By Kristen Mitchell
Jane Austen’s Persuasion has been on bookshelves for nearly 200 years, but curious readers are still finding new ways to analyze the novel’s themes of love, marriage and fortunes.
Maria Frawley, a Columbian College of Arts and Sciences English professor and executive director of the University Honors Program (UHP), recently published a collaborative essay that explores how Austen used the language of economics throughout her work— with words such as worth, value, estimate—and why. She worked on the essay alongside two undergraduates research assistants, UHP juniors Kaitlyn Nigro and Gwendolyn Umbach.
The authors theorize that Austen uses economic rhetoric in part to highlight the way her heroine shifts from thinking about a potential marriage prospect in terms of what financial wealth he brings to the match, to calculations about the value of his character.
The paper was born out of discussions in Dr. Frawley’s honors program seminar course “Jane Austen: Literary Icon,” where students contributed to a class dictionary on the author’s vocabulary. When the class was coming to an end, Ms. Nigro and Ms. Umbach approached Dr. Frawley about continuing to work with her as research assistants, where they would contribute to a similar research project Dr. Frawley has been conducting adjacent to the classroom work.
“Humanities faculty tend to work in isolation, and we inadvertantly train students to do that too. So for me, one of the pleasures and purposes of this undertaking was to explore if it was possible for people in the world of literary criticism to write together and research together, and it was,” Dr. Frawley said. “We met every week, we talked through the ideas, and then we started sketching them out on paper.”
The paper was published in Persuasions Online, which is distributed by the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Ms. Umbach, who is double majoring in English and Spanish, has long been interested in Austen’s work and jumped at the opportunity to take the seminar course last fall. Students read all of Austen’s books during the class and discussed some of her letters and other writing as well, Ms. Umbach said.
“When I read the novels in Dr. Frawley's class, I gained a whole new appreciation for them. Austen was a pioneer within literature, in terms of her narrative voice and establishing the popularity of the novel as a genre, so I think from that perspective she's always useful for English majors like myself to read and understand,” she said. “I've never had another class where I so thoroughly enjoyed the things we read.”
Ms. Umbach started her role as a research assistant in early 2018. When she began digging deeper in Austen’s texts, Ms. Umbach was struck by how deeply economics was embedded into the story— and that she didn’t notice it until she started to actively look for certain words.
“Austen was a master of choosing her words, such that the narration remains natural while the story is steeped in certain themes,” she said.
Ms. Umbach, who is currently studying abroad in Madrid, believes it’s important to continue to study Austen’s novels. The authors agree: many of the themes in Austen’s writing are universal, and her work marks a shift in literature that still has an impact today.
“I feel like I could read Jane Austen every year, and teach Jane Austen every year, and still learn from re-reading her works and talking about her works with my students,” Dr. Frawley said. “Great literature does that. It’s value is timeless even though it is very much of its time.”