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Exploring Jane Austen: From Myth to Mirth

Key facts

Sorry, this course is currently unavailable. Please use the course enquiry form to be kept informed of future runs of this course.

TypeSummer Schools - Oxford University Summer School for Adults
DatesSat 2 to Sat 9 Aug 2014 - Week four
Subject area(s)Literature
CATS points10
FeesFrom £610.00
Application statusClosed to new applications
Course codeO13I402JBR
Course contactIf you have any questions about this course, please email OUSSA@conted.ox.ac.uk or telephone +44 (0) 1865 270396.


Who was the real Jane Austen? Paula Byrne's recent book published earlier this year sets about to debunk the myth fuelled by devoted fans of Austen over the past 200 years. Following Byrne's attempt at uncovering the author's full-fledged identity and unique style, this course's aim is to overturn the traditional portrait of the writer seen as conventional and genteel, and her writing accused of being overly simplistic and emotional through a close-reading analysis of her productions. Austen's concerns about women, religion, and politics beyond the borders of her small community are raised with catching enthusiasm and tongue-in-cheek humour.

The myth of Jane Austen as a demure spinster was shaped by her brother Henry, when he published the last two of her completed novels after her death, and burnished by her nephew, artist James Edward Austen-Leigh, who chose the watercolour cartoon drawn by Jane's sister Cassandra in 1810 as the frontispiece of the 1870 edition of his biography. This painting presenting a sardonic image of Jane confined her within the domestic Victorian ideal of feminity. And yet, it does not fit with her intellectual brio. By wanting to safeguard Jane's image against the public – Cassandra even destroying Jane's letters after her death in order to protect her sister's privacy – her family paradoxically contributed to creating a myth. However long-lived, the latter has recently been shaken by the controvercial discovery of a contrasting image of a stern-looking regency woman, probably painted in 1815, unearthed by Dr Paula Byrne's husband at an auction. This course aims to push open the door of Chawton House, which has been turned into a shrine to the author, in order to discover the real Jane Austen behind the myth. Based on a contrasting analysis of the two remaining pictures of Jane, the course wishes to explore the historical context of her writing, as well as the tone and style of her fictions Love and Friendship, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Northanger Abbey. They convey a mirthful image of England with their usually happy endings and portrayal of a rural Georgian society, but Jane's tongue-in-cheek humour is also used to denounce the evils of her world.

Programme details

Session 1: This session aims to introduce the tutor, the participants and eventually the programme of the course.
  • Introduction (tutor/ participant)
  • Short quiz about the participants'general preconceived knowledge about Jane Austen and her world
  • Introduction of the course (definition of the topic)
  • Analysis of the two contrasting pictures of Jane Austen
  • Presentation of the main material of the course (corpus, and further reading list), and visit of the library.

  • Sunday
    Session 2: This session aims to introduce Jane Austen's life (based on a reading of Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life and Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things) and time (with extracts from BBC documentaries on Jane Austen and images). The participants (organised in 5 groups of 3 or 4) will be asked to present the four books under study (5 min for each group), focusing on Jane Austen's tongue-in-cheek humour in her fictions.

    Session 3: This session aims to analyse Jane Austen's early work, Love and Freindship. It will highlight the role of parody in the short epistolary piece. The participants will be asked to prepare a close-reading analysis of an extract from the book. They will be given a sheet summarizing the main rhetorical devices and the methodology of the commentary to guide them through their first literary analysis.
    Session 4: This sessions aims to prepare the participants for the trip to Chawton House. Presentation of the house where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life, writing the majority of her mature work (Mansfield Park and Emma among others) and rewriting some of her earlier work (mainly Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, which was written in her youth in 1798-1799 and then called Susan, but extensively revised at Chawton). Some vital clues to the life and habits of the writer will be found in the house.

    Session 5: Trip to Chawton House (guided tour)
    Session 6: Trip to Chawton House (guided tour)

    Session 7: This session aims to sum up the participants' impressions of their trip to Jane Austen's House in Chawton and to use their remarks to introduce the first novel under study, i.e. Sense and Sensibility.
  • Introduction to the notion of sensibility in the 18th century
  • Jane Austen's parodic use of sensibility

  • Session 8: The participants will be asked to think about the two following questions:
  • Do they think that the novel’s narrative voice encourages readers to value sense more than sensibility, or to value the character that has both in equal measure?
  • To what extent would they describe Austen's work as anti-romantic or anti-sentimental?

  • An excerpt from the text will be analysed and a short introduction to the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility will be given (with a video interview
  • A viewing of Sense and Sensibility (BBC production) will be organised on that evening. (3hrs)

  • Thursday
    Session 9: This session will start with a talk about Andrew Davies' adaptation of the novel. It will then move on to introduce Jane Austen's Emma, "the heroine whom no-one but myself will much like", as the writer insisted in 1815 as she was writing her fiction. The shift from personal to social irony will be studied through an analysis of the character of the matchmaking "bad girl" Emma Woodhouse.
    Session 10: The participants will be asked to consider the use of the narrative voice and in particular Austen's polyphonic vision in Emma. They will be encouraged to back up their arguments with theories from Bakhtin's "Discourse in the Novel", Stanley Fish's Is there a Text in This Class The Authority of Interpretative Communities, and Umberto Eco's Lector in Fabula. (extracts from these books will be provided). The first few pages of the introductory chapter will be analysed

    Session 11: last two sessions will be dedicated to the study of Northanger Abbey, Austen's parodic rewriting of Gothic fictions, in particular Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho.
    Session 12: The participants will be asked to think about the role played by Austen’s references to Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey, and the message conveyed through the use of parody. An extract from the book will be analysed (her first visit to the Abbey, chap 20).

    FIELDTRIP There will be day trip to Chawton to visit Jane Austen's house.
    There will also be an, as yet to be determined, evening trip to see an Austen play in an Oxford college for which students will be expected to pay when they arrive.


    Dr Celine Sabiron

    Role: Tutor

    Dr Céline Sabiron is a Junior Research Fellow in English literature at Wolfson College, Oxford, and a tutor in Romantic and Victorian literature, as...more

    Course aims

    This course aims to study Austen's major fictions through the perhaps less well-known perspective of her personality and in particular her tongue-in-cheek humour, while placing her work in its historical and cultural context and encouraging close critical analyses of the texts.

    This course will enable students to:
  • go beyond the general preconceived opinions of Austen's novels to the production of reasoned, informed and supported arguments;
  • gain some contextual cultural and historical knowledge of the 19th century;
  • acquire the literary tools and technical vocabulary necessary for close reading analyses of texts.
  • Level and demands

    On acceptance you will be given preparatory reading and a title for a short essay of about 1500 words to be submitted before the summer school begins. The essay is intended to help you clarify your thinking and reading on the chosen subject.

    The purpose of the first essay is to get your own ideas down on paper - we will send a guide to writing essays with your enrolment pack. By completing the required preliminary work you will be able to make the most of your time at Oxford.

    At your first tutorial your tutor will discuss your essay and make suggestions for a further piece of coursework to be completed during the week. The may take the form of another essay (of about 1000 words) or a presentation, undertaken either individually or jointly with another student. If you decide to work with another student, each student will need to submit individual documentation of the presentation.

    Recommended reading

    Compulsory reading: Participants will be asked to have read (and to bring to Oxford for use in classes) the following books (all by Jane Austen)
    • Love and Freindship in Catharine and Other Writings
    • Sense and Sensibility
    • Emma
    • Northanger Abbey
    (Recommended editions: Oxford University Press)

    Further reading (no need to bring these books to Oxford): Copeland, Edward, and Julie McMaster, eds. 1997. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Jones, Vivien. 1996. How to Study a Jane Austen Novel. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
    Stokes, M. 1991. The Language of Jane Austen: A Study of Some Aspects of her Vocabulary. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
    Butler, Marilyn. 1990. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford University Press.
    Byrne, Paula. 2013. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. London: Harper.

    Teaching methods

    All summer school courses are taught through group seminars and individual tutorials. Students also conduct private study when not in class and there is a well stocked library at Oxford University Department for Continuing Education to support individual research needs.

    Teaching outcomes

    By the end of this course students will be expected to understand:
  • the chronology of Austen’s life and work, and the reality behind the myth;
  • some of the most important themes of Austen’s major novels;
  • Austen’s characteristic techniques and style, in particular her tongue-in-cheek humour.

  • And students will have gained and/or developed the following skills:
  • the ability to speak and write with confidence about Austen’s life and times;
  • some practice in using the context of the text to enhance its readings;
  • some practice in close critical analysis and the formulation of reasoned arguments supported by reference to the text.
  • Accommodation

    All bedrooms are modern, comfortably furnished rooms, all with tea/coffee making facilities, TV, telephone and private bath or shower rooms.

    The residential course fees including tuition, all meals and accommodation are per person, per course/week.

    Accommodation, along with your course, can be booked online using the 'enrol now' icon. You can also apply by post. To do this please print the downloadable application form, complete it, and then post it to the Programme Administrator. If you have a specific question regarding accommodation please contact the summer school administrator: oussa@conted.ox.ac.uk or telephone: + 44 (0)1865 270396.

    IMPORTANT: If you require shared accommodation you cannot enrol online. Instead, please download the application form, complete and email or post it to the OUSSA office. You should complete one application form for each student enrolling and return c/o OUSSA administrator via

    email: OUSSA@conted.ox.ac.uk

    fax: +44(0)1865 270 429

    or post: OUSSA, OUDCE, 1 Wellington Square, OXFORD OX1 2JA).

    Additionally, if you have not already done so, please register on our website.

    To download the PDF application form


    There is a limited number of bursaries available, which include those kindly donated by the Governing Body of Kellogg College, Oxford, and the Ruth Windsor Fund.

    Bursaries are provided for UK applicants on low incomes or state benefits who wish to continue or resume studying. Bursaries will normally be offered to first time applicants to the summer school only. Please note that bursaries will not cover more than 50% of the OUSSA fee - and many students will receive less than this amount. Therefore, bursary applicants must be able to pay (at least) 50% of their course fee.

    The deadline for bursary applications is 1 March 2014. Please contact the Programme Administrator by email at oussa@conted.ox.ac.uk to request an application form. Please note that evidence is required to support bursary applications (eg wage slips, details of income from state benefits, Council Tax bills), and applicants are therefore advised to allow sufficient time to complete the necessary paperwork.

    Fee options

    Programme Fee
    Programme Fee (no accommodation, lunch and dinner provided): £610.00
    Programme Fee (single room - incl. all meals): £1280.00
    Programme Fee (deluxe single room - incl. all meals): £1380.00
    Catering: £0.00
    field trip to Chawton (Jane Austen`s house): £40.00

    Apply for this course

    Click here for details of the application process.

    Sorry, this course is not currently accepting applications. If you have any questions about this course, please use the course enquiry form.

    Programmes including this module

    This module can be studied as part of these programmes:

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