Emma – 200 years of perfection: Report on JASA Weekend Conference 2015, Pt 1

JASACT decided not meet in July because – lucky us – JASA’s biennial weekend conference was being held in Canberra so, in lieu of our usual meeting report, we are now posting on the conference.

The conference’s first speaker was Barbara Seeber, Professor of English at Brock University, St Catherine’s, Canada. Her topic, Jane Austen and Animals, was drawn from her book of the same name. Today’s post is a brief report on that book because one of our members bought it and has read it over the last week! How good is that. Our second post will comprise brief summaries of the rest of the papers.

Prepared by member Sally.

Animals are everywhere

Barbara K Seeber
Jane Austen and Animals
Ashgate Publishing, Surrey and Vermont, 2013

Paws up who hasn’t thought at some point ‘But there are no animals in Jane Austen’s novels.’ Even my shih tsus complained to me about ‘the lack of dogs in those books you are always reading’ and were hardly mollified when I reminded them about pug and pug’s puppies in Mansfield Park. Fortunately, I am now able to lend them my copy of Barbara K Seeber’s Jane Austen and Animals which I bought after hearing her thought-provoking speech at JASA’s recent conference on Emma, and which reveals that:

Commodified animals are everywhere in Austen, whether as meat, prey, transportation, entertainment, or even decoration … (Preface: x).

Brock ills from Emma

He was very sure there must be a lady in the case (CE Brock, 1909 Dent ed., from solitary elegance.com)

Drawing on animal rights literature, feminist theory (including ecofeminism), arguments about vegetarianism, and other sources, both contemporary to Austen and recent (all helpfully summarized in the introduction), Seeber argues that:

Austen aligns her objectification of nature with the objectification of women and, more specifically, the hunting, shooting, and racing of animals with the domination of women. Austen draws parallels between the position of women and animals, and her uneasy marriage plots critique women’s subordination as part of nature. (p 11)

In separate chapters she then proceeds to examine: 18th and early 19th century animals rights discourses, particularly those linking the treatment of women and animals; Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park in the context of contemporary debates on hunting; the importance of nature through the relationship of Elizabeth and Darcy; the significance of Fanny Price’s love of nature, and the ways in which she is treated variously as slave and animal; and the use of food (and agriculture) to comment on male dominance and social inequities, particularly in Emma. These are just a few examples from Austen’s novels (including the juvenilia) and her letters which Seeber draws on to illustrate her argument. In the final chapter she writes insightfully on the role of nature in the unfinished novel Sanditon and the poem that Austen wrote about the Winchester horse races just two days before she died. Seeber’s conclusion then shows how the representations of hunting in recent film and television adaptations have missed Austen’s point.

And Lady Bertram’s nameless pug(s) finally receives the attention that he or she and his or her puppies deserve, at least from us, if not from their owner.

On one reading, I don’t feel that I have done justice to Seeber’s argument and many insights, but I plan to keep her book within easy reach as I re-read Austen’s novels. So, back to Sense and Sensibility to re-consider tree-loving Marianne and predatory Willoughby and his horses and pointers.


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