December 4, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘A Jane Austen Museum Wants to Discuss Slavery. Will Her Fans Listen?’

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “A Jane Austen Museum Wants to Discuss Slavery. Will Her Fans Listen?” by Jenny Gross

Jane Austen’s House, a museum based in a home where the writer lived, is expanding its interpretation to include information about her and her family’s ties to the slave trade. However, British tabloids and fans of Austen’s work have pushed back against the museum’s inclusion of such information.

In this lesson, you will hear both sides of the debate on including slavery and its legacy in conversations about Austen and her literature.

Jane Austen was an English novelist known for her critical interpretation and commentary on 18th-century society. Austen died over 200 years ago, but her novels are still read today, and movies based on her books continue to be made and remade. Some superfans annually visit Austen’s home in Bath, England, and dress in costume to celebrate the anniversary of when one of her novels was published. Today, there are even TikTok videos with thousands of views about the aesthetics of her novels and reviews of books about her books.

Have you ever read a Jane Austen novel? Or watched a movie version of one of her famous novels? Are you or anyone you know a fan of Austen’s work? Why do you think there is such a love for her novels and the time period she lived in?

When reading Austen’s books or thinking about her world, do you consider the realities of slavery at the time period and how that might have been part of her life? Why or why not?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. How is the museum, Jane Austen’s House, trying to broaden its interpretation of Austen’s life and time period?

2. Why does the museum’s director, Lizzie Dunford, believe it is important to include this information? Do you agree with her reasoning? Why or why not?

3. How does the museum’s action fit into a larger conversation about the legacy of slavery as it relates to the British Empire? Can you think of other examples of similar conversations taking place at universities, museums or other public institutions in the United States, or elsewhere in the world?

4. How have British tabloids and fans of the novel reacted to the decision made by Jane Austen’s House?

5. What are the connections to slavery and abolition in Austen’s novels and personal life? What are the gaps in what historians and Austen scholars know?

Consider different sides of the debate. Some argue that bringing conversations about slavery into Austen book clubs or museums is going too far and takes away from her work. But others assert that it is impossible to talk about 18th-century England and Austen’s life without talking about the slave trade. These two quotes from the article highlight the differing points of view. Read the quotes and then prepare to discuss or write your reaction.

Myretta Robens, the founder and president of an Austen fan group, said she had worked to prevent conversations about racism and current events in the groups she facilitates:

“We don’t want combat,” she said of her fan group. Referring to two of Austen’s most well-known characters, Ms. Robens said, “It’s hard to talk about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and talk about the current environment in the same forum.”

Claudia L. Johnson, a professor and author of the book “Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures,” said people had long tried to separate Austen from the world around her:

“A large part of her readership has always wanted to isolate her from the sort of messy hubbub of history, and to imagine that she lived in this quieter, more civil world,” Professor Johnson said. “There is this deep longing to isolate Austen from all of the storms and stresses of modernity.”

Now, reflect on the two sides of the argument as presented above. You can choose one of the questions below and write your response, citing examples from the article, Austen’s novels or your own research. Or you can engage in a class discussion about the issue. If you’re having this conversation in class, you might do a Barometer activity to rank how strongly you agree or disagree with the perspectives presented above.

  • Do you believe it is important to contextualize Jane Austen, her home and her novels in 18th-century English history by acknowledging slavery, the slave trade and race relations during that time period? Or do you think it is more important to focus on the beauty of her novels, the worlds she created within them and what was special and simple about her time period?

  • Do you think these two perspectives are mutually exclusive? Or do you think it is possible to hold both perspectives at the same time? For example, Professor Johnson said, “Just because you involve Austen in the messiness of history doesn’t mean you don’t love her.” Do you agree with this? Why or why not?

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