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Editors’ Note: Undisciplined Austen

The bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death in 2017 generated a world-wide celebration of her work and its influences—from banknotes and postage stamps to decorated benches to pilgrimages by literary tourists to festivals and conferences.  At Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, 2017 was the year of “Immortal Austen.”  In July, an international conference was held to mark the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death.  Papers were invited on all conceivable facets of Austen’s immortality and her mortality:  why her work has endured when others of her generation have become historical curiosities; what accounts for the myriad genres and forms into which her work has mutated; what mortality and immortality meant to her in her own artistic practice and her life; what the critical reception across the last two hundred years tells us about literary and cultural history; and much more.

Like JASNA and its journals, the conference and associated events attracted Austen admirers from beyond the academy—members of literary clubs and reading groups and other discerning readers.  Along with two days of stimulating keynote lectures and scholarly papers, there were public lectures by Andrea Goldsmith, a prominent Melbourne novelist, and by Geoffrey Lancaster, a leading expert in the early piano, a creative writing workshop, a secondary school teachers’ study day, a special screening of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and a concert of music from the Austen family collections.  Details can be found at the conference website http://www.flinders.edu.au/ehl/firth/firth-conferences/immortal-austen/

 The conference encouraged engagement beyond the boundaries of literary studies, with a special emphasis on the creative and performing arts, and this invitation was extended beyond the conference with a yearly research theme titled “Undisciplined Austen,” supported by funding from the Flinders Institute for Research in the Humanities (FIRtH).  Two workshops were held during the year:  the first, in May, to present preliminary work on interdisciplinary projects and the second, in October, to share more fully developed papers.  This special issue draws mainly on work from this research theme, along with other interdisciplinary papers presented at the conference. 

In this issue, Gillian Dooley and Charles Dufour explore the evidence around Austen’s own religious beliefs in her letters and other sources in the context of contemporary religious doctrines and practices and how they are manifested in Sense and Sensibility.  Steve Taylor also writes about religion, in this case the moral dimensions of religious rituals in Burr Steers’s film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Geoffrey Baker’s article deals with contemporary theories of evidence and their legal implications in Emma, while Sean Haylock and Craig Taylor take a philosophical approach to moral thought and its manifestation in the narrative technique of Persuasion. 

At the conference in July 2017, a whole day was devoted to music.  Gillian Dooley, Kirstine Moffat, and John Wiltshire presented a panel on three aspects of musical culture of Austen’s time:  masculinity, femininity, and class.  They have melded their presentations into an article focusing on how Austen’s novels reflect the social hierarchies that prevailed in the musical world of late Georgian England. 

Melinda Graefe’s essay draws on a fascinating episode in performing and visual arts.  She uses the figure of Emma Hamilton, who attracted both admiration and mockery by enacting the “attitudes” of classical women in mourning, to illuminate the way that the mourning is inscribed on the bodies of Anne Elliot and Mrs. Musgrove in some of the more troubling passages in Persuasion.  Lastly, Judy Stove brings to light a little-known episode in Austen’s reception history, the writings of Alice Meynell (1847–1922) and her misunderstanding of Austen’s work, as shown especially by her reading of the term “consequence” in the novels. 

This special issue is one of the publication projects that emerged from this exciting year of Austen-related activities.  The other will be Immortal Austen, a book of essays forthcoming in 2019 or 2020.  We would like to thank all those who made the conference and the yearly research theme possible, especially Professor Craig Taylor, then Director of FIRtH, who awarded a grant for the year’s activities, and Elizabeth Weeks, who provided invaluable administrative assistance throughout the year.  The conference convenors were the two Flinders-based co-editors of this special issue, Eric Parisot and Gillian Dooley, along with Amy Matthews, Flinders University creative writing lecturer and novelist, who brought her creative talents and networks to the organization of conference activities.  We would also like to acknowledge Amy Mead, the research assistant for the “Undisciplined Austen” research projects. 

For their invaluable help in preparing this special issue of Persuasions On-Line, we thank the members of the editorial board, who provided rigorous and sensitive readings of the submissions; Marsha Huff, whose acute proofreading of these essays greatly improved the issue; and Carol Moss, who transformed these essays for publication on JASNA’s new platform.  Thanks also to Iris Lutz, JASNA’s web manager, who helped solve problems related to our new format.  We’re grateful for all the disciplined attention that has brought this Undisciplined collection to fruition. 

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