I once heard Blakey Vermeule, a scholar I admire, describe the challenge of breaking students out of their passion for Jane Austen’s novels as romances in order to introduce them to an analytical mode of response—a challenge that anyone who has taught Austen has faced. Vermeule reported that she usually begins with the following thought experiment. Imagine, she tells her students, that the people in this room are the only people you know and the only people you are likely to ever know. Once a year, someone new comes into this room, and they have the power to take one person here out with them. Though you might only be exchanging this room for another, perhaps even one smaller and more isolated, you can imagine how tempting it might be to leave the room with the stranger, how desperate you might be for a change of circumstance.
After setting up the scenario, Vermeule reminds her students that this is one way the women Jane Austen writes about (that is, white, upper middle-class English women of the eighteenth century) might have reasonably thought about marriage. In a world where she could have little economic stability without marriage, one such woman might be quick to choose someone—even someone she had only known a few days or weeks—if they could take her out of that room. This helps students understand, among other things, the surprising alacrity with which some marriages are accomplished in the novels of Austen and her contemporaries. But it also opens up room for a more devastating critique of Austen’s world: a critique that, as Vermeule hopes to help students discover, the novels subtly endorse. After asking her students to complete this thought experiment, Vermeule asks them the pivotal question, the one that may change the way they view Austen’s novels forever: “What,” she asks, “does ‘love’ mean under these circumstances?”
As a recently-minted PhD in English literature with a specialty in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, I think a lot about the reasons why the remote past is still with us. In fact, at every job interview I’ve been on, I have been asked some version of this question: How (and implicitly why) do we still teach this stuff? How and why should today’s undergraduates—who are becoming adults in an age of failing democracies, climate disaster, class warfare, a global pandemic, and a nationwide reckoning with the white supremacist brutality upon which the United States was founded—care about Jane Austen? Likewise: How do we get them to care about Austen’s less-accessible literary contemporaries, whose often troubling accounts of gender, sexuality, class and race can profoundly (and justifiably) alienate modern readers? More importantly, should we? Is it worth our students’ increasingly limited time to read these novels? In a world where tomorrow is not promised, we may have to make hard choices between the texts we love and the texts our students need now.
No one could love Jane Austen more than I do. (And I mean that: come at me, D.A. Miller.) I can say this with confidence because everyone who loves Austen like I do loves her the most (as Miller’s Jane Austen; or, the Secret of Style points out). But even those of us who feel this intense Romantic (and romantic!) cathexis to Austen’s novels understand that they do not always speak to pressing societal issues. Perhaps a world in grave crisis truly doesn’t have time for texts from the past which can’t be instrumentalized by the future. That’s a terrible proposition, but one I can’t avoid taking seriously right now.
And yet, for me, reading and writing have long been techniques of survival, and ones I’ve been eager to pass on to my students. Since I was a small child hiding from my family in the back of a roomy closet in my bedroom, flashlight poised on one knee and a book on another, I have known not only the pleasure but also the necessity of reading as an escape. I don’t know what we can do to prepare young people for the monumentally unfair burdens they bear as they inherit the future we have left them, but I do know this: Austen has been chief among the authors who have helped me to survive.
So here is where I transition into my own sad story. It is not an important story, or an uncommon one. I know that. But it is mine, and I feel it keenly. I guess that’s what love does.
Recently, I received a rejection for an assistant professor job that I had genuinely believed was the right fit for me. In the stunningly (almost painfully) kind rejection letter, the chair detailed the ways in which the academic job market is broken (which, of course, I knew). He tried to comfort me by describing his own experience of missing out on a great job only to find another that was a better fit, and his kindness did comfort me. But the reality is that the job market I face is not the one he faced fifteen years ago. The right job may not (indeed probably won’t) be able to find me, as it did him, because it may not exist.
Being told that the right job is out there in a field where every year the number of tenure-track positions shrinks dramatically is, I think, a little bit like being a woman character in a Jane Austen novel. Like an Austen heroine, I’ve trained hard to be the person I’m supposed to be. I couldn’t have comported myself better on the campus visit had I been holding court in a ball room. I spent countless hours planning what I would say, how I would act, what I would wear, the questions I would ask. In fact, I had been preparing for that interview for years; not only have I spent almost a decade in the pursuit of my PhD, but I’ve also spent my entire life learning how to be a woman whose intelligence doesn’t upset people. I have all the qualifications, and now someone just has to choose me. If someone at all appealing does, I’ll probably go with them, even if it means disrupting my family life or taking on further financial risks. I want, quite desperately, to leave the room I’m in for one of my own.
I seem to be grieving the job I lost like I would a person. There’s a sharpness to the grief, a tenderness, that makes me feel like I’ve lost something I might truly have loved. On the campus visit, I was bowled over by the vision of myself in that place. The romance was palpable. We all got caught up in it. They liked me as much as I liked them, and I could feel them imagining me as a colleague, mentally trying me on for size. Like Elizabeth Bennet looking out the windows of Mr. Darcy’s mansion, I could see an appealing vision of my future from the vantage point of that place. It looked like the me I wanted to become, the one I’ve been planning to be all this time.
All those years that I read and reread Pride and Prejudice, I identified, like most readers, with Elizabeth Bennet. Now, in my desperation to do the thing I’ve been single-mindedly training for, I find myself relating more to Charlotte Lucas. When you try really hard to be one thing for a very long time, you start to lose your sense of yourself as anything else. That process of winnowing yourself down into one very specific thing can leave you incredibly insecure; I somehow left graduate school less convinced of the breadth of my abilities than I was before, when I’d worked a slew of jobs successfully. I find myself eagerly applying for jobs that are far from ideal—in places where my partner will be unlikely to find work and at institutions which can’t provide job security, where I’m likely to be overworked and undervalued—because they are the best of my very limited options. Clear-eyed about the reality of her situation, understanding that the price of even conditional self-determination is either money she doesn’t have or marriage, Charlotte Lucas chooses marriage. The only true realist in the book, Charlotte knows that the chance of an unmitigated happy ending for her, or even for her prettier friends, is vanishingly small. Mr. Collins doesn’t look so bad when he really is your only option. Like so many recent commentators on the academic job market have put it, achieving any measure of security in this world would be like winning the lottery. I’ve been waiting for the neat resolution of my career romance for years now, only to recently discover, like so many other fools in love, that neatness and resolution are features of narrative that rarely make appearances in real life. As readers we all want to be Elizabeth; in life, most of us would be lucky to be Charlotte.
Jane Austen’s own life is a testament to this reality. In 1795 Cassandra Austen, Jane’s only sister, became engaged to marry a man named Tom Fowle. The scanty documentary record suggests that it was a love match. Tom had trained to be a clergyman, but the position he was hoping for wasn’t yet available. Instead, he took a chaplaincy on a military expedition to the Caribbean, a job that would enrich him enough to allow him to marry Cassandra on his return. In 1797, while still on this trip, Tom died of yellow fever.
Though it is tempting, as many have done, to speculate that this tragic loss left Cassandra so heartbroken that she could never think of loving again—and that Jane vowed to remain single in sisterly solidarity—the reality is probably somewhat more prosaic; there weren’t many other options for either of them. Having found someone you liked enough to marry was great luck in itself at the end of the eighteenth century. Finding two such men in one lifetime may well have been a statistical impossibility for a country girl with limited travel options and no inheritance. Even in Austen’s novels, such a bounty of good luck can hardly be imagined. Anne Eliott certainly falls in love twice, but with the same man, and the only other Austen heroine who can be said to love twice is Marianne Dashwood (and her second attachment leaves something to be desired).
Austen family history reports that Cassandra Austen was devastated by the loss of her fiancé. I don’t doubt that, but think about it this way: not only was Cassandra losing a man she loved (and his family, with whom she had grown close), she was also losing everything else that came along with marriage in the period—that is, the full-time job of running a house, the public role of a clergyman’s wife, the independence of her own household, and the economic and social protections those roles would have afforded her. Given the sisters’ closeness, and that they had known Tom Fowle throughout their whole childhood, it seems likely that Tom understood that marriage with Cassandra would mean lifelong intimacy with Jane. It was common in the period for an engaged man to exchange letters with not only with his future wife but also with her family members, and Tom and Jane did write to each other while he was on his journey. Though the documentary record is slight, they seem to have had a genuine friendship.
Beyond a friend, then, Jane also lost a position when Tom Fowle died. Her letters attest to her ambivalence about the work of marriage for women, in particular childbearing and rearing. Had her sister married Tom Fowle, Jane might have had a comfortable home forever without marrying herself. Unfortunately, however, that neat resolution was not to be. Cassandra had received a small inheritance from Tom’s will, but Jane had no money of her own to live on. Once their father died, the two sisters were shuttled between their brother’s homes as perpetual guests and rarely together. This is one of the reasons why we have so much insight into their relationship; they wrote to one another when they were apart. For fans of Austen, this is a good thing. For the sisters, however, it was undoubtedly a profound loss.
There are no surviving letters from 1797, the year Tom died. We know Cassandra destroyed many letters before her own death, but it’s also likely that while they mourned, the sisters were often together, and thus without a need to write to one another. In fact, the most obvious sign that we get of the depth of their mourning is the total absence of letters from that period. Our only information comes secondhand, from family members who worried that Cassandra had grown prematurely old. Perhaps Cassandra mourned the loss for the rest of her life. Or perhaps, in leaving her the thousand pounds that she would live on in her later life, Tom had made it possible for her to live safely, if modestly, as a single woman. What’s left of the sister’s correspondence cannot resolve that question for us.
What the Austen archive does clearly demonstrate is that Jane remained ambivalent about marriage for the rest of her life. A few years later, when the brother of a friend proposed to her, Jane accepted and then hastily withdrew her consent. Years after that, when her niece Fanny Knight asked her advice about whether she should marry, Jane equivocated. She acknowledges, in those letters, that a chance like the one before Fanny—to marry a good, respectable, economically sturdy man—may never come again. She also acknowledges that Fanny may meet others she likes more and that those others may not be as good, respectable, or economically sturdy. In a world where a woman couldn’t socially live without marriage and marriage could never end before death, it’s a problem without an answer. Incidentally, Fanny Knight did not marry that man, a young Mr. John Plumptre, but rather a widowed baronet. Perhaps his wealth and social elevation made up for his age and the six children he had when they married, which Fanny would go on to raise along with nine of her own. Or perhaps she just liked him. Who knows what counted as love under these circumstances?
When I think about history this way, I struggle with the paradox provoked by Vermeule’s thought experiment. Understanding that “what counted as love” in the eighteenth century must have been conditioned by cultural forces, in this case the profound economic dispossession of women, does not mean that love in the period was not real. Similarly, understanding that perhaps Cassandra didn’t marry after Tom Fowle’s death because she had no good options does not mean that she didn’t grieve profoundly. There are contradictory truths about every life, in every age: chiefly, that our lives are particular and vitally important to us and those who love us while also being devastatingly ordinary and unimportant from a global perspective.
I have long been training to teach undergraduates that Jane Austen’s novels are about much more than mere romance, and yet, like an Austen heroine, I’ve fallen for a romantic falsehood myself. My chances of becoming a tenure-track professor were slight before the pandemic; now they are probably non-existent. And yet I loved that prospect in a way I have never loved a person. I was always too realistic to think I’d meet Mr. Darcy in real life. And yet I have loved my career as if it were an ideal romantic suitor, as a dream which was more perfect for its unreality, as a thing that would be all mine, which would make me who I am meant to be. In my relationships, I know that no one else can do that for me. But my dream of a career in academia is different. It is both flawed and ideal in the way that only an unrealistic, untested thing can be. It is like the crush I had on the quiet boy in seventh grade, who I would never know anything about but who I would imagine a whole interior life for. It will never be flawed or changed, because like that crush, it will never become real.
A person doesn’t give up a lifetime of dreams easily. I have to find other dreams to slot, little by little, into the spaces where I used to dream of a professorship, of sharing my love for literature, my tenderness for the past, with the students of the future. I will have to find another place I am needed, or simply to make the most of what I have, as Jane and Cassandra Austen did. Doing so will take time and grieving. Perhaps I will have to make an impossible compromise in response to this impossible situation. Or perhaps I will get a job somewhere I might have once considered unexciting, even unappealing, and like Charlotte Lucas, I will choose my fate happily. If I am so lucky, I expect I will fall in love with that job. I am, as I’ve made clear, a romantic in this sense, and I want to love, which is the best way to fall in love. Perhaps I will be very happy. Or perhaps I won’t. Who knows what counts as love under these conditions?
Erin A. Spampinato is a freelance writer and academic. Her work and teaching focuses on literature, gender, and sexuality, with a particular emphasis on representations of sexual violence; her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PMLA, Studies in the Novel, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, The Guardian, and Electric Literature. She is currently working as an adjunct professor at Colby College.