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Academic Minute

Dr. Amy Smith, University of the Pacific – The Appeal of Jane Austen’s Characters

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Amy Smith of the University of the Pacific probes the international appeal of the characters that populate the work of Jane Austen.

Amy Smith is an associate professor of English at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. In addition to a course in technical communication, she also teaches a popular course on Jane Austen.

About Dr. Smith

Dr. Amy Smith – The Appeal of Jane Austen’s Characters

Something fascinating happens when I teach Jane Austen – something that doesn’t with novels by Bronte or Dickens or Hemingway. Students immediately recognize people they know in Austen’s characters.

With Sense and Sensibility, somebody inevitably says, “My friend is such a Marianne, she drives me nuts!” Or with Pride and Prejudice: “Mrs. Bennet is hilarious – she’s just like my aunt!” Nobody’s ever read Wuthering Heights in one of my classes and said, “That Heathcliff is just like my boyfriend!” I got to wondering . . . would this “Austen Connection” happen with readers in other countries? I decided to run an Austen road test in Latin America to find out. I did book groups on Austen’s novels, in Spanish, in Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina.

So, did readers connect with Austen? Yes and no – but mostly, yes.

Many of Austen’s themes resonated in Latin America – family squabbles, romance, money troubles. But in each country, readers approached Austen in ways my U.S. students never had. Guatemala’s thirty-year civil war is recent history, and with the group there, a discussion of class prejudice in Austen quickly shifted to a discussion of racial prejudice against indigenous people. In one way or another, this happened in every country. I’m nervous about a word like universal – life’s complicated. But for a woman who barely traveled in her lifetime, Austen knew the world, because she knew people – our strengths, our weaknesses.

The “Austen Connection” happened in every country, but never the same way twice. Austen herself could have predicted that, I’ll bet – because her novels show that we’re not always speaking the same language – even when we are speaking the same language. How to bridge the gap? A little less talk, a little more listening. Every time.

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