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Jane Austen's Popularity Soars at University of Wyoming

November 29, 2010
Professor and students around grave
University of Wyoming students visit Jane Austen's burial site at Winchester Cathedral during a spring break trip to England. Clockwise from lower left are Ellie Bolender, Anna O'Rourke, Lindsey Hanlon, Professor Eric Nye, Abby Lewis, Jill Kristensen, Angela Kisse and Aubrey Knight.

English Professor Eric Nye is uncertain why Jane Austen's popularity is rising at the University of Wyoming, but he is among those who show a new appreciation and passion for the works by the brilliant 19th century English novelist.

Nye, the regional coordinator for the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), has been a member of the society for many years and for three years has judged entries in the society's national essay contest. This year, he will supervise the national essay contest that is divided into high school, undergraduate and graduate student categories.

The contest topic aligns with the JASNA annual general meeting theme, this year the 200th anniversary of the first publication of "Sense and Sensibility" (1811).

Nye's attendance at previous JASNA general meetings has provided clues to Austen's widespread appeal beyond traditional academics.

"The people come from all walks of life. It is not limited to a group of scholars like you find in many professional societies," he says. "I would describe many of the participants as really intelligent amateurs. They share insights about many things that I was not aware of."

At this year's meeting in Portland, Ore., Nye was impressed that many of those attending the banquet were dressed in period clothing and danced to the music played on authentic instruments from Austen's lifetime.

Having taught and enjoyed Austen's works in his classes, Nye, a Romantics-Victorian scholar and award-winning teacher, recognized the growing student interest in Austen and last year launched a graduate seminar that focused solely on Austen. The class filled right away.

The energy level in that seminar was so high that the students planned a travel course to England for spring break to tour the locations in Austen's life and works. Students committed to this trip immediately, even though they expected to pay for it out of their own pockets. Later, funding was secured through the Cheney Travel Grants and from UW President Tom Buchanan to cover most of the costs.

Graduate student Jill Kristensen was among the students in the seminar class.

"Through reading ‘Northanger Abbey' and ‘Pride & Prejudice,' I was hooked," she says. "By the time we read her last novel, ‘Persuasion,' I knew I had found a body of literature I would treasure forever."

Kristensen, a founder and president of UW's Jane Austen Club, describes the trip to England as "a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, and there are hardly words for the effect it had on me as a reader and lover of Jane Austen's works."

She describes several poignant moments to illustrate the trip's impact on her, including a visit to place flowers on Austen's grave at Winchester Cathedral.

"After studying her works for a semester, discussing and talking and enjoying her work, it felt as though we knew her in some way," Kristensen says. "And standing by her tomb in the calmness of the towering cathedral, it felt as though I was with Jane Austen herself, thanking her for the gift she had given me with her work. I had the opportunity to put flowers on her grave and say a prayer, spending just a moment with her all to myself."

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