Staying Home with Jane Austen

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. 

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Form and Formation III: The Art of Adaptation

Even without reading recent studies of Americans’ streaming habits, we’d probably all guess that far more content is being streamed now than prior to the pandemic. I’ve been fascinated by the number of adaptations available on streaming services both in back catalogs and as original content: adaptations of novels, of movies, of comic books, of biographies. Adaptations are as old as narrative itself (the oral tradition is an adaptive tradition), but the presence of streaming content in our lives seems to make them newly ubiquitous. For those of us who love adaptations, streaming services provide treasure after treasure. It’s a fascinating genre, offering us the familiar and the alien simultaneously—creating within us a kind of comfortable discomfort that doesn’t seem too risky. 

As a genre, adaptations can help us shape conversations about vocation. While it may not seem odd to say that we adapt to new situations, it may sound very odd to say that we are ourselves adaptations. Yet this may be useful. The word “adaptation” has multiple definitions: the action of adapting one thing to another; the state of being suitable for a particular purpose or place; a revised version of a text or other creative work. In its multiple definitions, it signifies both process and product. Our lives are a series of adaptations, not only as we continually reshape ourselves to new forms and contexts but also as we embody each state of being newly shaped. I think that most of us have a sense of self that at its core seems constant—a kind of source text that is unchanging—but also conceive of ourselves as changing over time, as not being the same person as we were years ago. As we are re-purposed over and over again, we must rearticulate our vocations as well.

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Form and Formation II: The Limits of Self-Help

Self-help literature has had an amazing shelf life. From medieval morality plays to Renaissance courtesy books to Victorian conduct literature to contemporary best-sellers, it pushes transformation while itself being continuously transformed. On Amazon today, anyone beginning a search for self-help will find 28 different categories for browsing. The S’s alone tell us volumes about our culture: Self-Esteem, Sex, Spiritual, Stress Management, Success. 

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Form and Formation I: Narrative Expectations

In all of my literature courses that include British modernism, that first short story on the reading list inevitably prompts the question, “where’s the rest of it?” James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf—all rejected previous narrative forms and instead structured their early twentieth-century fiction around heightened “moments of being,” to use Woolf’s term, or “epiphanies,” to use Joyce’s. Because nineteenth-century narrative form still dominates our expectations, however, modernist fiction can seem plotless and pointless to students. We want a narrator who guides and interprets for us and we expect rising and falling action, hinged by conflict.

But is realist fiction actually realistic? Does it reflect our lived experiences, or does the modernist innovation of the literary epiphany—those heightened moments of significance around which narratives are structured—offer us a different realism? If fictions provide insight into the human condition and stimulate the moral imagination, then a modernist disruption of our narrative expectations can offer students a different, possibly more “real” narrative understanding of their own lives.   

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The Cartography of Vocation

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Commercial map of the British Empire.

Cartographers try to render clear a patchwork of people and place, land and history.  As the poet Ciaran Carson suggests, “With so many foldings and unfoldings, whole segments of the/ map have fallen off” (“Queen’s Gambit”).   Maps embody, in pieces, cultural thought and human experience.

The map is an oft invoked image for discussing life’s purpose—indeed, upon my arrival at NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration summer seminar we spent time both drawing our own vocational maps and explaining them.  This exercise proved disorienting (I prefer to think in words, not images) and also expanding, in that I started to think of my vocational journey as a sort of constellation map.  On it, I noted bright spots in my past—my undergraduate mentor, reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time, studying abroad, professional achievements—and I also saw how the darkness of other aspects of experience offered direction. Continue reading