Origins and Little Englanders
Early in 2016, Amy Murat and I sat down to plan the undergraduate summer school course that I was convening at King's College London and which Amy was joining as a tutor. We had been given the title, "Jane Austen's England", by the summer school office - chosen for its marketability to and resonance with overseas students - and so we began to discuss what this idea of "Austen's England" meant.
As we were making decisions about the course, its content and direction, the spectre of Brexit hung over our conversation. The word England was once more collocated with "Little" and acted as a representation of that narrow, nostalgic view of England beloved of UKIP and the Leave campaign. What was striking, however, were the parallels that could be made with Austen criticism: old Aunt Jane belongs to Little England, where the “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which [she works] with so fine a Brush... produces little effect after much labour.” Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed. R.W. Chapman, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p.469.
This familiar line of Austenian self-deprecation has been so frequently regurgitated that it has become as much an act of metonymy for Austen's work as she has become the nation's go-to cipher for female excellence (the Bank of England, here's looking at you - along with the prettification of Austen's picture). This act of filtration, or reduction, which has left Austen a lone female voice of the late-eighteenth century for the general public and a lone representative of women on our English banknotes, has also left Austen - in the public imagination, anyway - looking like that tropic figure of demure passivity who seeks "enjoyment [in] reading" (see the mock up of the banknote) - a consumer of culture, goods and literature.
We wanted this conference, therefore, to brush aside this media image of Austen and instead showcase not only the best and most recent of over forty years of Austen studies but to open up the discussion to the lively, creative and very much active participation of women in the creation and exchange of goods, labour and services and in marketplaces - literary and otherwise. We are very excited to welcome Professor Hannah Barker from the University of Manchester to give a keynote lecture on her research on gender and work during the Industrial Revolution; we are equally pleased to host our keynote speaker, Caroline Criado Perez (OBE), whose own campaigning and engagement with social and traditional media makes her one of the most relevant and significant authorities on the issues facing women in the public sphere.
At the same time as this positive and enriching consideration of the lives, practices and representations of women, money and markets between 1750-1850, the conference could not be more timely as we face a world that seems to be, at the moment, on a moral and economic precipice - and a time in which the place of women in the public realm of global economics and politics has been questioned repeatedly. Our period of study - 100 years that bridges two centuries - is bisected by events that carried with them their own narratives of false hope, tyranny and oppression.
I hope, then, that by bringing together some of the freshest and most exciting research going on across the world (we have received proposals from around continental Europe, the US and Australia as I write), this conference will be an affirmation of cross-cultural values whilst exploring - with a mixture of enthusiasm tinged with trepidation - the historic and present issues associated with ideas of women, money and markets.
Emma Newport, University of Sussex, November 2016