What Would Jane Austen Do?

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In the days after the COVID-19 shutdown, as my anxious mind adjusted to the strangeness of the moment, I found myself repeatedly asking “What would Jane Austen Do?” It became my mantra, my ear worm, my meditative self-talk. Why? It wasn’t just because I’m teaching a class on Austen that the question came into my head. And I’m not the only one to ask it. Even before COVID-19 “What would Jane Austen Do?” was asked in books, on t-shirts, and in GIFs.

What planted the ear worm in my head was likely the same search for meaning that has prompted many people lately to reach for a book. Reading is having a renaissance. We’re turning to literature not just because we have more time on our hands but also because we’re trying to understand our moment. Penguin Classics is struggling to keep up with the demand for Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. Even the relatively obscure Journal of the Plague Year published in 1722 by Daniel Defoe is creeping up the Amazon charts (as a scholar of eighteenth-century British literature, I’m thrilled to see this amazing example of early journalism getting attention). My personal favourite in the genre of what The Guardian recently called “pestilence fiction” is the Canadian bestseller Station Eleven (2014). In Emily St. John Mandel’s novel civil society and modern conveniences disappear after a pandemic that wasn’t contained. Her narrative is an imaginative thought experiment in whether art and human connection can rebuild the world. I won’t spoil the ending.

Why do we turn to literature in times of crisis? In a moment of global uncertainty, we recalibrate our relation to the world and to that which we value. Suddenly our humanity and the common good feels more crucial than individual market forces and short-term balanced budgets. In other words, what connects us to each other and to the environment is all of the things that the Humanities studies, with its methods for understanding the complexities of human existence. This knowledge is often complicated and ambiguous, with no easy solutions — but sharing ideas and asking questions about our complex differences gets us closer to living together well and fairly than uncivil individualism. Humanities knowledge does not translate into data-driven metrics but when life doesn’t abide by algorithmic predictions, art, literature and the human sciences help to ground us.

After decades of building up an imaginative deficit where value is only calculated financially or measured in numbers that can be coded, we are in danger of losing what is central to the university and, indeed, central to humanity: the incalculable value of thinking with complexity and critical empathy about the deep problems confronting human life. Especially in times of budgetary crises like the one we are facing (the second, after COVID, once-in-a-generation crisis), it is important to remember that some things we value have no easy performance metric.

So what would Jane Austen do? She’d begin by imagining what COVID-19 looks like from multiple perspectives; her answer to everything is: ‘it depends on who is looking and from where.’ Austen’s genius as a novelist was in her development of a narrative voice called “free indirect discourse.” It’s the fancy way of describing when a third-person narrator presents the internal thoughts of a character as if they were in their head. Reading the layers of meaning in Austen’s novels requires finely-tuned interpretive skills, the kind of skills we need to understand the complexities, ambiguities and greyness of the world. Thinking with literature, I suggest, deepens our understanding of important differences, including those differences in our moment. Not everyone across this campus and in this city experiences this moment in the same way. As a continuing-faculty member, I am privileged to have a paycheck; I also have a safe and comfortable home from which to work online. Others do not. Many Indigenous colleagues aren’t experiencing this moment as world-changing since the history of colonial violence is written in genocidal contagious diseases, a legacy that is very much alive.

We are bombarded every day with numbers and, don’t get me wrong, reliable numbers are crucial to our futures. I find myself checking the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus map more than I probably should. Without medicine and science, we will not survive. But I know that the numbers do not tell the whole story and neither will we survive without that which connects us to our humanity. So please read a novel. Maybe Pride and Prejudice (though, along with my students, I consider Persuasion the better read). And if you don’t know which book to choose, local bookstore owners and U of A grads Matthew Stepanic and Jason Purcell recently curated a “Quarantine Bookshelf” to help you — and they’ll even deliver books right to your front door.

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Dong E, Du H, Gardner L. An interactive web-based dashboard to track COVID-19 in real time. Lancet Infect Dis; published online Feb 19. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30120-1.

Katherine would like to thank the students in ENGL 401: “The Cultural Politics of Jane Austen” for their commitment to reading attentively and asking complicated questions. They entertained the question “What would Jane Austen Do?” and discovered Austen’s novels are full of tips for social distancing.

Professor Katherine Binhammer, Faculty of Arts

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Katherine Binhammer is a Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies. She has recently published Downward Mobility: The Form of Capital in the Sentimental Novel Downward Mobility: The Form of Capital in the Sentimental Novel (Johns Hopkins UP, 2020), a scholarly investigation of what the stories told about money in eighteenth-century Britain reveal about the value of narrative to the rise of financial markets.