What was your introduction to Jane Austen? Was it via Pride and Prejudice? It was not. That is one of the last Jane Austen novels I read, which makes me really unusual.
Which one did you read first? I read Emma in high school. It was assigned to me, and I liked it. And then I read several of the others in college and I managed not to read Pride and Prejudice until I was studying for my graduate qualifying exam, which is a terrible way to read any piece of literature, especially that wonderful novel.
So what did you think of it, once you read it? At the time that I read it I had not seen the 1995 mini-series with Colin Firth, so influential to so many people, so I was really struck by the strangeness of the novel. In so many of her other books, Austen tells you about family history and generations and gives you a lot of the set up. And Pride and Prejudice begins very differently. You’re just thrown into a conversation between Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Bennett and you have to figure out for yourself who’s who. I always remember that strange reading experience when I am teaching the novel to students who are unfamiliar with it, and there still are some who are. We’re so used to, as a culture, thinking that everybody knows the plot, everyone knows who Elizabeth is and Darcy, and they know what happens. But if you can manage to make the novel unfamiliar to yourself again, it’s a very different experience to read it.
How did you come to Goucher? You were the Jane Austen Scholar in Residence, right? Yes, Goucher has had a program for more than a decade that funds a visiting scholar to come to campus for a week, one person every two years. The person does research in the Jane Austen collection here and gives a public lecture and takes part in any other campus events that are relevant. I was selected to be that person, and I visited in February 2010. At the time, I was doing research for a book on Jane Austen and readers today, and I was curious about what had made the woman who had amassed the collection of Austen that Goucher now has, what had made her collect. So I was mostly reading in her correspondence and reading in records of her collecting rather than spending time with what she actually collected, although that was fun too. I became so interested in her that I decided that a chapter of my book needed to be about her, even though she isn’t a reader today, she’s a reader of an earlier generation. I was so struck by this particular woman’s passion for Austen that I changed my approach to the whole project and became much more sympathetic to non-scholarly, non-academic readers. I should say, her name is Alberta Hirshheimer Burke.
I had also been friends, through the Jane Austen Society of North America, with several of the Goucher staff and faculty, so I was aware of who was here and what was here but that February week was my first opportunity to explore.
When did you get hired? I have been on the faculty since last August.
So it was just a happy coincidence that you got hired at Goucher? Goucher was looking for a faculty member who could teach with and do research with the Jane Austen collection and, in terms of teaching and research, Austen has become very central to me, so it seemed like the perfect fit.
Can you give an overview of the collection? Yeah, our collector Alberta Burke, was really unusual for her time because she was interested not only in items of obvious value—such as first editions of Austen’s novels, manuscripts of Austen’s letters—but also in items that had value only to somebody who was as deeply interested in Jane Austen as Alberta was herself. So, she made scrapbooks for herself, she kept track of newspaper articles that mentioned Austen, all kinds of publicity relating to film and theater and radio versions of Austen’s work—anything she could lay her hands on she seems to have felt a kind of responsibility to preserve. So we have all of those ephemera objects, I guess really, in addition to the obviously valuable.
If she were alive today, she would probably have a Jane Austen fan site. She’d have a blog, yeah. To see someone who began collecting around 1930 and collected throughout her life until she died in 1975, pasting things into a scrapbook is really eye-opening for people who believe that Jane Austen fandom started 20 years ago.
Well, there was a big resurgence in interest in her about 20 years ago. Absolutely. 1995 was the big year for so many screen adaptations of her novels. Of course, nobody was planning this. [There was Clueless, the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice], Sense & Sensibility, which Ang Lee directed and Emma Thompson did the screenplay for. I was a college student in Baltimore. I was an undergrad at Johns Hopkins and Peabody. I was a double-degree student. So my claim to fame is that I saw as many of those films as possible at the Charles Theatre.
Did you have any input into the creation of the ongoing 200th Anniversary of Pride and Prejudice exhibition? The exhibition has been in the planning much longer than I have been at Goucher, and is the fine work of the curator of special collections Tara Olivero and her staff. I talked to her a little bit when she was putting it together, but it’s really her work.
What’s your favorite item from the exhibition? I think it’s wonderful to see the early editions juxtaposed with the modern spinoffs. As your eyes move through the exhibit, you can see how Austen books were presented and packaged in her own day and how later 19th-century publishers presented them, and then what kind of shapes and images are being associated with Austen now. Something that I and my students, and really everybody I’ve talked to, enjoys is the covers of the translated versions of Austen’s novel, which are colorful and striking and most of them aren’t historically accurate at all, which is the fun of them.
What are some of those? Alberta Burke loved to travel and she sought out translated versions wherever she went and she also had her wide network of friends send her whatever they found on their travels. So we have several different editions of Pride & Prejudice in Italian, Spanish, French, as well as some Chinese, Finnish, and it goes on from there. Certainly, Alberta didn’t read most of these languages. She was fascinated by the idea that people in those nations were reading Austen
She was a “completist”. She was, definitely!
What are your thoughts on Pride and Prejudice now, some years removed from your first reading of it? I think it’s a nearly perfect novel for a lot of readers. It offers different people different kinds of pleasures and different kinds of satisfaction. I’ve talked to people who have first read Pride and Prejudice when they were 11 or 12—there mom showed it to them, or their sister showed it to them—and to them it was a delightful love story with a wonderful heroine, and it wasn’t until they came back to the novel as adults, later on, that they realized how many other dimensions are there too. I’ve talked to male students who identify with Darcy, who will say things like, “I know exactly why he had to pluck up the courage to confront Elizabeth, because I’ve felt the same way.” And these are undergraduates. So, Austen’s portraits of human psychology are so masterfully drawn that they continue to speak to readers 200 years later and around the world.
The characters of Elizabeth and Darcy are so enduring. There is something about those characters that is eternally appealing. Do you have opinions about what that is? Well, certainly, romance novelists will point to Pride and Prejudice as a founding text for their genre. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as well. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice sets out so many of the archetypes, so much of the structure of what we’ve come to understand as romance novels.
And romantic comedies, too. They have a “meet-cute”. They meet at the ball. He insults her. They don’t like each other initially. That’s regurgitated in almost every, single romantic comedy plot ever. Mmhmm, and it’s not that Jane Austen invented that. Shakespeare had used a lot of these same tropes, but she made it indelible.
Yes, but how? Because she was a really masterful novelist, and if we knew how, we could all write sequels to her novels that are as good as the novels themselves.
I guess that’s just Jane’s magic. Definitely.