“Feelings Ought to Be Investigated”

Deidre Lynch on the cult of Jane Austen and the complexities of loving literature

Deidre Lynch in her book-lined Barker Center office Photograph by Stu Rosner

“Jane Austen’s Fiction and Fans” is a class so well-liked that its instructor has been forced to put it on pause. “It grew so much in my first two years at Harvard that it has almost become too big to do it anymore,” says Deidre Lynch, Bernbaum professor of literature since 2014. “The problem is that the materials we use in Houghton Library are getting worn away by the wear and tear.” She asks her students to examine primary evidence—the scrapbooks, commonplace books, and custom-illustrated texts of everyday nineteenth-century readers—to analyze the reading lives of people in Austen’s time: their habits, tastes, quirks, interactions. In addition to writing essays on her novels, students discuss the modern fan culture surrounding Jane Austen: how it changes perceptions of her writings, how today’s fans differ from earlier “Janeites,” and the sometimes tense relationship between Austen scholars and Austen adulators. 

Lynch’s class closes with a choice of assignments: students can interpret a work of Austen fan culture, past or present, or they can create their own work of fan art inspired by Austen’s writings, accompanied by a self-analytic essay on process, method, and results. The results, she says, are delightful and instructive: “Somebody re-composed the music to a film adaptation; other people have written songs; one person, with totally charming results, made Harriet Smith’s box of favorite treasures [from Emma], and then put a treasure in it for each of the Austen heroines—what they would keep in a box of keepsakes.” For the better part of a semester, Lynch heightens awareness of the distinctions between Austen fandom and Austen scholarship, and then asks her students to transgress them in the name of learning. “I think students now love making things, and like to feel as if they are participants in, rather than mere observers of, literary culture.” 

A plastic Jane Austen figurine from Lynch's collection
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Fans may sometimes do some silly things, but understanding fannish behavior is necessary to making sense of Austen’s novels, contends Lynch, who has made her name as a scholar of the eighteenth-century novel. Her first book, The Economy of Character, traced how readers’ expectations of characters transformed amid the emerging culture of mass audiences for novels. Her 2000 edited collection, Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, argues that “there are more productive things to do” with the adaptations, reviews, rewritings, and appreciations of Austen that have accumulated in nearly two centuries than merely adjudicate between “faithful and unfaithful” readings. For example, Lynch points out that an obsessive devotion to books and the authors who write them is rife in the novels themselves. Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland devours Gothic novels; Sense and Sensibility’s Edward Ferrars says Marianne Dashwood would “buy up every copy” in London of the poets James Thomson, William Cowper, and Walter Scott if only she had the money. Reading habits define other characters’ personalities: in Pride and Prejudice alone, Mr. Bennet is said to never be without a book, Elizabeth spurns the Misses Bingley’s card game in favor of reading a book alone, and Lydia and Kitty gape aghast when Mr. Collins, who never deigns to read novels, reads Fordyce’s sermons aloud to the family in a monotone. 

Lynch is quick to add that fan culture is neither a recent phenomenon nor limited to Austen. Indeed, throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, readers reacted to novels by Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Frances Burney, and Walter Scott—all less prominent than Austen’s today, though wildly popular at the time—with the entire range of passions and behaviors now seen on Twitter, Tumblr, and online fan platforms like DeviantArt and Archive of Our Own. “Readers would write to Samuel Richardson: ‘Don’t let Clarissa die! Please, please! Have her marry!’” she explains. “And then they wrote alternate endings for Clarissa and expected him to accept them.”

Yet Lynch is no uncritical fan of fans. She looks with a cool professional detachment at fan love, and at the readings and misreadings that spring from its ardent flames. Her scholarly interest in fans and readers speaks to a fascination with the power they have wielded over literature since the dawn of mass print and consumer culture—not as merely passive receivers, but as dynamic forces in the literary world. Much of her published work seems driven by twinned sympathy and skepticism: she knows what it’s like to love a piece of literature, but is unconvinced that love is always a straightforward or good thing. 

Lynch wants to know why so many self-declared partisans of literature believe that love is the most meaningful relationship with a work of literature. She herself is unwilling to presume it has always been that way and wants to re-open alternative possibilities that may have fallen by the wayside. In her 2015 book Loving Literature: A Cultural History, she points out that the notion that readers not only can but should love literature is a fairly recent assumption, born of the late eighteenth century. Moreover, that new norm displaced other, earlier relationships to literature—for example, the view that literature is principally useful for learning to do things or be good, or that it teaches readers to be more eloquent, or helps create a sense of group identity. 

This new imperative to love literature took root at roughly the same time as English literature was first accorded the dignity of professional study in universities like Oxford and Cambridge, using methods that had previously been applied only to ancient languages. Lynch argues that these two historical events converged. Studying English became both a kind of work and a kind of love, and so the relationship between work and love was complicated from the very beginning for scholars in the field. Do scholars need to love their work? Or is their work better when untainted by emotion? With only a few small changes, modern academics have inherited this messy conundrum in more or less the same form. 

Many people aren’t sure exactly what literature professors do, or how their research generates knowledge in the way that a physicist’s or an historian’s does. Lynch’s point is that answering those questions demands exploring the relationship among emotion, work, and literature, because they were historically connected. Understanding this shift is as important to English as understanding the emergence of the Baconian method is to the sciences: it changed the structure of how scholars explain what they do. Lynch has skewered more than one person for quoting words from Austen out of context; nevertheless, what Henry Tilney tells Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey comes to mind to describe what she does: “Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves.”


It is often alleged that the people who teach literature in high school and college take the fun, magic, and love out of reading. Through an insistence on abstract and abstruse concepts—ranging from metaphor to meter to Marxist literary theory—they ignore and too often quash those very aspects of fiction, poetry, and drama that inspire and move students. The humanities are in crisis today because no one in the profession really cares about literary quality anymore; they would rather sound off about culture and politics, veering onto turf that properly belongs to historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and economists. If only such teachers and scholars recommitted themselves to imparting the love of reading, literary studies would be returned to their rightful place in the university and in contemporary culture at large—a golden age of literate discourse. But they don’t and they never will, because deep down they have forgotten what the love of literature feels like, or perhaps they never knew it to begin with. 

It is against these attitudes, which can be found in newspapers and magazines on the left and the right, as well as in movies and even novels (a short list: A.S. Byatt’s Persuasion, Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale), that Lynch chose to write Loving Literature. Her book takes the long way around in making its case. It is a work of literary history; it is not an op-ed. Her chapters focus on the emotional negotiations in the work of the eighteenth-century medievalist Thomas Warton, who checked out one-ninth of the books in the Bodleian Library; the quarrels over whether Samuel Johnson was a true lover of books or not; the clockwork reading habits of people who claimed to reread all the Austen novels every year or a poem of Wordsworth’s every day. It is a slow apologia for, by, and about the professor of English, not meant for those looking for a retaliatory sound-bite. “It’s not going to be a crossover book, and it wasn’t written as a crossover book,” she admits.

An 1898 C.E. Brock illustration from Emma: "Most beloved Emma—tell me at once."

But it was meant for literature students who are wondering why they do what they do, and what place belongs to love in the scholarly life. Lynch wants to complicate the view that there is simply “a separation of a specialist caste of interpreters from a general reading public and the divvying up of meaning and feeling, knowledge and pleasure, between the two.” Most scholars do love reading, and are stung by the suggestion that they don’t; most non-scholarly readers think about issues of historical context, message, and style when they read. 

That story of separation also papers over the problems not just with detached critical reading, but with love-driven reading as well. “The phrase ‘the love of literature’ gets used as though its meaning were transparent and as if the structure of feeling that it designated were wholly healthy and happy,” Lynch writes in her introduction. “It is as though those on the side of the love of literature had forgotten what literary texts themselves say about love’s edginess and complexities.” After all, love can involve “misrecognition, overvaluation, self-congratulation, aggressivity, transference, fetishism, and/or jealousy[;] it too brings with it (sometimes unreasonable) intimacy expectations, [and] in these relations too we rather enjoy taking the presence of the other for granted.” Should you love your books the way Anna Karenina loves Vronsky? 

Fanny can seem excessively self-flagellating and moralizing—survival strategies for a girl placed among an unfamiliar higher class.

 Lynch’s most striking story of partially pathological love, woven through several chapters of her monograph, is about how—for scholars and non-scholars alike—English literature was no sooner formulated than it was deemed to be in danger. In other words, there has never been a time when English literature wasn’t, for one reason or another, dying; and yet it has survived since at least the time of Beowulf, a perpetual convalescent created out of its audience’s literary hypochondria. The scholars and critics who brought together a canon of English-language works—medieval romances, Shakespeare’s plays, the 52 poets in Samuel Johnson’s Lives—presented them as works in danger of some degree of oblivion. Lynch points out how characters in Gothic novels are constantly manifesting their love of bygone works as if they were ghosts of the departed. Later, the Romantics and Victorians started to cast the great literary dead as figures who needed readers to need them—an attitude that still thrives today in fears of so-and-so (insert Spenser or Shakespeare or Milton) being “forgotten” from the English curriculum. “Literature is never more lovable than when at death’s door,” she observes. Before we think about how to “save literature,” we should call into question why we’re so invested in seeing the species as endangered, and whether it actually is. 


Lynch grew up as a compulsive reader surrounded by a family who rarely read and moved frequently from town to town in the Prairies of Canada. She describes herself as “a Brontë-mad kid—I read Wuthering Heights over and over again in my early teens,” who exhausted at least one small-town library and loved “binge reading”: “I’ve always loved reading in series…Before there were box sets, I wanted literature to be like box sets, I guess.” Her father was a pilot for Air Canada; her mother had emigrated from England just before the Depression and still owned her family’s copy of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. Lynch attributes the unusual spelling of her name (Deidre, both syllables long: “dee-dree”) to her mother: “I think this was a little protest against marrying into an overwhelmingly Irish-Canadian family. She says it’s the Breton version of the name; I think she’s making that up!” 

As an undergraduate, Lynch studied at the University of British Columbia, where she ended up choosing English over French; though she loved both literatures, and French (a required language for government jobs in Canada) was in some ways more practical, she wanted to be reading novels and poetry rather than taking linguistics and speech classes. She continued to graduate school in English at Stanford, where she studied with the critics John Bender and Terry Castle. (She also met her husband, Tom Keirstead, an historian of medieval Japan who is currently Reischauer visiting professor of Japanese studies at Harvard.) “I came to graduate school sure that I would write about George Eliot or Virginia Woolf,” she recalls, “but then I had my mind blown by how different the eighteenth-century novel was.” 

Eighteenth-century prose fiction has often been cast, most famously by the critic Ian Watt, as “the rise of the novel”—a set of steady developments toward the escalating psychological realism (now associated with the novels of Jane Austen) that eventually culminated in the interiority of twentieth-century novelists like Woolf and James Joyce. In the dissertation that ultimately became her first book, The Economy of Character, Lynch overturned that notion, arguing that eighteenth-century audiences understood character not on a spectrum between round and flat, but rather between general and specific, where for a long time “economical” characters composed of a few deft strokes were the most admired, and “overcharged” characters were even more of a danger than nondescript ones. They came out of a world where commerce was reorganizing class and gender, public and private, to place more value on the distinguishable individual—and making characters the drivers of fiction helped cope with those changes. 

The distinctive Lynch approach to literature is probably this: take some deeply held, apparently commonsensical idea about literature (characters should be round, fiction should be loved), and point out that it wasn’t always so: that what seems axiomatic in our current view of literature actually evolved more recently and contingently than we might have imagined, and we need not be bound by the conceptual equipment with which the past has furnished us. Lynch’s research occupies an interesting place in English studies. Her work is located at the confluence of several significant trends in literary criticism within the past 20 years. She was trained at a moment when New Historicism was widely influential: the movement—born of the belief that knowledge of historical context is necessary for a full understanding of literature—often compared canonical works with more ephemeral pieces of their contemporary culture in order to explore the workings of power in a society. Slightly later, as a young faculty member, she found her work dovetailed neatly with that of a growing group of scholars interested in analyzing readers and their reading habits, as well as the material form of books (paper, bindings, type), in a field now generally called “book studies.” And Loving Literature was published at a moment when academics have begun to label a diverse range of new ways to analyze readers’ individual responses to literature under the name of “affect theory.” 

Yet her writings deliberately avoid easy identification with a single camp or movement. Lynch’s prose, while densely charged with active verbs, quietly avoids much of the technical vocabulary that marks out various schools of literary theory (and for which English professors have been, perhaps unjustly, pilloried for several decades). She mentions that she works hard to eschew jargon, and wants her prose to give her readers aesthetic pleasure. Nancy Glazener, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh who attended graduate school with Lynch, says, “We were part of a generation that wanted to produce a less ponderous, more agile way of thinking about literary texts and culture in history, and didn’t want to just line up behind certain Big Man theorists.” For her part, Lynch is frustrated by her sense that too often, in English departments, expressing an interest in one subfield or theory involves disavowing another. “I’m not convinced that you have to choose,” she insists. 


Lynch came to Harvard in 2014 after previous positions at   SUNY-Buffalo, Indiana University, and the University of Toronto. (She mentions in passing, with audible frustration, that she is still trying to get her green card, and still thinks of Toronto as home—“It’s a great city.”) In Toronto, at least two of her students liked her class on the eighteenth-century novel so much that they got tattoos inspired by Richardson’s Clarissa. She has quickly earned students’ devotion at Harvard as well; the class of 2016 named her one of their favorite professors. Her colleague Leah Price, Higginson professor of English literature, writes in an email, “Deidre’s skepticism about the plot of Dead Poets Society has not prevented her from crowding Harvard classrooms with self-identified Janeites or from reaching students outside the humanities.” Lynch muses that there’s something special about “undergraduates especially, their readiness to ignore historical distance and make things incredibly relevant to their lives—I love that… It can’t be all that they do, but I love that they do it.” 

She is one of the nine faculty members who teach Humanities 10, the year-long introductory literature course aimed at freshmen. Each professor lectures at least once and leads a weekly discussion session of 10 students. This past semester, Lynch chose to assign Austen’s Emma—the novel about a well-to-do young woman who trusts a little too much in her own matchmaking skills. She contemplates in advance about how students are going to hear what she says: “What preconceptions about Austen are the students going to come with, and what other ways of seeing her should I introduce?” The popular view of Austen has changed over the course of Lynch’s career: while the novels used to be taken by readers like Virginia Woolf and W.H. Auden as masterpieces of ironic detachment, the two decades of film adaptations (hallmarked by the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) have made Austen’s popular image far more sentimental. When she began teaching in the early 1990s, Lynch observes, “Austen wasn’t as Hollywoodized—and I certainly used to have more men taking Austen than I subsequently had.”

Lynch refuses to let herself collapse into stereotype, however: she neither sneers at warm and gooey readings of Austen, nor lets those readings persist undisturbed when she finds them. “Education is often about making people uncomfortable—waking them up so that they can’t sit slack-jawed going through the motions,” she asserts. “But I think you’re always hoping to build on the attachment and affection that people feel toward their reading matter. You just want to teach them to have multiple reasons for those attachments.”

This compromise between (the words cannot be avoided) sense and sensibility helped pilot Lynch’s attentions toward her latest project, which came out last October: an annotated and illustrated edition of Austen’s Mansfield Park—the final volume in Harvard University Press’s series The Jane Austen Annotated Editions. The format of the Harvard edition, which is just shy of coffee-table size, lets Lynch bring some of her love of using tangible artifacts in the classroom into the hands of a wider audience. For example, “Austen’s narrator tells us there was a collection of ‘transparencies’ on the wall. Well, what are transparencies? You can get one and illustrate it.” Though the material details of Austen’s world are dismissed by some critics as costume-drama ornament, Lynch argues forcefully in her new edition that Austen in Mansfield Park takes an innovative interest in using objects to deepen the representation of the heroine’s inner life. She points out in her 40-page introductory essay that the protagonist, Fanny Price, uses her collection of keepsakes as a kind of therapeutic tool to avoid trauma: “With their assistance, she conjures a version of the recent past in which even the ‘afflictions’ have become possessed of ‘charm.’”

It is the least telegenic of the Austen novels, “the ugly duckling of the canon,” as Lynch puts it: Fanny has neither money nor beauty, and in contrast to the iridescently witty and irreverent consciousness of Lizzie Bennet, she can often seem prim and meek. (Fanny notoriously spends much time and energy insisting on the immorality of staging an amateur play, an episode that even Lionel Trilling, the novel’s most famous fan, admitted “can seem to us a mere travesty of virtue.”) In recent years, the novel has been attacked for a complacent, conservative, and imperialist social vision as well. Lynch says that taking it on was a kind of “rescue fantasy”: “It’s absolutely brilliant and much misunderstood—it’s a little Fanny Price in itself.” 

Any effort to bolster the reputation of this least sentimental of Austen’s novels, Lynch acknowledges, must focus to some extent on its protagonist. Interestingly, she does this by excavating precisely those qualities in its heroine that seem to call out most strongly to the sympathies of a modern reader. Her Fanny Price is a victim recovering, and the novel “an exploration of a damaged psyche.” Fanny can seem excessively self-flagellating and moralizing, but these are common survival strategies for a girl suddenly placed among an unfamiliar higher class. And where other Austen heroines lack one or another kind of important erotic self-knowledge at the outset of their stories, Fanny knows her own desires from the very beginning: “She has given her heart away. She has done so without sanction, without questioning, either, that this heart is her own to give,” Lynch writes. Coming to grips with Mansfield Park may, then, demand that we find more to like in Fanny, or at least a bit more of the modern mind. Lynch gives sentiment at least a few inches here to take root. 

In her latest work, Lynch seems to reject the idea that a scholar needs to find the perfect middle ground between analytic distance and emotional proximity, as if they are opposite ends of a spectrum. Instead, she sets about finding new ways to configure those two approaches, as if they were building blocks—the “history of the literary affections” found in Loving Literature, the defense of Mansfield Park. “One of the narratives of graduate study is that you love literature when you’re an undergraduate, and then—graduate students themselves say this—then you get to graduate school, and they teach you to hate it,” Lynch reflects. “I don’t actually think that’s true, but I wonder if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” She remembers a colleague telling her once when she was up for tenure, with surprise, “I read your book and you do love literature!”—as if it were proof that “my character was good or something like that, that there was this ethical question as well as an intellectual or professional question.” She doesn’t think that any of those three categories applies straightforwardly to the study of literature. “I don’t want to use literature to teach critical thinking solely, but I don’t want simply to say that literature is for us to become attached to. Let’s expand our sense of what literature is for.”   

Spencer Lenfield ’12, currently a fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, is a contributing editor of this magazine. He profiled Danielle Allen in the May-June 2016 issue.

Read more articles by Spencer Lee Lenfield

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