The Emma Project

Dr. Juliette Wells

Dr. Juliette Wells

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.

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Jane Austen Celebrated at Goucher

Every once in a while, we learn of something extraordinary right in our backyard. Such is the case with Goucher College’s collection of Jane Austen’s original materials. LPR Contributor Kris Faatz visited with Dr. Juliette Wells in April 2015 to talk about this superb find.

Jane Austen, born in 1775, lived only 41 years. Her parents raised their children to be literate and creative, sending both their daughters, for a time, to boarding school. Austen published anonymously and three of her novels received critical acclaim immediately. Her brother Henry disclosed her identity after she died in 1817, and Austen’s popularity began to soar.

Jane Austen, 1775-1817.

Jane Austen, 1775-1817.

Jane Austen always knew what she wanted. She grew up in an era when young women learned how to paint, dance, write and play music mostly to use those skills as bargaining chips in husband-hunting. Unlike many of her peers, Austen committed herself to serious artistic work at an early age. She wanted to be a writer, and she was lucky enough to have the support of her family: her father’s work as a clergyman meant that young Jane had access to books, and her brothers were able to support her financially as she steered clear of a woman’s usual role as wife and mother. All her life, she stayed close to home and looked out at a small slice of the world, but her keen observation and sense of humor helped her to draw portraits of people and places that still touch readers two centuries after her death.

Towson’s Goucher College celebrates Austen’s life and work with an extraordinary collection of source materials, early published editions and translations. The College Library’s special collections offer a feast for Austen fans, scholars and new initiates alike. Dr. Juliette Wells, Chair of Goucher’s English Department, specializes in Austen and recently sat down with the Little Patuxent Review’s contributor to talk about the collection and her own research into Austen’s life and writing.

Dr. Wells didn’t plan to become an Austen specialist. She did her undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins and Peabody, receiving dual Bachelor’s degrees in English and music. At Yale, where she did her doctoral studies, she focused on eighteenth and nineteenth century women’s literature. Her work in music gave her an interest in how women writers portrayed feminine artistic accomplishment in their books. She looked at female characters drawn by Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, and also looked at the influence the arts had in the lives of all three of those writers. All of them were artistically talented in other areas; Austen and Eliot as musicians, Brontë as a painter (Brontë in fact wanted to be a professional painter, but only her brother received formal training). Dr. Wells became interested particularly in what Austen’s work said about education for middle- and upper-class women. Women’s education during that period had controversial undertones; it wasn’t considered entirely appropriate, except as a way to impress men.

When Dr. Wells began teaching, one of her first classes was a seminar on Austen in popular culture. She found that her students connected especially with film adaptations of Austen, and she was interested in how feminine accomplishment translated onto the screen. Women worked hard to develop their artistic talents. The smooth veneer of a polite upper-class life hid an intense element of tension and competition that audiences understood. Dr. Wells saw her students engaging with the films and with modern interpretations of Austen and saw the excitement and sense of connection Austen’s work inspired. She decided to dig more deeply and find out what about Austen’s work makes it so compelling to readers today.

Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen House Museum, Hampshire, England.

Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen House Museum, Hampshire, England.

She became involved with the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), a group for scholars and enthusiasts alike, and received a fellowship for a month-long visit to the Jane Austen House in Chawton, England. Now a museum, the Austen House was Austen’s residence from 1809 until her death in 1817. The security and stability of her life during that time gave her the freedom to write prolifically. Dr. Wells interviewed visitors to the Austen House to find out why they had come to see it. Some were casual tourists, but many were enthusiastic Austen readers. Visitors of all ages, from all over the world, told Dr. Wells how much Austen had inspired them: “Jane Austen is my hero.”

Dr. Wells also received a fellowship from Goucher and spent 2009-2010 as the college’s Austen scholar-in-residence. She researched the college’s Austen collection and the story of the woman who had compiled it, Alberta Hirscheimer Burke, who attended Goucher as a student from 1924-1928. Burke and her husband Henry visited London in 1930, shortly after the first Austen bibliography was published, and visited Charing Cross bookstores to start collecting first editions. From 1930 until her death in 1975, Alberta collected not only early printings of Austen’s books, but also personal Austen correspondence, her own correspondence with book dealers, and translations of the books. The translations in particular set Burke’s collection apart from others; no one else had started gathering those. Burke also developed her own particular interest: immersing herself in Austen’s world. She researched and collected period magazines and books that featured hand-colored illustrations of private homes and the clothing of the period. Those original materials are still available in Goucher’s Austen collection. Students and enthusiasts can explore them and get an insider view of Austen’s life and times.

It’s clear that Alberta always planned to build an enduring Austen collection, because as early as 1935 she wrote to Goucher and offered the college her materials in the event of her death. In spite of that, she never reached out to scholars or wanted to be recognized as one herself. She was very private and kept her research to herself, creating her own field of study and becoming an expert in it. She knew that scholars in her time wouldn’t be interested in the broader historical perspective on Austen’s life. Scholarship has only started to move in that direction recently. She never had formal training in putting a collection together or cataloguing it, but Goucher’s collection is now recognized as one of the finest Austen resources available. The private Austen correspondence that Alberta collected is now part of the Pierpont Morgan collection in New York, and is considered the best private collection outside the Austen family.

Visitors are encouraged to come and explore Goucher’s Austen collection for themselves. The library welcomes specialists, fans, students and new Austen readers alike. In August 2015 the library will run a special exhibit of the Alberta Burke collection, which will be open to the public through the 2015-2016 academic year. To learn more about the exhibit and other public events, or to learn about scheduling an appointment to visit the collection, visit www.goucher.edu/specialcollections.