Is Jane Austen an essential author? Must all English majors – all readers, even! – get to know her work before they can count themselves among the truly educated?
It’s an interesting question, calling for careful consideration of such matters as genre history, literary quality, influence, and popularity, and of what role (if any) race, class, gender, and national identity should play in weighing the relative importance of all of the above.
This was not, however, the approach that Britain’s conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper took last week, in a story breathlessly headlined, “Jane Austen dropped from university’s English course to ‘decolonise the curriculum.’ ”
The story purported to reveal that the University of Stirling, in Scotland, had excised Austen from its academic program and replaced her with Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison, in a bid to increase curricular diversity in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Cue rewrites in many other news outlets, and predictable right-wing outrage about “woke nonsense” and "sociologese" and “hyper-Americanisation.” (The horror!)
You will not be surprised to hear that this controversy was entirely artificial, presumably originating from the fundamental human drive to create clickbait. In fact, as careful readers of the original article might have realized – and as the university spelled out soon after -- Austen has been dropped not from Stirling’s entire English curriculum but merely from the syllabus of a single course, a “Special Authors” module whose focus changes regularly.
Entertaining as it is to see Jane Austen – which is to say, Jane-Austen-as-symbol-of-all-traditional-British-values-under-threat-from-American-wokitude -- dragged by the heels into a ginned-up outrage-fest, I find myself a tad exasperated at the uninterrogated assumption lying at the heart of this entire teapot tempest: namely, that any one author is so essential a foundation-stone in the vast, towering, diverse edifice of EngLit that to remove them is to undermine the entire structure.
Do not get me wrong. I think Jane Austen is a seminal figure in the development of the novel, and were I teaching an EngLit survey – which God forbid, but never mind -- I would include her. But could I imagine a perfectly respectable literature curriculum that left her out, perhaps because it focused on a different genre, a different historical period, a different set of themes? Yes, I could. Maybe you could not. Discuss.
Needless to say, however, none of that fits in a headline.