Teaching Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2014


LITERARY PERIODS REVEAL AS MUCH about the present as the past. Certainly they affect the way we study Jane Austen. As Mary Favret puts it, “To say Austen has a period or belongs to a period, regardless of the exact period attributed to her, is to mark the act of periodizing as a function of the present” (373). Clifford Siskin suggests that the ways in which we “place Austen” in a period or literary context “has always to do with how we place ourselves in relation to the past” (125). While longstanding literary periods shape current reading practices, personal preferences, and professional agendas, scholars such as J. Hillis Miller have recognized the “problematics of periodization” (14).1 For one thing, periodization tends to level history, ideology, and authorship into an ostensible monolith. Particularly in regard to Austen, Favret argues that “periodization sets its objects in the halo of a singular, illuminating present . . . that filters out more complex relationships to time and history” (373). Periodization also separates authors who may have been writing within years of each other into distinct temporal and thematic camps; as a result, periods such as the “long” eighteenth century and Romanticism might not seem to share any characteristics in our students’ eyes. A single classification of Austen as either an author of late eighteenth-century or Romantic literature (or even as a nineteenth-century author) might preclude her from taking part in the overlapping socio-historical and literary contexts that influenced and defined her work. The very “act of periodizing” can pose problems for readers who “might begin to wonder about their explanatory power or their ability to situate someone like Jane Austen in a single moment,” as Favret concludes (373).

In teaching both eighteenth-century and Romantic literature, I have situated Austen in multiple moments. Although many literature courses at my current institution are organized according to periodization, I have considered the challenges that periodization holds for the instruction of authors, such as Austen, who wrote at the culmination of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century.2 In taking my cue from Miriam Wallace and the contributors to Enlightening Romanticism, Romancing the Enlightenment, I have embraced the overlap that occurs when we analyze a work topically and as a part of multiple historical and literary traditions.3 In my experience, Northanger Abbey affords an excellent case study of this strategy. The novel defies simple classification in a single literary period as its own history raises a number of questions about placement. Should we classify Northanger Abbey as a novel from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century? Is the author a young Austen, or is the novel the product of revision and therefore representative of the more mature writer? Should we read the novel in the vein of an eighteenth-century-inspired moralistic tale, even if it at times makes a mockery of one? Should we study it as a Romantic Gothic novel, even if only in parody? In my estimation, we may read Northanger Abbey as all of the above and more, for these complicating factors enrich the study of the novel in regard to time, genre, and literary influences.

The remainder of this essay addresses how I have taught Northanger Abbey as a crossover text that simultaneously represents intersection and transition between time periods. In labeling Northanger Abbey a “crossover” text I am inspired by Miriam Wallace’s phrase “crossover audiences,” a term that she uses to describe readers who examine texts across two literary periods rather than in separate ones (1). I discuss the complicated nature of periodization as it applies to the teaching of Austen, as well as the benefits of assigning Northanger Abbey at the end of an eighteenth-century course, at the beginning of a Romanticism course, and in the context of a specialized seminar on Austen and her “contemporaries” (a term I negotiate to include her eighteenth-century predecessors and contemporary writers at the start of the nineteenth century).4 I show that assigning Northanger Abbey in multiple courses reinforces what Wallace calls “critical overlap”: a space in which scholar-teachers engage students in multivalent critical dialogue about literary influences and traditions, genres, and the development of authorship across periods (1). This critical overlap ultimately situates Austen’s writings in the context of a wider set of contemporaries and can help students from a variety of disciplines—including English, secondary education in English, and creative writing—see the diverse ways in which her writing responds to literary traditions across multiple time periods.

Publication Title

Persuasions On-Line