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Jane Austen in a horrible new world: “Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?”

As an assignment two days before, I had asked my Middlebury College students to write about the incident in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey they considered the most “horrible.” But the day was September 12, 2001, and their drawn faces, so eager and shining on September 10th, revealed that they weren’t thinking much about Jane Austen.

We took a moment to write quietly before we began class. I needed it as much as any of them. Many students and faculty at Middlebury have friends and family in New York and DC, and we had spent hours on Tuesday dialing phones that would not answer. Most like myself (I had finally reached my daughter in New York) had been spared; others had not.

When we finally put down our pens, we began, haltingly at first, to discuss both of the “horrors” of Northanger Abbey and of the world we had come so suddenly to inhabit. Like Catherine Morland, the novel’s heroine, my students felt they, too, had lost their innocence. Together, we looked particularly at Henry Tilney’s speech to Catherine after she incorrectly suspects his father of murder. “Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?” he asks her.

Nothing, in our education had prepared us for the atrocities we had just experienced. To clinch his argument, Henry urges Catherine to “Remember the country and the age in which we live,” and in the days that have followed, this argument has seemed more compelling. Some of us have remembered our country in ways we had almost forgotten.

On a crisp September morning in Vermont, as we struggled to reconcile the words on the page with the atrocities of our own times, it helped to remember that Jane Austen, herself, wrote in a time of war and revolution. And she demonstrated that the functions of the human heart and the desire to know the truth (what other writers might consider small things) were even more precious in perilous times. Jane Austen begins Northanger Abbey warning us of the insignificance of the subject of her novel: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” Not surprisingly, by the end of the novel the young woman not born to be an heroine has, of course, become one. Perhaps, like Catherine, there will be hope for us too.

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