Dr. Juliette Wells, Chair of the English department at Goucher College and resident Jane Austen specialist, has a strong interest both in Austen’s writing and in the broader context of her life and times. Dr. Wells also remains fascinated with Austen’s continuing influence on modern readers and writers. In 2012 she published her first book, Everybody’s Jane, which includes her research on the Alberta Burke Austen collection at Goucher and her experiences at the Austen House (detailed in the post of May 8), and explores Austen’s presence in popular culture. When she began teaching at Goucher as an assistant professor in 2011, Dr. Wells also made it a goal to help build the Austen collection and make it more publicly known. The collection now includes modern retellings of Austen books and spinoffs, such as a mystery series with Austen as a detective and the popular fan-fiction sequels to Pride and Prejudice. Academics tend to be hostile toward these modern interpretations, but Dr. Wells sees young readers engaging with them, and through them, with the originals.
Dr. Wells thinks readers love Austen because of both Austen’s writing style and her personal life. The world she creates in her books looks peaceful and ordered. Her good characters marry the right people and her bad characters get disappointed. Though Austen herself never married, she uses happy marriages as the traditional ending to comedy. The personal relationships she shows in her books also resonate with readers. Siblings are very close with each other (Jane and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility), while parent-child relationships tend to be dysfunctional (the Bennet parents, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park). In her personal life, Austen’s determination to be a serious artist makes her inspiring to many readers, especially women. She comes across as a confident writer, and in her personal correspondence she is strong and certain, in contrast with other women artists (like Charlotte Brontë) who focused on the frustrations and limitations of their lives. Austen also had limited formal schooling and had to develop the skills she had, another part of her personal history that inspires readers.
For new Austen readers, Dr. Wells often recommends Pride and Prejudice as a starting point: it’s one of Austen’s most familiar books, with two strong movie adaptations, and is also one of the funniest. Dr. Wells is also bringing out her own new edition of Emma, which will be published this fall as part of the Penguin Classics series. Dr. Wells sees Emma as Austen’s greatest novel, because it does so much with minimal material. The whole story takes place in one small town (Highbury), and the plot hinges on mystery and the intrigue caused by strangers coming into a tight-knit community. The main character, Emma Woodhouse, has a wonderfully skewed take on herself and her world. It’s both funny and moving to watch her open her eyes to reality. Dr. Wells’s edition of Emma has first-time Austen readers in mind and features a new introduction, contextual notes on Austen’s time and place and a new glossary.
Emma was also the only one of Austen’s books to have a U.S. printing in her lifetime. The first American edition of Emma came out in 1816. The Goucher library is currently working on a digitization of this extremely rare Philadelphia edition, which will be live online in 2016 to celebrate the book’s bicentennial. Visitors to the site will be able to see a page-by-page view of the book and take part in an interactive online exploration. To learn more about this project, visit www.goucher.edu/emmainamerica.
Online Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, November 3, 2015, Goucher will also host a lecture by writer Alexander McCall Smith. Smith is writing a modern version of Emma commissioned by HarperCollins as part of a series of modern Austen adaptations. HarperCollins currently has modern takes on Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility also available.