For decades, moviegoers — particularly of the female persuasion — have swooned over Colin Firth and Mathew Macfadyen’s smoldering Mr. Darcy in versions of Pride and Prejudice, and wept over the disappointments of and happy endings for Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson’s Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility.
These fans might be surprised to learn, as students in a British authors class at Indiana University Kokomo are this semester, that the early 19th century author may not have welcomed Cupid’s arrow if it was fired in her direction. In fact, she intended her work to be satire, challenging her society’s ideas about love and marriage.
Eva White, professor of English, inspires her students to look beyond the plot, to identify the messages about love and marriage that Austen conveys through her romantic stories — which were published without her name on them until after her death, because she was a woman.
White also incorporates Victorian-era writer Oscar Wilde’s work into the class, adding the perspective of a bisexual man, who scandalized society during his time, and was sentenced to two years hard labor on a charge of homosexuality.
“There are many ways of looking at marriage, and how love and marriage change over time, and every culture has its own interpretation of both,” she said. “In our time, we’ve just legalized gay marriage, and there is still great debate over the issue. This class gives students a way to see that marriage has been redefined to really fit the norms of the society in which the author writes.”
White challenges her class to considering how Austen and Wilde use speech and writing to address issues of gender identity and power in society. Through student-led discussion, as well as weekly writing assignments, they share their perceptions of the messages they read in each work.
English major Brian Powers appreciates that White allows students to lead the discussions, occasionally interjecting a talking point or idea.
“She likes to have students take control, to formulate our own opinions and theories, rather than just standing at the board and telling us what it means,” he said. “She includes everybody, and nobody’s points of view are invalid to her. Hearing others’ points of view helps me understand things I hadn’t before the discussion.”
In one particular class, students talked about Austen’s Persuasion, published in 1817, and its themes of women’s reliance on marriage for social position and economic security, as well as the perceived importance of appearance and social rank.
One at a time, students read a passage, and then shared their observations, noting how characters judge one another harshly based on appearances, how it was unacceptable for a woman to be out in public while pregnant, how women could not inherit property, and how people married for money, position, and social status.
The insight into the social background of Austen’s times was particularly interesting to Haleigh Sloan, as a sociology major.
“I’ve learned something from everything we’ve read,” she said. “It gives us an interesting view into life during that time.”
White noted that students are learning about the relationship between writing and the cultural and historical contexts of their times, and how to interact with global themes in literature.
She noted that Austen, who as a woman was trapped in the domestic sphere, uses her writing to make that private life as visible and central as the public one, while Wilde also breaks boundaries, as a man whose work was focused on the domestic sphere.
“By exposing the private and domestic lives of her protagonists, Austen denounces the limitations of domesticity and transforms the private into the public,” she said. “Her focus is firmly rooted in the everyday lives and concerns of a few families in a small country circle. Trapped in the gender roles of his time, Wilde develops a double identity that stretches the conventions of love in Victorian society.”
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