When Marilyn Francus talks about Jane Austen, it’s easy to note a sense of awe in her voice. The world-renowned English author has inspired – and continues to inspire – many like her around the world.
Francus, professor of English at West Virginia University, has been awarded the Jane Austen Society of North America International Visitor Fellowship. She will spend six weeks performing Austen-related research, including working one day a week at the Jane Austen House Museum and at the Chawton House Library in Austen’s hometown, as well as other duties and assigned by the society. In her research, Francus will examine Austen’s interaction with popular culture of her time.
“Writers commonly appropriate plots and characters from other writers and allude to their work. Many modern writers do this to Jane Austen,” Francus said, citing the 1990s film “Clueless,” and the upcoming movie adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.”
Francus hopes to go on a “treasure hunt” through archived documents and rare books available at various Austen historical sites to uncover a new side of how Austen’s literary world worked.
Once such document is a theatrical version of 18th century novelist Samuel Richardson’s novel, “The History of Sir Charles Grandison.” A recent published version has the novel at almost 1,700 pages. Austen, with her young niece Anna, was able to shape it as a 45-page play.
Francus’ operating thesis is that Austen was trying to inspire Anna to write, by teaching Anna how to play games with literature. Francus also hopes to discover Austen marginalia, notes written on the pages of texts. “It’s a way to get at how Jane Austen is playing with texts separate from the evidence we already have in her published works,” she said.
Like Shakespeare, Austen is widely considered to be a towering figure in the English canon – a master of conveying the human experience in her writing. Her writing tackles issues of gender, class, and professionalism – all issues still relevant today.
“The influence of Austen reaches all over the planet – to get that cultural permeability across cultures, not just in America and the English speaking world, signals something about the human experience,” Francus said. “When you’ve got a writer like that who is so universal, that’s worth paying attention to.”
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