Indulging In The Life Of Jane Austen | My First Experience With An Online Course

As you might know, it’s been a little over a year since I earned my Bachelor’s of Arts degree in English and Communications. A lot of that time has been spent asking myself “What now?” and “What next?”

More recently, I’ve been looking into MFA programs so I can pursue my Master’s. I’m still in the preliminary stages of exploring my options, one of which is the idea of an online program.

A while ago, I stumbled across a Facebook post promoting an at-that-point upcoming online course about one of my favorite subjects: Jane Austen.

The course, titled Jane Austen: Myth, Reality and Global Celebrity, was hosted on FutureLearn.com.

Now that the course has come to the close, I wanted to take some time to share my experience with my first online class.

Throughout the course, I took notes in the Jane Austen journal a friend had given me some years ago that I was saving for a special occasion such as this, allowing me to keep track of the information presented (as well as make notes about specific thoughts and ideas that might be added into current projects or future ones).D9UBHBkWsAICjLs

In addition, I also kept a journal chronicling my overall thoughts and experiences with the course through a Word document.

Below you will find the complete, unedited version of that journal.

June 17, 2019/June 18, 2019

The course is officially live and I could not be more thrilled about it. I’ve been waiting a while for this. Even though it was delayed some between work (I really thought the store would have been closed by now, not that I mind being paid to be somewhere) and having to do a full water change for Damien’s tank, I finally got down to The Hollow to work around 11:00 PM. It’s about 1:00 AM as I’m writing this. I would love to keep going with the material and knock all of it out at once, but I do have to be at work tomorrow and I have to document my progress here before bed.

That said, the past two hours have been so much fun. I’m finally putting the journal B gave me a few years ago (to which she is thrilled) as well as the ballpoint quills so that’s exciting.

This first session, I’ve gotten through the introductory videos and articles, those on where Jane lived throughout her life, and what her education would have been like compared to that which her brothers and other men would have been exposed to.

The topic of education in the Georgian/Regency Era is one I have been looking forwards to since I saw it mentioned on the outline on the FutureLearn site. The section has given me some ideas to tweak characters like James, Zach, Henry, and William, as well as Eve’s brother Percy since he might have gone to a naval academy like two of the Austen brothers. I may have to slightly tweak Zach’s “apprenticeship” with bookbinding to make it fit better, as he would have attended Eton and possibly Oxford depending on stuff (research never ends), and I’ll definitely have to look into it when I get a better idea of where this blacksmithing novel’s going—which won’t be going anywhere until Against His Vows is done. Also, I should probably start looking into what education Henry would have to pursue in order for me to do what I want with him for his own book.

The idea of a Grand Tour is one I’ve already referenced without knowing it, as James mentions a desire to see France as his parents had and William talks about the summer he and Francis spent in Italy. I imagine Daniel would have done similar, but with the focus on architecture specifically—or maybe that’s what made him get into being an architect? I cannot wait to start that book.

Speaking of books, I HAVE to talk about one of the resources in this program because holy heckin’ moly it’s a good one. The Reading Experience Database, created by the Open University, UK, is the kind of thing I really wish I had known about in college, especially when working on Bound to the Heart. As explained in the course, “This database attempts to understand what United Kingdom residents and British subjects living or travelling abroad read between the invention of the printing press in 1450 and the end of the Second World War in 1945. How did they read and under what circumstances?”

I was not expecting it to be so in depth. I might want to take a day to just sift through it in a greater capacity and see not only what Jane thought about the things she was reading, but that others thought of her writing. Seriously, where was this in college?

While we’re on the subject of college, I did mention in the blog post I’m working on simultaneously to this journal that one of the reasons I wanted to do this online course was to get a sense of what an online degree program for my master’s might be like. I went in thinking it would be a collection of videos and articles, which it is, but with a semi-graded element to it. Granted, I am certain this wouldn’t be something the professors leading the course would be able to accommodate as there are a large number of participants, so an essay wouldn’t make sense to do, but if there were something like a quiz automatically graded by the website/computer might.

As it turns out, there is an option for that, but it’s only accessible to those with a paid FutureLearn membership. I’m not, so this option is not available for me. Regardless, I’m still taking notes on absolutely everything.

Tomorrow, I expect I’ll be able to get through the second half of the materials. While I find I’m able to spend hours at a time focused on things I’m totally into—and few things are really as fascinating to me as Jane Austen—it’ll probably be better for me to pause here to absorb what I’ve taken in so far and resume tomorrow.

June 18, 2019

It’s official. I have a new favorite website.

The section of the course I tackled tonight focused on the books Jane herself read in her time period, oftentimes at the Godmersham Park library (her brother’s home in Kent).

One of the artifacts presented in a video segment discussing books like Mary Brunton’s self-Control and of course Fordyce’s Sermons (which I should probably get a copy of at some point) was the library’s catalogue from 1818, which lists every book contained within it at the time.

In addition to reading all of Jane’s works, I’ve developed an interest in reading novels from her time just to become more acquainted with what might have influenced her. I started The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliff some time ago but have yet to finish it, and I’m familiar with Cecilia influencing Jane’s titling Pride and Prejudice that rather than First Impressions, but again have not yet read it.

A lot of the Google searches I’ve done in terms of finding Georgian/Regency novels often list most if not all of Jane’s works, and then a small selection of others like Radcliff.

That’s changed.

There is a website called Reading with Austen, which is a digital recreation of the Godmersham Park library. I am completely blown away by this.

The site allows users to explore the titles housed in the library, which are placed as they would have been two hundred years ago according to the notations often written in the covers by the Knight family, as Jane herself would have seen it.

Additionally, it also contains information about where the book was published, by whom, and when, and so many other details. I’ve never seen anything this precise. It’s overwhelming in all of the best ways.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shaking and almost in tears of pure joy looking at this. That’s how exciting this is for me. Just being able to have such an extensive resource is beyond thrilling and honestly feels like something I’ve been missing in my research. Especially when it comes to characters like James or Zach and Eve, who have such an interest in this sort of thing. I can’t wait to dive in deeper and spend hours on end exploring this site for hours on end until the next batch of course materials to be available.

June 26, 2019

This week, the course materials are touching on looking at Jane in the context of her work, the kinds of things that culturally influenced her. This is the content I was most excited about diving into when I first read the course description. Even though I have spent so long researching the Regency and making every effort to step into it, I know my depictions of that setting are some of the weaker points of my writing. Especially in this most recent draft of Guises I’ve been making a greater effort to bring that to life.

As one of the professors described in this week’s introductory video, “We can’t think about Jane Austen really without thinking about this issue of periodization. She’s publishing all her novels in the Regency period, but she’s drafting and writing a great many of them in the 18th century, the late 18th century.” I’ve allowed myself to fall into that perception to, as I’ve been so concentrated on the Regency that I haven’t considered the Georgian Era as much. These days, I’ll typically describe the Regency as a sort of sub-period within the Georgian, though the Regency seems to be more known.

I’m personally going to blame the romance/bodice ripper genre for that. Books are more often listed as Regency Romance or Historical Romance, but not as commonly Georgian Romance. People, including myself in my formative years (can I say that even though I’m not exactly a professional writer/published author/still learning the craft)—when I was first looking into shifted Guises from contemporary to historical—are more apt to think of the Regency as its own time, but the truth is it’s only a few years within decades.

This is why looking at Jane’s writing through the lens of the Georgian period in addition to the Regency is so important. There’s so much more to her works that it’s almost an inaccurate perception to look at them solely as Regency pieces. Even though it’s my least favorite adaption, that’s one of the more interesting points of the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice. The film portrays the characters in the late 1700s rather than the early 1800s, as that would have been the world Jane was writing from. In that regard, there’s a sort of displacement in the way most film adaptions I have seen set the stories around the time they were published.

What’s also interesting is the way Jane’s own image has been altered in some ways to fit the desires of others, be it the time period’s standards or the kind of author people want to see her as. One of the books I have on there being more than one kind of Jane Austen, depending on the audience and the reader (paraphrasing here because it’s still stashed in a box I haven’t gotten to since we moved). Between the lack of concrete information we have about her, changing perceptions in these past centuries, and other things, it’s a bit like my mention of Frida Kahlo in that post I did a while back on using historical figures in works of fiction and that there’s the real Jane and the sort of augmented version of Jane suited for pop culture and evolves more and more with each generation.

The depiction of Jane’s appearance, as referenced in the course materials, is a prime example of this. The sketch done by Cassandra in 1810 (which I did get to see in London) is the only 100% confirmed drawing of Jane, though there is speculation and debate about others. Cassandra’s sketch would later become the basis for the painting commissioned by Jane’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, used for his biography of his aunt. In this, Jane is presented with a softer countenance, and is now the most-recognized depiction of her (and was also used on the new £10 note). This slight alteration in the commissioned painting altered our perception of its subject, as we are most often presented with this gentle spinster with a glint in her eye, rather than Cassandra’s depiction, drawn from life, which features Jane looking a little more annoyed and cross. It’s kind of like looking at a tagged photo on social media compared to a selfie of the same person with a filter.

The thing that I find most intriguing about all of this is the way Jane was writing and publishing anonymously—or at least intended to.

This kind of goes back to a class I had in college on “Life Writing” and how people portray themselves in their work be it intentionally or unintentionally (the time where everyone expected me to select Jane as my focus figure for the semester and were all very confused by my going with Scott Cawthon). In all honesty, it’s not that I don’t find Jane to be interesting, but knowing how private of a person she was, it almost felt like an invasion of that privacy. It’s why another classmate decided against using Kurt Cobain for her project. Since we live in a society where so much is available at our fingertips, from academic knowledge to what [insert-Kardashian offspring] ate for breakfast this morning, we sometimes lose sight of that limit.

Even if this person is still a celebrity, there’s still a line in place and a boundary some people don’t want to have crossed. Yet it’s that same privacy that attracts such a following. We all want to know who the “real” Jane Austen was.

I don’t know how Jane herself would have felt towards the Janeite and Austenite culture surrounding her identity. At times, learning about her is almost like embarking on a scavenger hunt trying to find a nugget of information no one else has, some new perception or understanding. But this quest neglects the subject herself and instead furthers the narrative of an elusive, in some ways, fictional authoress.

July 2, 2019

This marks the final entry into the “Jane Journal” as this is the third and final week of material provided with the course.

Much of this week is focused on Jane as a popular figure in her time as well as ours, and more importantly the way her works and her identity has been shaped for different audiences throughout different centuries.

When we think of adaptions, we most often think of film. However, the argument can be made that adaptations of Jane Austen’s works have been present since she was alive.

Among the more surprising things I found out with this was the way her novels gained their worldwide popularity. For a time, there was a trend of translators abroad taking on the works of anonymous authors (Jane herself published anonymously) and translating them for their own publications, oftentimes without even their knowledge of it. International copyright laws weren’t yet established, so a lot of things were at the mercy of those who took it upon themselves to not only translate but in some cases rewrite the work.

Isabelle de Montolieu, she herself an author, translated Sense and Sensibility into French, but her translation can also be viewed as the first real adaption of Jane’s novels, as she changed and altered parts from the original text—notably the ending, which shows Willoughby’s wife dying so he can propose to “Maria,” only to be rejected as she herself proposes to Brandon (meanwhile Willoughby goes on to marry the mother of his illegitimate child). Even though Montolieu wrote what is considered to be the first preface to any of Jane’s works, in which she praises Jane’s works, she did adapt it for her local audience.

It’s almost similar to how a film’s credits often revolve around the director’s image and thus his or her name even though it is an adaption of an author’s work (eg Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice). Maybe we ought to start saying “Joe Wright’s adaption of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” At least the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies credited Jane as a “co-author” of sorts.

There are also films that are not direct adaptations, but retellings that reshape the original work for a different audience. Clueless, for example, is loosely based on Emma.

As Kim notes in one of the videos from this week, “There are lots of different ways of thinking about practices of adaptation. We have mimicry, appropriation, rewriting.”

For some, it can be tricky to find the most “faithful adaption.” There are so many aspects to any novel that depending on who is looking at it and who it is geared towards.

Everyone knows how much I love Poldark, and a lot of the most recent televised adaption is based around the drama occurring between Ross and Elizabeth. A chunk of that comes from George Warleggan, a guy we all love to hate but can still appreciate. George appears quite early in this adaption, but he does not show up as soon in the novels by Winston Graham on which the show is based. His early arrival this time around was done in the interest of stirring up more drama.

Additionally, this upcoming and final season of Poldark is expected to stray highly off the path of the source material because there isn’t a lot to go on at this point. The reason for this is the gap between two of the books, one being where the previous season concluded and the next being a good number of years later when Ross and Demelza’s kids are in their teens. Graham gives a brief rundown of what happened in those years, but a lot of characters only get a quick mention and don’t appear, leaving a lot of questions. As such, the creative team behind the Poldark adaption is going to be tying up previous loose ends while attempting to fill in the gaps (I for one hope they spend a good amount of time on Drake and Morwenna’s relationship because the poor girl went through so much in her first marriage and Graham just gave a basic yeah-she-got-over-that-stuff and said she had a child with Drake despite her being so traumatized by her experiences with marital rape that she was afraid to let Drake touch her at all).

It’s kind of like rewriting or maybe even writing fanfiction in a way because they’re adding on to what little there is left to adapt. Another way to think of it is the novel Scarlett that was penned by a different author than Margaret Mitchell to pick up where Gone with the Wind left off and have Scarlett try to resolve things with Rhett (though the Mitchell family did grant full permission to do it).

This idea of filling in the gaps is especially prevalent in the upcoming adaption of Sanditon, which was Jane’s final and unfinished novel.

Interestingly enough, the next adaption of Pride and Prejudice is being helmed by the team behind Poldark so I’m looking forwards to seeing how that turns out.

All of this goes back to what film professor Shelly Cobb mentioned in the aforementioned video about adaptations: “The most common word that gets used to help us understand that, in both criticism and scholarship, but also in popular reviews, is the word fidelity– or the faithful adaptations. Or the one that seems most true to the text, in these sort of vague terms which get at some feeling that we have about whether an adaptation is close to what we want it to be, what part of the text, the location, the characters, the plot, the tone, some political meaning, there’s all kinds of things to be faithful to. And all kinds of things to betray…My argument in the adaptation studies that I do is that actually, a better and more useful metaphor is conversation. Fidelity is restrictive. It implies that the film or the adaptation always has to be submissive to the original. But in terms of conversation then we give both iterations their due, in terms of being art forms and what it’s trying to be faithful to, whether it’s the tone or the idea of Jane Austen, or a particular character. Or sometimes a kind of common feeling that we have about the book, which can change throughout history, and in cultural moments, and in places…faithfulness is about a sort of personal feeling and fidelity, often. And we have to be conscious of those things.”

The truth is, every piece of art is inspired by something. It’s kind of like a chain of sorts that keeps getting longer with new links being added to the narrative. In Jane’s case, between the numerous adaptions, there have been of her works, translations, retellings, and so many other things that trying to find the “right” or “best” version. And the same goes for trying to find the “real” author, given how much and how little we know about Jane herself.


Final Thoughts

Overall, I found this experience to be an enjoyable one. I was not only able to refresh my memory on what I already knew about Austen and her work and the time period as a whole, but gain new perspectives through the material. As you may have noticed from my excited raving about it, the Godmersham Park Library digitization was a particular favorite and one I’ll be exploring in a greater depth.

One of the features set up ahead of the course was a “Discussion” section, where participants were able to introduce themselves. One of the things I loved about the online course was the vastness of places where other people were from. Some, let’s call them classmates, hailed from the United States like myself, but I also saw some from Germany, Sweeden, Japan, and Australia.

At the same time, this was the first instance of me missing the classroom environment and being able to sit down with classmates in the same place to exchange ideas. It kind of added a level of distance despite this shared experience.

There were comment sections available for sharing your thoughts after each section, but for some reason, I didn’t take part in that. It kind of felt like I would have been shouting into the void and go unnoticed.

While the flexibility of being able to look at the materials at your own pace and on your own time was a nice aspect, I did end up creating a sort of schedule of my own and devoting Tuesdays to coursework. I know this flexibility is one of the benefits of online courses, especially for employed adults who have a lot of things going on already, but there’s still a part of me that likes being able to carve out a specific time to do things (I think that’s just keeping in practice with the writing deadlines I’m trying to get better at setting for myself).

I think if I had someone I knew taking the course alongside me, that would have also impacted my experience, as it would have allowed for the face-to-face contact I miss about being on campus, rather than feeling like I’m going on and on about virtual libraries and archives in conversation with someone who is notably less invested in this than myself.

This course alone will not be the deciding factor when I start taking a more serious look at graduate programs, but it was a good way to test drive online courses as a possible option. Right now, I think I’m mostly interested in finding something that’s a blend of the on-campus life and the online learning style that can be better adapted to my ever-changing adulthood obligations like jobs and such.

When I do figure out what my next step in my academic career is, I’ll be sure to post about it here.

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