Fall semester has just ended, my desk is piled with papers to mark, and I find myself procrasti-planning future courses. I’ve been re-reading Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen, a biography written through traces of material culture extant from Austen’s life and featured in her novels. As others have written, Byrne’s biography is an innovative approach to understanding Austen, and reads like a “delightful rummage through a Regency chest of drawers” (Looser). Such an approach offers a sense of intimate access to the writer’s lived experience, an achievement that makes reading the biography both satisfying and self-aware of biography’s generic voyeurism.
Byrne (writing for a generalist audience) reads Austen’s life through material objects–such as an Indian shawl, her famous writing desk, her topaz cross– from her life and her books. Eschewing the traditional chronological approach, Byrne offers new insights into Austen’s experience by historicizing and contextualizing the objects that Austen interacted with, often by connecting Austen’s personal experience to world events through materialist history. Byrne’s approach is fascinating, though at times a bit too quick to draw conclusions from limited evidence.
I’ve been thinking since first reading the biography that it would be the perfect choice for an undergraduate course in Austen, since the biographical chapters would sync up beautifully with the novels, and offer arguments and insights to test out through close reading and research. And this morning, I just had a realization: what about adding in a making component to the course? If realism is the attempt to represent common experience by remaking it in fiction, then what better way to study Austen’s realism than by reversing her fictionalization, and making solid the objects from her fictional and historical worlds?
In my previous version of my upper-division Jane Austen seminar, I taught students to “dance like Jane Austen,” following the guidance of Cheryl Wilson’s article on dance in the classroom. Students loved it so much that we transformed our final into a ball–literally. Students created period-appropriate invitations, reserved a ballroom on campus, secured funding through student government, researched, created, and hosted card games for non-dancers, performed their “accomplishments” for guests (including playing violin, reading an Austen-inspired story, and teaching us all to how dress appropriately), and, of course, danced like Jane Austen. They also made food (from white soup to bread pudding) and generally exhibited their learning by inviting faculty and other students from across campus to learn about Austen by dancing, eating, listening, and playing like it was the eighteenth century.
That was the funnest course I’ve ever taught. The project–student-inspired and student-organized–brought the class together with a common mission and goal, and turned reading and studying into a joyful celebration. I hope future classes will want to do the same!
That experience–in which students’ final projects became their research and writing about their material contributions to the ball–motivates my interest in teaching Austen through her material traces. The next course could include:
1. 3d printing or handcrafting objects from Austen’s world: Byrne’s chapter on the ivory miniature suggests likely objects for printing, and we could also potentially make miniatures of the Barouche, the writing desk, the bathing machine, etc. Additionally, we could hand craft silhouettes or vellum notebooks.
1a. I might even ask ALL students to make a silhouette of a loved one in class as a way to begin the semester?
2. Make and play games: 18th century card games, baseball, even other childhood games.
3. Dance and dress: Dancing we can do; students are always fascinated by the clothes, and I’d need to think more about that. Costumes are not easy; for our ball we offered gloves for dancers who wished to be woman-identified, and cravats for man-identifying guests.
4. Materiality of the book segment of the course: last time fabulous Whittier College librarians Mike Garabedian and Becky Ruud brought an early edition Johnson Dictionary along with many 18th century texts to class, for students to handle and explore in order to understand the material experience of reading in Austen’s time. The class also did a “reading and writing by candlelight” exercise which was fantastic; I’d like to develop this segment more. (Whittier has a first? edition of Cowper’s poem The Task, which is too long to read, but which would be useful in thinking about home decor (sofa) and modes of thinking/living.)
5. Digital commonplace books: last time, students created and constantly updated digital commonplace books on Tumblr. This assignment met with varying levels of success. Some were brilliant, some were largely reblogs of images and gifs from Austen films. Very few completed the close reading portion of the commonplace book assignment.
6. To essay or not to essay? That is the big question. Maybe a multimodal essay instead, where students could include images, hyperlinks, text, and film clips alongside their research into their chosen object of interest.
6a. Another option for a project would be to turn the tables, and ask students to choose an article from their own lives that embodies a surprising conjunction of ideas, and then write their own personal (digital) essay about how that object represents an aspect of their character. That would be an interesting way to begin to defamiliarize the concept of “character.”
7. Object of Student’s Affection: final project could be for students to select an object from Austen’s novels or letters (or films? hm…), “make” it (digitally or handcraft or 3d print), and write a research paper about how its material history opens new insight into one or more novels.
8. I need to think through how I’d integrate Austen on film into the class. This is ALWAYS a big deal when teaching Austen, as the films can be such powerful filters that reading the novels pails in comparison to their interpretive power.
8a. Maybe focus on the LBD (Lizzie Bennet Diaries) and the creation of character in the staged reenactments by a single, carefully chosen article of dress (the hat, the bowtie, etc.) This would get to both FID as a style in the written novels (I see LBD’s reenactments as a theatrical version of FID) and also the costume question and the film issue…
Well, I have too many ideas and only a year to plan them! Note that I don’t yet have access to a 3d printer, so that would be a first step if I pursue this course concept. So, friends and readers, what do you think? Suggestions please!