Jane Austen and Romanticism: Between Literary Movements

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Romanticism was a literary movement that began to emerge during the end of the 18th century. With its emphasis on the subjective aspects of life, Romanticism can be construed as a response to the austere formality that the ideals of the Enlightenment projected onto the world. In one sense, Romanticism is concerned with restoring humankind's place in the world. In another, it can be understood as prescribing a boundary for the limits of Reason. Romantic ideals considered human emotion as an authoritative source for genuine knowledge. Whereas the Enlightenment valued the virtues of reason above all, Romanticism rejected the dehumanizing characterization of man as machine and sought to establish an organic notion of humanity. Among the most influential figures who defined the Romantic movement were the poets William Blake, Lord Byron, John Keats, and William Wordsworth, whose work served to mark a distinct shift in the overall ethos of the 18th century.  

 Writing during a time when the general paradigm was shifting from Enlightenment ideals to those of Romanticism, Jane Austen’s fiction is often discussed as exhibiting aspects of both movements. In her book A Revolution Almost beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Dr. Jocelyn Harris suggests that Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, exhibits aspects of Romantic ideals and thus belongs to the Romantic movement. The literary critic Marilyn Butler, however, argues in her book Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, that Persuasion highlights the more traditional Augustan values of the earlier time. 

Analyses of Persuasion tend to focus on Captain Wentworth’s metamorphosis throughout the book and also consider his shifting attractions between the rational, Augustan Anne Elliot, and the Romantic Louisa Musgrove. Additionally, Captain Benwick, husband to the deceased Fanny, is often depicted as wallowing in his depression and reading Romantic poetry. Perhaps this is an example of how Austen conceived of the Romantic atmosphere that was quickly rushing in.  The topic of whether or not Jane Austen’s writing belongs to one movement or the other remains a contentious topic to this day, and convincing arguments are presented for both sides. Ultimately it is up to the reader to decide where Jane Austen's writing belongs. 

Suggestions for Further Reading

Austen, Jane, and Patricia Meyer. Spacks. Persuasion: Authoritative Texts, Background and Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. Print.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. "Reflections on the History of Ideas." Journal of the History of Ideas 1.1 (1940): n. pag. Web.

"Romanticism | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art." The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

Thomas, Keith G. "Jane Austen and the Romantic Lyric: Persuasion and Coleridge's Conversation Poems." Elh 54.4 (1987): 893-924. Web.