Murdoch adds Jane Austen specialist

August 20, 2013

Jane Austen continues to fascinate readers.

Murdoch University Lecturer Dr Olivia Murphy has two theories on the enduring appeal of novelist Jane Austen, author of iconic novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park.

“My cynical answer is that her novels are tightly, yet simply plotted and make for good television,” Dr Murphy said.

“A more hopeful answer is that she reached a level of ability in the novel that no one had reached before and that her characters capture the complexity of the decisions people have to make in their lives.”

Dr Murphy said early 19th-century England was very much like our own time, with a focus on commerce and capitalism, and that Austen had an eye for moral dilemmas this created.

“She wrote about the middles classes, those who had the typical range of options open to them in their society, but who had constraints; they had to keep businesses running or get a job,” she said.

“These constraints led to decisions where ideals and survival had to be balanced – some, such as those relating to the slave trade or the war in France, which were politically charged.”

Dr Murphy has recently published her first book, Jane Austen the Reader, looking at how Austen subtly and skilfully used her novels to comment on everything from politics to female rights.

“Austen lived through a time of immense repression, where things such as going for a walk or going to see paintings were politicised actions,” she said.

“She had family employed by the government, so she couldn’t speak openly against oppressive laws that were starving people or stand up for feminist principles, so she implied and used codes.

“For example, at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth returns from a walk with mud on her petticoats and people are appalled, she is being politically subversive.

“At the time, people such as Wordsworth and Coleridge were very much into walking, but they were associated with a part of society in favour of the French Revolution, whom the government considered suspect.

“Beyond that, when women went out walking, they were generally prostitutes, so Austen is really saying, ‘I can go out for a walk. I’m not a prostitute. Women should be allowed to walk wherever they want.’”

Dr Murphy said at other times, Austen used references as subtle as a single word, or a line from a radical poet, which certain readers would understand.

“Mind you, the works are so rich that you don’t need to know the codes to enjoy them,” she added.

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Comments (2 responses)

Anne Allen August 20, 2013

This is really interesting. So are modern day romance novels the today equivalent?

Olivia Murphy August 20, 2013

Hi Anne,
What we'd call romance novels were the vast majority of novels written during Austen's lifetime, and she deliberately decided to work within their conventions, just as Shakespeare used the conventions of the revenge tragedy in Hamlet. Most of her contemporaries were writing very much in the style of Mills & Boon and the like. Austen's work is far more complex and interesting than many of her contemporaries', though, and I don't think that in today's culture the most talented writers and film makers are interested in working on what's dismissed as 'chick lit' or 'chick flicks'. There's no reason that contemporary literature dealing with relationships between people (which I think most of us would call a pretty important topic!) can't be just as good as Austen. Unfortunately it just tends to be pretty simplistic and unexciting.
Thanks for your comment,

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