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Bruce Munro talks to Dr Paul Tankard about Austen, her appeal and the difficulty of knowing oneself.
On Tuesday, Dr Paul Tankard delivered a public lecture at Burns 2 lecture theatre to kick off six Tuesdays of talks on the life, literature and legacy of Jane Austen.
That, despite the fact the senior lecturer in the university English Department did not finish reading his first Austen novel.
‘‘I remember being a Jane Austen newbie as an undergraduate student,’’ Dr Tankard recalls. ‘‘I’m slightly embarrassed to say I started Emma and never finished it; because I thought it was a girl’s book.’’
That idea was woefully inadequate, he says now.
‘‘I thought it was a girl’s book. And that’s true. It is a romance novel, but she is not a romantic writer. She’s as anti-romantic as she is romantic.’’
And, he adds, there are endless depths still to be plumbed by her many dyed-in-the-wool fans.
The best reason for reading your first Austen novel is that they are funny, he says.‘‘The second best is because she is clever. And the third is that she values all the right things; she sees through people and sees precisely what is right and wrong about them.’’
Austen’s humour went over his head as a youngster.
‘‘Her voice is very ironic. She doesn’t draw out the humour of things; she leaves it to you to figure out. When you are on her wavelength, you can see she is viewing everything with this wry, ironic take on things.’’
Austen is a keen observer of people, he says. ‘‘She enjoys people. You can tell she enjoys watching them closely, and that her judgements of them are completely sound.’’
Her books bear re-reading and then reading again, which many people do, he says.
‘‘I think there has been a bit of a renaissance in the last 20 years or so of people finding out how much more there is to know about her.’’
His colleague Emeritus Professor Jocelyn Harris, who is one of the top dozen Austen scholars in the world, has been doing some of this work.
‘‘Although Austen’s works appear timeless, and although they speak to the concerns of anyone who is courting, or being courted or wanting to be courted, they are also deeply embedded in their period,’’ Dr Tankard says.
‘‘Surrounding them are the public affairs, the politics, the economics of the time. All of those things impinge upon the novel.
‘‘This is much of the work that Jocelyn has been doing. She has been finding more and more by way of the social, political and economic context that is there to be discerned in the books if you know to look for it.’’
Austen’s novels are the product of a specific time, a distinct mind and a definite influence. It was a period when women were able to become writers.
‘‘There was a bit of a thing about the lady novelist at the time. So, she was fitting into a bit of a pattern there. But she combined that with her own reading. She was well-read.’’
Among her reading was the works of 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson, who Dr Tankard has researched extensively.
‘‘He wasn’t a novelist at all, but she read a lot of Johnson. People have spoken of her as Samuel Johnson’s daughter, in that she reproduces his moral outlook.
‘‘The combination of the moral outlook she inherits from him, combined with her sharp eye and the fact that women are writing novels, comes together with her surveying the world to which she belonged, and making that world the subject of fiction.’’
Such is her popularity, the Austen book and film industry appears almost self-perpetuating.
‘‘Every 15 years or so it seems they start up a new cycle of Jane Austen movies. Every new director and actor wants to do it differently, and that keeps the industry going, which keeps the books in print.
‘‘And because the books have such a dedicated readership, it means the films will be discussed. So, there will be an instant audience for any half-good Jane Austen movie; and probably for any half-good book about Jane Austen as well.’’
But the appetite is with good reason, Dr Tankard believes.
She creates an attractive world that is distinctively her own, but is populated by people everyone can identify with.
‘‘You’ve got a class of people, most of whom do not work very much. They are well-off without being filthy rich, and for whom negotiating their relationships is the most important thing in their lives.
‘‘Realistically, for a good many of us, negotiating relationships is the most important thing in our lives too.’’ All her heroines are the right kind of people, people who cut through convention, he says.
‘‘I think that is something most of us can identify with. We don’t want to be outcasts from society - we want to be living within society’s structures — but we don’t want society only dictating what we do and think.’’ Despite having many pretentious people in her novels, Austen detests pretence.
‘‘I think pretence is something that everyone is offended by, at least if they notice it.
‘‘Although it is probably hard to notice it in oneself.’’
Her main characters are able to work their way through pretence to get in touch with who they are.
‘‘Knowing one’s self is always going to be relevant. It’s part of the human condition, that we need to be reminded again and again to know ourselves, as Aristotle said.
‘‘Her novels are lessons in people learning to know themselves.’’
• For more information about the other events during Jane Austen 200 Dunedin, go online to: http://www.otago.ac.nz/humanities/ about/otago659782.html