Surf and sensibility

Sean Coughlan

When Jane Austen produced her final revision of Pride and Prejudice, over 180 years ago, the whole novel had been laboriously handwritten. It might have surprised her to learn that her novels, written before trains linked Hampshire to London, could now travel the world in a matter of seconds.

The Internet is a treasure trove for anyone studying Jane Austen, with an on-line library of the novels themselves, letters, juvenilia, critical essays, biographies, pictures, maps and plenty of trashy trivia.

As a starting point, there is a "Jane Austen Info Page", set up by the University of Texas, which lets users into a selection of Austen material. All the novels are available to read on the screen or, more practically, to save on to your computer to read or print out later. What makes this such a useful system is the way in which the text is annotated. Key words, themes and characters are highlighted, and by clicking on these you can turn to the electronic equivalent of revision notes.

For example, in Pride and Prejudice, if you click on "Elizabeth Bennet", the system will show you hundreds of items related to her character, examples of her wit, or how the narrator describes her at important moments in the story. In terms of culling key quotes from hundreds of pages, this could be an exam lifeline.

There are other Internet sites giving ideas on Austen. In "Electronic Jane Austen", Eric Johnson, a professor of English at Dakota State University, writes about using a computer for literary analysis. By searching the electronic text, Professor Johnson has found patterns in the carefully-toned language of Pride and Prejudice. As an example, by looking at every single example of their use, the very Austenesque words, "agreeable" and "amiable", Johnson says, are found not to be synonyms in the novel, but to have very specific meanings, with the former meaning superficially well-mannered, as opposed to the inner goodness suggested by the latter.

More number crunching, in "How Jane Austen's Characters Talk", comes up with the observation that in the writer's six novels, only 152 colour words are ever used in speech. This might at first seem a rather train-spotterish approach to literature, but it identifies precisely an otherwise elusive quality in Austen's prose.

In the University of Califoria's Internet literature section, there is more analysis of Austen's language. A political point is made about her consistent use of "their" as a singular possessive word, rather than the gender specific "his" or "hers". As the academics argue here, the assertion that "their" in the singular is wrong, runs against its use in Pride and Prejudice, allegedly the book most used as a teaching text in English.

There are dozens more Austen-related sites, with critical essays, work by her contemporaries, details of all the film and television adaptations drawn from her novels. Enough to suggest that Jane Austen has become a literary surf icon.

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