Meet David Norton one of the speakers at the upcoming Symposium Jane Austen: The Good, The Bad and The Undressed.
‘I am now going to murder my sister’: Villains and villainy in Austen
I hope the audience will help me by nominating their favourite villains in Austen (and those they hate the most). I will try to weave my talk around these nominations, and questions such as the following. Do ‘the graces, the spirit, the sagacity and the perseverance of the villain of the story outweigh all his absurdities and all his atrocities’ (Sanditon)? Are all her villains seducers who want money even more than they want sex? Are they all ‘black at heart, hollow and black!’ (Persuasion)? Is Austen fascinated by wickedness? Is Mr Knightley right that ‘Frank Churchill was a villain’? Why are villains so important in Austen?
An English master nominated ten great English novels and asked us to read two of them during the Easter vacation. So I first read Pride and Prejudice (and Tom Jones). Ever since it has been my favourite novel to teach and to read aloud. There is no better way to begin a course on the novel than to read aloud the opening chapter. When my wife was ill it was the last book we read together (no need to fill in parts of the plot she might miss). Her favourite scene in literature was always Lady Catherine’s visit to the Bennets, and, even in sad circumstances, we thoroughly enjoyed it. Hooray for Elizabeth, and thank God for the gift of Austen! While Elizabeth is my favourite heroine, I identify most with Mr Bennet. If he, perhaps, is a kind of villain, I might be so too.
In retirement, I continue to work on Austen. I have given several talks to the Jane Austen societies in Australia and New Zealand, and am currently writing a study of Austen’s writings, ‘Jane Austen, Laughter and Compassion’. After working so long on the Bible, it is a pleasure to work on a female author with a sense of humour. But the Mr Bennet in me means that the book may never be finished.
David Norton FRSNZ
Emeritus Professor of English
Victoria University of Wellington