When it comes to climate change, is Jane Austen part of the problem?
In a grossly oversimplified nutshell, that’s the question that will be tackled by EcoAusten, a project launching this month over at The Jane Austen Review, a two-year-old website sponsored by Pacific Lutheran University.
EcoAusten was launched in response both to its creators’ experience of climate change in the Pacific Northwest – PLU is located in a suburb of Tacoma, Wash. – and to the work of Indian novelist and climate activist Amitav Ghosh. “Austen’s novels, according to Ghosh, are emblematic of a cultural matrix that brought into being desires -- for travel, for commodities, for lifestyles -- that are unsustainable in the face of our current environmental crises,” the website explains in an introduction to the project.
Participants in EcoAusten – which is to say, pretty much anybody who wants to join in – will read Austen’s novels, beginning with Northanger Abbey, and share notes and comments using Hypothesis, the collaborative annotation platform. (To participate, you must first create an account at Hypothesis and download a free browser extension; as of this writing, it’s not clear whether you’ll also need a site password to participate.)
“We hope to create a meaningful conversation about how [Austen’s] work can help us reflect on the values, desires, and relationships that shape our everyday engagement with nature, and about what it means to read Austen in a world on fire,” explains The Jane Austen Review.
I haven’t read Ghosh on Austen, so I should probably refrain from critiquing his argument based on a one-sentence summary. I can’t, however, resist pointing out that Austen’s novels actually say very little about the material conditions of characters’ lives: Austen seldom provides detailed descriptions of clothing, houses, gardens, or carriages, and the characters who fixate on such matters (think Sir Walter Elliot, Fanny Dashwood, Mrs. Norris, Mrs. Allen, or Mrs. Elton) are portrayed as foolish at best and grasping at worst.
Meanwhile, her heroines are, not infrequently, nature lovers: They enjoy brisk walks (Elizabeth Bennet) and wax rhapsodic over autumnal woods (Marianne Dashwood) and starry skies (Fanny Price). I can’t help wondering if Ghosh’s view of Austen as a tribune of conspicuous consumption is influenced by filmed adaptations of her novels, which assuredly do spend a lot of time ogling Regency fashion and real estate.
But hey! This is exactly the kind of discussion we should be having over at The Jane Austen Review, as EcoAusten gets underway.