Illustration of Jane Austen

The celebrated English novelist Jane Austen is the subject of many programs around the world this year, which marks the the 200th anniversary of her death. 

Courtesy UW Continuing Studies

One of the year’s most popular novelists died 200 years ago.

The characters and writing of Jane Austen, who lived from 1775 to 1817, are just as relevant, revealing and fresh in 2017 as they were in her day, say her many fans — a point that will be made in “Jane Austen: Remembered and Revisited,” a series of book talks and courses from UW-Madison Continuing Education this fall.

Anyone can sign up for the learning opportunities, which range from a one-time library discussion of Austen’s 1817 novel “Persuasion” to month-long courses centering on the brilliance and popularity of a writer who published her works under the pseudonym “A Lady.”

“Her work is just as popular if not more popular than it’s ever been,” said Jessica Courtier, program area director in arts and humanities in the UW Division of Continuing Studies.

“There are coloring books based on some of her novels. There’s fan fiction,” Courtier said. “And there are so many different representations of her novels in film and TV.

“She’s this really popular cultural force,” she said. “We think the courses we’re offering bring unusual or unexpected angles to thinking about her work and also the cultural context in which she was writing.”

Courtier will teach a class about music — and the rise of the music publishing industry — as part of the Continuing Studies course “A Lady’s Education: Women’s Arts During the Era of Jane Austen,” running Tuesdays through Oct. 10 at the Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St.

“A Lady’s Education” also will include talks by English professor Emily Auerbach, art history professor Nancy Marshall and dancer Joanna Thompson, who will demonstrate and talk about English country dancing.

Another four-week course running Oct. 17-Nov. 7 at the Pyle Center, called “Pride and Prejudice: An Abundance of Adaptations,” will look at the astounding number of works inspired by Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice.” Instructors for that course are UW-Madison’s Sarah Marty and Kevin Mullen.

Auerbach will lead a discussion of the Austen novel “Persuasion” Tuesday in the ongoing Booktalk series held at Madison’s Central Library Downtown. Registration for the class is required through Continuing Studies, whose non-credit courses are designed to share the expertise of UW-Madison faculty with the general public.

Auerbach is UW-Madison’s resident Jane Austen expert. Her book “Searching for Jane Austen,” peels away many of the misconceptions surrounding Austen’s identity. Auerbach has written and spoken widely on Austen, did a series of radio programs on the novelist and in 2001 helped organize a 40-event festival in Madison called “Jane Austen in the 21st Century,” which drew more than 4,000 people.

“She has never really gone away,” Auerbach explained about the 19th-century English writer’s popularity.

“I think Jane Austen’s novels are often on the surface about courtship and marriage. But they’re also about economic injustice,” she said. “They are about gender inequality and political oppression. They are really revolutionary.

“She changed the world with her novels, but she did so quietly, and I find that somehow inspiring,” Auerbach said. “I think especially to those of us who were shy, and didn’t necessarily want to go out there on the front lines, I think there is something encouraging about a woman who can quietly subvert her world — and do so with humor.”

Auerbach, who is also director of the UW-Odyssey Project, a program to help low-income adults get on the path to college, calls Austen a master at understanding human nature.

“One of the things that has led Austen to be compared to Shakespeare is that she will take a character and sometime nail a universal human quality,” she said.

Those universal traits apply to both women and men — who, it frustrates Auerbach, are often less exposed to Austen than female readers.

“We don’t say that Mark Twain or William Shakespeare or Herman Melville are for men only. I think exploring why we’ve sort of done that with Jane Austen is an interesting subject in and of itself,” she said.

At the 200th anniversary of her death, Jane Austen is being saluted and studied in programs around the world.

“I think we’ve had enough distance from her era to really stand back and look at her legacy in a fresh way,” Auerbach said. “I would like people to come (to the UW courses) who don’t think they like Jane Austen or have any reason to. I think reading Jane Austen you see yourself in the mirror more sharply. You also see the world around you. I think she helps you see the complexity in human interactions.”

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Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.