Jane Austen Discussion Group: Celebrating a Cultural Icon

For the past six months, Bethlehem residents have been gathering at the Church Street Bethlehem Area Public Library to talk Jane Austen. As my colleague Dr. Laura Kremmel and I wrote a few months ago, we are taking the opportunity to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death (or, to consider a less morbid occasion, her 242nd birthday!) in the best way we can: by reading her novels and celebrating her writing.

We have read one of her six novels every month since April—six novels in six months. Our discussions have ranged widely, covering topics as diverse as the history of the gothic tradition, book publication, Austen’s veiled references to the slave trade, what it means to be a heroine, and even which cinematic Mr. Darcys we like best (personally, I think it’s a tie between Colin Firth and Matthew Macfayden). Austen’s novels have remained popular, and in print, for over two centuries; to call her work timeless is an understatement. Her impact on our culture is such that she even stands as a symbol for Britain, recently becoming the feature on the new ten-pound note. Her work has inspired dozens of film and TV adaptations, and an entire genre of spin-off novels. You can read Austen-esque comic books, murder mysteries, supernatural thrillers, choose your own adventure novels, imaginings about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s marriage and family, and more, all based on Austen’s characters and novels. As 2016’s film “Love and Friendship” reminds us, though, readers craving another helping of Austen can also turn to her short or unfinished works: those she wrote as a child (collectively referred to as her Juvenilia), those she abandoned (Lady Susan, The Watsons), or those she never had the chance to finish (Sanditon). Before you need to make these tough choices, however, attendees to our reading group still have one more of Austen’s main six to enjoy and savor: Persuasion.

Next week, we will complete the reading series when we gather to discuss Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, which she finished mere months before she passed. Past attendees will recognize themes from our previous discussion. Austen uses the novel to comment on the changing social landscape of British society, including the decay of the aristocracy and the rise in social standing for military officers. In Persuasion, Austen also rethinks the idea of the novel heroine with Anne Elliot. At age 27, Anne is past the “bloom” (to use Austen’s word) of the usual ingénue character; even more unusually, at the start of the novel, she has already rejected the marriage proposal from her beloved. The novel is about Anne recovering from her youthful romantic misfortune while navigating the tricky waters of her family politics and beginning to recognize her own value in a community that never considers her anything resembling a heroine. Anne Elliot is a heroine for adult readers; she has none of the naiveté or the youthful immaturity of most female protagonists. She is thoughtful, sophisticated, and helps teach her community as well as readers how to better value themselves and others.

Please join us for this final discussion.

We invite anyone to attend—diehard Janeites, folks looking to expand their reading list or anyone who is just curious! The novel is available at the Bethlehem Area Public Library, and e-book editions are free online at sites like Project Gutenberg and archive.org. The discussion will take place at the Bethlehem Area Public Library on Tuesday, September 19 from 6:30-7:30. We hope to see you there!

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