Virginia Woolf once wrote of Jane Austen that “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.” Woolf is right. When we call to mind the most memorable moments in Austen’s novels, we are almost surprised at their triviality: a sprained ankle, an apt retort, a missed appointment. And yet in Austen’s hands they are anything but trivial. Few authors have written more eloquently on the nature of social relations or the subtleties and contradictions of the human heart. Her novels are like microchips—marvels of precise and minute workmanship, and yet at the same time almost infinitely capacious, containing worlds of meaning.
In this online course, we will explore three of Austen’s major novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey. Our goal will be to appreciate them both as masterpieces of literary style and as windows into Austen’s world. What can Sense and Sensibility teach us about the relationship between modesty and desire in 19th-century England? How do the social classes blend, overlap, and collide in Pride and Prejudice—and just how much is Darcy’s famous £10,000 a year anyway? Who are the authors that Austen is making fun of in her wonderfully satirical Northanger Abbey? What do all these novels have to say about the grand themes of love, grief, community, and friendship? Often our point of entry into these questions will be a minor, seemingly trivial detail. Students are encouraged to read for these “keyholes” and share their insights with the class during discussion.