takes her from; and he who can do it, where there is no doubt of her regard, must, I think, be the happiest of mortals”—he chooses to move, after their marriage, into his father in law’s house rather than bring his new wife to his own superior lodgings.
Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse in the new screen adaptation of Emma
What caught me unawares, though, was Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse’s anxious desire to be always at home, with a hypochondriac’s unease about the dangers of an indulgent diet or inclement weather, is a particular charm of the novel. “They would all be safer at home” is a kind of Mr. Woodhouse mantra, and he carefully and absurdly rations both outings and thin gruel. The other characters seem to join the readers in a discreet smile and silent eye roll at the silly old man’s concern. I was elated at the casting of Bill Nighy for the new film, and eager for the comic relief he could offer our reading group. How thinly, I wondered, could Bill Nighy slice cake?
But then the unexpected happened: instead of laughing at him, as usual, I thought about the exponential increase in my use of bleach; our new household rules about mail, groceries, and to the disappointment of my two preschoolers, playground equipment; and the irrational projection of my anxiety onto, of all things, the proliferation of creeping charlie in my yard—and I saw myself in Mr. Woodhouse’s worry. I suddenly, unexpectedly, felt empathy.
Even more surprising was the insufferable Mrs. Elton, musings on the theme of home: “Ah! there is nothing like staying at home for real comfort. Nobody can be more devoted to home than I am” she brags with her flat coffee-mug platitudes (no really, it’s an actual quote on coffee mugs the world over—you can look it up). This time around, though, missing my own parents and sisters and grandparents so profoundly, Mrs. Elton’s constant references to Maple Grove felt less like pomposity and more like real homesickness. And if even Mrs. Elton can seem sympathetic right now… well, let’s just say that’s out of character for both of us.
I’m finding myself more empathetic these days in real life too, quicker to recognize that people are doing the best they can right now, quicker to remember that I don’t know what invisible stresses or losses are carried by the people around me. We are all of us mourning something. I don’t know if I can credit Austen entirely, but I don’t think this more generous mindset is disconnected from the fact that I’ve been reading voraciously these past few months.
Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere reminded me how little we know of other people’s lives, and how easy it is to make assumptions to all our detriment; Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s The Revisioners gave me a dose of magical realism and a celebration of female community across time and space that I haven’t seen since the death of Toni Morrison; Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers gave a prescient dystopian portrait of a viral pandemic in a small liberal arts college campus that literally kept me awake at night for weeks.
As I write this post from my home office, I know for certain that I am not an “essential worker.” Some days, reading literature feels like an escape or distraction–a privileged way of opting out of reality for awhile. Associate Professor Roopika Risam (Salem State University) put this question more bluntly recently on Twitter: “why read and write about literature while the world burns?” But as I finalize my syllabi for fall term this week, and consider the gift of empathy we can make space for in our classrooms, virtual or otherwise, nothing seems more essential.
Bridget Draxler teaches writing at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. Originally trained in eighteenth-century British literature, Bridget’s current teaching and research focus on public humanities and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Bridget co-authored, with Danielle Spratt, Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Humanities in Practice (University of Iowa Press, 2018), which includes an essay on Jane Austen reading groups.