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Reading Jane Austen

Dr Rebecca Varley-Winter

Focussing on the relationship between Austen and her readers, this course uses a series of close readings from the six major novels to explore Austen’s work in the context of her life and times, including subjects such as: Austen’s portrayal of gender and power; the influence of war and colonialism in her work; her humour and wit; her sense of theatre and performance; her use of free indirect style; her subversion of the Gothic; and the many adaptations and afterlives of her fiction. We will read excerpts from Austen’s major novels alongside her teenage writings, her letters and other works unpublished in her lifetime, paying special attention to Austen’s narrative style, which challenges her reader to decipher fact from fiction, opinion from objectivity. The course invites us to read again, defamiliarizing favourite texts and characters, moving from page to screen and back again, and uncovering the comedic energy of Austen’s novels at the level of the individual word and sentence.

The activity of reading is thematically important to Austen and her characters, as well as having implications for her literal readers. Austen’s novels teach us to read everything from the behaviours, social codes, appearances, dress, landscape, architecture and bodies of the minutely observed worlds of her novels. Reading well is a skill which Austen cultivates and rewards, and one which this course seeks to develop.

The course dips into each of the six major novels alongside Austen’s personal letters and juvenilia. It is cumulative: we will place the works alongside each other as we encounter them, and add into the mix the ‘Austenalia’ which has become an essential element of her contemporary reception. This will include contemporary film adaptations and spin-offs, and allow us to investigate the rich intertextual relationship between Austen’s core published oeuvre and the many revisionary readings it has inspired.

Intended Audience

This course is suited both to ardent fans and to first-time readers of Austen. All that is required is your own love of reading. The course’s emphasis on close reading mirrors the influential ‘Practical Criticism’ school of literary criticism taught at Cambridge’s Faculty of
English, which seeks to explore texts in detail rather than in abstract terms. Our close readings will also, of course, be balanced with material on the social and historical context of Austen’s work, as broader contexts reveal themselves, inevitably, in the texts. The skill of close reading is essential not only to students of literature, but in any text-focussed discipline – religion, language, history, law, classics, philosophy – all of whom are welcome to join us.

Previous Knowledge

No previous knowledge of Austen is required, but please familiarise yourself with Pride and Prejudice in preparation for our first class. While film adaptations will be relevant to this course, it should go without saying that you must read the book; visual adaptations are not a substitute for textual familiarity.

Transferable Knowledge and Skills

This course offers an insight into a politically and socially significant period in the history of England and the British Empire, the rise of the novel, and Romanticism. It would serve as an excellent introduction to English literature and cultural history. The skill of careful close reading is portable across all arts and humanities subjects.

Timetable Group

Each of our courses fall into a timetable group and it's important you check as some courses can't be taken together. 

Alongside your lectures, you'll also attend seminars for this course. There are two seminar groups (A and B) and you're assigned a group based on your course choices to make sure there are no timetable clashes. 

Once we've assigned you a group, you'll be able to see your allocated seminar group on the online system.


Dr Rebecca Varley-Winter

Dr Rebecca Varley-Winter completed her doctorate in English Literature at Clare College, Cambridge in 2015. Since then she has taught for Keble College, Oxford (2015–16) and currently teaches English Literature from Romanticism to the present for the University of Cambridge, the Open University, and Middlebury-CMRS (where she also teaches Creative Writing).

Her academic monograph, Reading Fragments and Fragmentation in Modernist Literature, is published by Sussex University Press (2018), and a chapbook of her poems, Heroines: On the Blue Peninsula, is forthcoming with V. Press (2019). Prior to her PhD, she completed an MA in English at King's College London, and a BA in English Literature at Clare College, Cambridge. She has ongoing research interests in the fetishisation of 'wildness' versus the domestic in writing by women.