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.Continue reading