English 553.601
Jane Austen and the Political Novel

Fall 1996

Instructor: Daniel Traister

Office: Special Collections, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
Phone: 215 898 7088
Fax: 215 573 9079

E-mail: traister@pobox.upenn.edu
URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~traister

Click here for various Jane Austen-related links.


Watercolor portrait [of Jane Austen?]
laid into the University of Pennsylvania's copy of
Jane Austen, Emma (London 1816)


Do Jane Austen's novels simply cultivate a small and self-enclosed world? This is a view still frequently held about them. Some readers regard this small world, negatively, as indicative of Austen's limitations. Others, more positively, find her works a refuge from the complexities of larger social concerns. The assumption underlying such a view is what this class will question. We will read all six of Austen's completed novels: Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. We will also look at a number of earlier or generally contemporary eighteenth and early nineteenth century works, most of them novels, that deal (reasonably obviously) with issues of political or social significance. As we read Austen's novels, we will ask about the extent to which they share or do not share a common concern with such issues.

Note: This course is available to undergraduates by permission of the instructor.
This course requires substantial reading, a number of classroom presentations (the exact number to be determined by the number of students in the class), and a 10- to 15-page final paper. The instructor anticipates no exams (but there may be quizzes).

Course mechanics

This course meets on Wednesdays from 4:30 P.M. to 7:10 P.M. in the Edgar Fahs Smith Library, located on the 6th floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. We may occasionally reschedule or relocate in order to accommodate the showing of movies or tapes.

The instructor's office is nearby, in the Department of Special Collections, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. You can reach him by telephone (215 898 7088) or in person at that location. He is normally in the office between 9 and 5 weekdays but, because his schedule and location vary, please telephone before you show up.

Repetition: you can also communicate by e-mail directly to the instructor or indirectly to the class list.

Your final essay should consider not only works read for class but also some materials not read for class, and should include some sort of primary materials. CHOOSE A TOPIC AND WRITE THIS PAPER ONLY AFTER DISCUSSING IT WITH THE INSTRUCTOR. Follow MLA or Chicago format rules in preparing these essays. Death (preferably yours) is the acceptable excuse for lateness. Note, in addition, this important fact:

Class presentations CONSTITUTE the class for which they are due. Your absence or lateness will, in effect, cancel the class. The instructor will be unamused, his response uncharacteristically harsh and unfriendly.

In general, the instructor appreciates either good writing or a reasonable simulacrum of it. He looks with extreme disfavor upon poorly-written essays. Sloppy writing normally means sloppy thinking. USE THE WRITING CENTER IF THIS IS AN AREA IN WHICH YOU KNOW--OR LEARN--THAT YOU NEED HELP. Click here for information about the writing center. See also the instructor's composition links.

As is already evident from the emphasis above on classroom presentations (seminar papers), this class will work largely through discussion. Since your attendance and participation will make a difference in its success, both will make a difference in your grade. In short, speak--and speak up. Basic ground rules: talk; interrupt; open your mouths. Be polite. Do not let politeness prevent you from making your points.

The instructor labors under several delusions. Of these, the most important to him is that the reading he has so blithely assigned will prove to be fun for you. If, to the contrary, it proves burdensome, don't let it rain all over you: open your mouth. Come see him. Tell him why. His inquiring mind wants to know.

Course books

Required texts are available at the Penn Book Center, 3726 Walnut Street. BULKPACK items will be distributed in class.
Students will find that a number of short books outlining the history of the French Revolution are available. Reading one of them would offer useful French background for this course. In addition to the British background provided by Colley's Britons (listed below as a required text for this class), many additional works deal with various aspects of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English history, including British responses to the revolutions (American as well as French) by which life in Great Britain was affected.
  1. Jane Austen, Complete Novels. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
    Item number 511 in OUP's "Summer Sale 1996" catalog offers The Oxford Illustrated Austen (also known as The Novels of Jane Austen), reduced from $100 to $50. This six-volume set was originally edited by R. W. Chapman (later corrections are by Mary Lascelles). It includes all six complete novels and the "Minor Works," primarily Austen's juvenilia, fragments, and early drafts. Item 481 in the same catalog is Dierdre La Faye's edition (the 3rd) of Jane Austen's Letters (also originally edited by Chapman), reduced from $49.95 to $35. These prices are good until 31 December 1996. If you are interested, call 1 800 230 3242; fax 1 919 677 1303; or check the OUP website. (No, the instructor does not get a kickback on sales.)
  2. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. World's Classics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

  3. Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

  4. William Godwin, Caleb Williams. New York: Penguin, 1988.

  5. George Walker, Theodore Cyphon; or, The Benevolent Jew. London 1796--BULKPACK.

  6. George Walker, The Vagabond. London 1799--BULKPACK.

  7. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary and Maria; Mary Shelley, Matilda. New York: Penguin, 1992.

  8. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men & A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Other resources

The instructor provides links to various Jane Austen resources.


Week 1 (September 4)--Introduction.
Assignment: For next class, read (1) Northanger Abbey (complete) and (2) the first half of Linda Colley, Britons. In future, students should have completed the readings assigned for each class by its start.

Instructions for classroom presentations

Probably starting next week, and certainly for each week afterwards, the instructor will assign classroom presentations (= seminar papers) on a rotating basis. Topics appear beneath the week's assigned reading. You can, however, write on a different topic of your choice if you consult with the instructor and get his approval FIRST. Presentations should be typewritten and properly documented for submission, immediately following the class at which they were presented, to the instructor, who will read and mark them. They should be about five to seven pages in length, or about ten to fifteen minutes read aloud. (These figures are based on an assumption that you will get about 250 words per page; figures may vary considerably if you like to play around with computer fonts.) Because these papers and their discussion will constitute a major portion of each class, they MUST be ready on time.

Week 2 (September 11)--Northanger Abbey; Colley, Britons (first half)

  1. "NA is a didactic novel." Discuss, paying specific attention to defining the lessons NA teaches.

  2. Catherine reads novels; she also "reads" people. How good a reader is Catherine? and how do you account for the state of her reading skills?
Week 3 (September 18)--George Walker, Theodore Cyphon; Colley, Britons (second half)
In 1796, The Analytical Review published a short review of Theodore Cyphon.

  1. Is TC a "philosemitic" novel? Why?/why not? and why would it matter one way or the other?

  2. What advantages (especially of "range") does Walker's use of a "melodramatic mode" seem to offer him in TC? Is his choice of this mode as useful as he hopes?

  3. "The ironies at the conclusion of TC are not only multiple but also are not always internally consistent. This is so even of the political ironies that Walker's conclusion embodies." Discuss.
Week 4 (September 25)--Walker, Theodore Cyphon, continued; Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

  1. What does it mean to call Burke "conservative"?

  2. What does it mean to call Burke "reactionary"?

Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), is of interest here.

So is Conor Cruise O'Brien, "Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist".

Interested students who have a valid Penn i.d. can read Mary Jean Corbett, "Public Affections and Familial Politics: Burke, Edgeworth, and the 'Common Naturalization' of Great Britain," ELH, 61:4 (1994), 877-897, here.

Week 5 (October 2)--Burke, Reflections, continued.

Week 6 (October 9)--Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria and Vindication of the Rights of Women


  1. In his notes at the end of Maria, William Godwin writes:
    It was particularly the design of the author . . . to make her story subordinate to a great moral purpose, that 'of exhibiting the misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society.--This view restrained her fancy.' It was necessary for her, to place in a striking point of view, evils that are too frequently overlooked, and to drag into light those details of oppression, of which the grosser and more insensible part of mankind make little account.
    Naturally enough, we tend to suppose that Godwin, after all, should know . . . Nonetheless, discuss what he gets right in the comment--and what (if anything?) he gets wrong.

  2. Godwin wrote as a contemporary who was also Wollstonecraft's fellow writer, editor, lover, father of their child, and husband. A modern scholar must take a different perspective:
    Inspired by the Revolutionary crisis, Wollstonecraft aimed to re-revolutionize the cultural revolution and its construction of 'woman' as a cultural figure and as a prescription for women. In order to do so she focused on central issues of the cultural revolution--the 'mind' of women, their careers in society and the relation of both to the state--and she offered her own 'mind' and career as exemplary, in and through her writing. Because it was through writing in particular, the instrument of the bourgeois cultural revolution, that women internalized their own subjection, it was through writing that Wollstonecraft had to challenge the social and cultural order oppressing women.
    This passage comes from the "Preface" to Gary Kelly's Revolutionary Feminism. It suggests that the act--writing--has significance even in matters where idea--"revolutionary feminism"--might have seemed uppermost in a writer's intentions. Discuss (recalling as you do so that "intention" itself is not a concept entirely easy to construct, or, for that matter, to reconstruct).
Week 7 (October 16)--William Godwin, Caleb Williams

  1. Compare and contrast Caleb Williams and Theodore Cyphon.

  2. Compare and contrast Caleb Williams and Theodore Cyphon.
Interested students who have a valid Penn i.d. can read Gary J. Handwerk, "Of Caleb's Guilt and Godwin's Truth: Ideology and Ethics in Caleb Williams," ELH, 60:4 (1993), 939-960. Ditto William Godwin, "Of History and Romance."

Week 8 (October 23)--George Walker, The Vagabond


  1. Compare and contrast Walker's view of the English political scene and political activities in The Vagabond and Theodore Cyphon.

  2. Discuss the background and analyze the function of the "American interlude" in The Vagabond.
Week 9 (October 30)--Sense and Sensibility

  1. Does Emma Thompson's movie version of Sense and Sensibility "understand" the novel? How would one know if it did?

  2. Discuss the behavioral implications of approaches to conduct governed by "sense" and by "sensibility." Is it fair to see the differences you define as in some sense "political"? If so, what sense?
Week 10 (November 6)--Pride and Prejudice

  1. Compare and contrast at least 2 of 3 of the versions of Pride and Prejudice currently available,
    1. the Laurence Olivier-Greer Garson movie (directed by Robert Z. Leonard; 1940); and the two BBC t.v. versions,
    2. one shown in the US on Masterpiece Theater,
    3. the other (in 1996) on Arts & Entertainment.

    The instructor has copies of both 1 and 3 (unfortunately only in--gasp!--Betamax versions). All versions are often found at video stores.

  2. Darcy's home is the sort of place one might consider rather an impressive sort of pile. Discuss its significance to Elizabeth Bennett and to the novel as a whole.
Week 11 (November 13)--Mansfield Park; August von Kotzebue, Lovers' Vows, trans. Elizabeth Inchbald (this text is printed as an appendix to the MP volume [vol. 3] of R. W. Chapman's Oxford Illustrated Austen [also called The Novels of Jane Austen]

  1. The Mansfield Park production of Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows is clearly an immensely significant incident in Austen's novel. Why?

  2. Also a crucial factor in the novel is the nature of Fanny's background. Consider its significance. You might want to consider it alongside Austen's treatment of the background of Jane and Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
Week 12 (November 20)--Emma; also tonight is our own Box Hill (Pizza Class)

  1. Why is the incident at Box Hill so defining a moment in Emma?

  2. Darcy's home functioned significantly, as fact and as idea, in Pride and Prejudice. So too in Emma issues of landscape architecture--though perhaps less heavily emphasized than in the earlier novel?--once again "matter." Why?

Whether we do it in Lea or elsewhere, this class will combine normal class activities with a pre-Thanksgiving pilgrim feast of pizza and associateds. Come hungry and be prepared to get messy.

Week 13 (November 27)--THANKSGIVING / NO CLASS

Week 14 (December 4)--Persuasion (last class)


  1. What does the title of this book mean?

  2. Is there any sense in which--can we even begin to imagine (legitimately to imagine) that--Wollstonecraft's voice (or one at all like it) can be heard in this novel?
Week 14 (December 11)--NOTE: this is an OPTIONAL class only!

It is intended to tie up loose ends; attendance at this class is not required and there are no set topics. The instructor will be here; you need be only if you want to be.

Final papers are due in the instructor's office on Wednesday, December 18, by 4:45 P.M.

Reserve Books

The instructor has placed a small number of books, most of them about Austen, on reserve (Rosengarten Reserve Room, ground floor, Van Pelt Library):

Jane Austen, The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman [and rev. Mary Lascelles], 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1933-1954, et seq.), 6 vols.--PR4030.F33.v[x]

This set = "The Oxford Illustrated Austen"; see note about its current availability on sale ($50 for 6 volumes) under the heading "Course Books," above.
Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford 1975)--PR4037.B99

The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism, ed. Stuart Curran (Cambridge 1993)--PR457.C33.1993 [note especially the articles by Dawson, Curran, and Kelly]

R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems (Oxford 1949)--PR4036.C5

Jan Fergus, Jane Austen: A Literary Life (New York 1991)--PR4036.F47.1991

----------, Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel (Totowa, NJ, 1983)--PR4037.F47.1983

Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction (Cambridge, Mass., 1991)--JA83.H54.1991

Claudia L. Johnson, Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s: Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (Chicago 1995)--PR858.W6.J64.1995

----------, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (Chicago 1988)--PR4038.P6.J64.1988

C. B. Jones, Radical Sensibility: Lectures and Ideas in the 1790s (London 1993)--PR448.S4.J66.1993

Gary Kelly, English Fiction of the Romantic Period (New York 1989)--PR868.R73.K45.1988

----------, The English Jacobin Novel (Oxford 1976)--PR851.K4

Warren Roberts, Jane Austen and the French Revolution (New York 1979)--PR4038.P6.R63

You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at traister@pobox.upenn.edu.

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