Teaching Jane Austen to sex offenders

I’d never envisioned teaching Austen's books to a room of men found guilty of making life deeply unfair for others

Published March 1, 2019 7:00PM (EST)

Jane Austen (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
Jane Austen (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

Devoney Looser wrote the introduction to the 2019 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility."

"What's the right age to introduce my daughter to Jane Austen?" the man in the classroom asked me.

I'm a professor who's been teaching, writing and speaking about Austen at public universities for decades, so it's a question I've fielded before. This time was unusual because the student was incarcerated in Florence State Prison, in a medium-security unit that primarily houses sex offenders.

Austen may not seem obvious literary fare for prisoners. Shakespeare's plays have traditionally been imagined as a better fit, especially his histories and tragedies, with their troubling acts of violence and complex social machinations. Teaching Austen's novels of manners to convicted sex offenders is certainly not something I ever envisioned myself doing. But I was invited to guest lecture by an Arizona State University colleague who has led our campus's Prison Education Programming. He asked if I'd be willing to share my expertise with his non-credit writing and literature class.

I said yes, because I strongly believe that reading literature, and Austen in particular, may inspire readers to ask how to live a meaningful life in a world that's often deeply unfair. What that's meant to me in the past was a willingness to talk about her fiction with anyone, even those holding views with which I strongly disagree. I'd never envisioned teaching her fiction to a room of men found guilty of making life deeply unfair for others. Nor, before entering that classroom, had I considered that some of them might have daughters with whom they'd want to discuss great books.

I shouldn't have been so surprised. Like many Americans — an estimated one in two adults — I have family members who've spent time in jails and prisons and who now have probation officers. This is a sad reality of living in the United States, with the world's largest incarceration rate. Although prisoner numbers have been slowly declining, there are still more than two million, with some six and a half million continuing under correctional supervision, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Registered sex offenders in the United States have now reached nearly a million. The crimes they've been convicted of are many. As the Center for Sex Offender Management puts it, "Although sex offenders are often viewed as a homogenous group by the public, they are in reality a diverse mixture of individuals who have committed an array of illegal acts, ranging from noncontact offenses such as exhibitionism to violent sexual assaults." It's now possible to look up just how many registered sex offenders live in one's own state. In Arizona, it's 13,939. California, Texas, and Florida have the largest numbers, with New York and Illinois following behind them. Each state has some thousands registered among its population.

These numbers, shocking enough today, would no doubt have been unthinkable two centuries ago. But even Austen, the daughter of a clergyman, had close contact with England's criminal justice system in 1800. Her aunt was charged with a felony—grand larceny—allegedly for shoplifting. She was acquitted after a celebrated trial, following seven months of detention. The object she was charged with stealing, twenty shillings of lace, cost only a little more than Austen's first novel, "Sense and Sensibility" (1811), which sold for fifteen shillings. Had Austen's aunt been found guilty, the maximum sentence would have been death. This is an important backdrop for considering the ways Austen's novels handle lawbreakers and wrong-doers.

Each novel includes characters we would identify today as sex offenders. They're presented as everyday villains who groom and then prey on victims. Most are male. "Pride and Prejudice"'s George Wickham is a serial predator of 15-year-old girls. "Sense and Sensibility"'s John Willoughby seduces, impregnates and abandons one teenager. Then he grooms and ghosts another — heroine Marianne Dashwood — before marrying a third for her money. Austen explores the psychology of straight male predators, capturing their charms, weaknesses and wickedness. She also demonstrates greater sympathy than was the norm for the girls and women they targeted as victims.

Yet Austen's sex offenders are punished lightly, if at all, generally by being stuck in unhappy marriages. It's hard to say if such outcomes show her commitment to verisimilitude or reflect her sense of justice, properly served. None of her villains end up in court, despite the fact that some of their acts were then considered unlawful in real life. Successful seduction suits, for instance, might result in thousand-pound awards to fathers or employers, for their loss of services in a "ruined" female. Needless to say, this seems out of proportion in comparison with the crime of stealing lace. But recent sentences in the U. S. following high-profile rape convictions show that our own criminal justice system has hardly become appropriately enlightened.

I've seen the profound impact that sex offenses can have on victims and communities, because I've worked closely with survivors of campus sexual assault. I'm sickened by the wrongs done to them and by how our culture continues to imagine sex crimes as in any way the victim's fault. At the same time, I believe that quality educational opportunities should be available to anyone who seeks them, even those who've done reprehensible things. Those factors together made teaching Austen to sex offenders incredibly difficult and deeply moving.

I entered the prison unsure and even frightened, alongside a handful of other teachers. Once a visitor passes beyond Florence State South Unit's formidable series of security checks and locked gates, it's a ten-minute trek to the classrooms, using outdoor sidewalks that cut across the facility. I'd been warned not to expose any skin. Hundreds of prisoners in orange jumpsuits and cloth belts observed us closely as we walked by them. Men positioned themselves on concrete stoops, because this prison consists of dormitories, not cells. The dormitories are named after former presidents — Kennedy, Roosevelt, Lincoln. This may offer a built-in opportunity to consider American history, but it adds to the overwhelming sense that this is a space without women.

Most of the areas we walked past were closed, from the stark basketball court, to the threadbare library, to the small fenced-in area designed for Native American spiritual practices. Things here happen only at particular times, and there's little room for choice. I understood better why watching teachers arrive would be a notable event. I understood how taking a weekly writing and literature course might be a luxury. When the students later told me of a certain spot on the far corner of the prison grounds that they liked to go at dusk, because they might hear a few sounds, or perhaps catch a few whiffs of the smells of the small town beyond, that made sense to me. The prison classroom, too, offered the promise of novelty amidst the sameness.

The dozen students sat at long tables on two sides of the room. Some came in with folders stuffed full of carefully kept photocopied readings. One man carried an Alice Munro novel, another a well-worn dictionary. A few had nothing with them at all. I was offered a blue plastic chair at the center of the room. We were going to talk about selections I'd chosen from Austen's writings, including the first pages of "Pride and Prejudice" and some short, comic pieces she'd written in her teens. A guard sat in an adjacent office, with the door open. I didn't know whether I should smile.

The discussion of Austen was stilted at first, but it gained animation as we grew more comfortable with each other and the material. The students formed a very diverse group, in terms of age, race and educational background. That's not unexpected, because sex offenders cut across all categories. One asked me if I'd name Austen's six novels in order, and he wrote them down. Another asked me to repeat what I'd said about the first lines of "Pride and Prejudice" being among the most famous in all of literature. Yet another asked if her novels had happy endings or sad endings that made you think. A few of the students were conversant not only with how many centuries separated the lives of Shakespeare and Austen but with the finer points of Shelley's "Frankenstein." Regardless, these students weren't just listening to me and to each other. They were listening.

We often celebrate humanities education as a way to help students see their lives reflected in stories, in order to deepen their understandings of themselves in historical and cultural contexts. Another value, equally important, is the opportunity to consider lives and struggles not like one's own, whether past or present. You might suspect that with Austen — a white middle-class British woman writing two hundred years ago — it would be all about identifying differences in a men's prison classroom. And they did recognize differences. We talked about class, colonialism, slavery and gender. They asked how many students in my regular classes were male, wondering, in effect, "Are these books really meant for men?" I told them about the history of Austen's being celebrated in elite private men's clubs a century ago, at the same time that her name was marched through the streets on a suffragist banner.

The students also identified similarities between Austen's world and their own. The man who told me he had a daughter said he'd read the first several chapters of "Sense and Sensibility" — the only Austen novel the prison library happened to have — in preparation for my visit. He summarized the plot for the class, beginning with the dysfunctional family described on the first page as having been "long been settled in Sussex." He compared that family to the powerful cliques that formed on the Florence State prison yard. The way he saw it, Austen's Mrs. Dashwood and her three teenage daughters were like prisoners. Things got worse for them when the estate underwent a change in male ownership. The Dashwood women had become classed as "not one of them," going from insiders to outsiders. Similar things happened among groups of men in a prison hierarchy, he said. It was an astute interpretation of powerful, unfair social structures. I'd never considered the opening of that novel as like stratified like a prison yard. Thanks to this student, I'll never be able to read it the same way again.

For the most part, the incarcerated students asked the same questions that traditional undergraduates do. They wanted to know about Austen's life, career and literary status. They posed questions about Austen and politics, about Austen, the history of feminism, and the #MeToo movement. The man with the beat-up dictionary asked about particular words, like "handsome" and "rich," reading aloud to us their definitions and posing sophisticated questions about usage. I'd forgotten to photocopy the endnotes for them with one of the readings, and several students wanted me to describe what was in those missing notes.

I said, "I'm so sorry not to have copied those pages for you, but I had no idea how interested you guys would be in endnotes — how much you'd dig endnotes. Most of my ASU students couldn't care less about footnotes or endnotes!" A student replied, "That's because they all have cell phones, and guys in prison don't. We have footnotes." We laughed together at that. But the fact is that they had very few things of any kind to consult. There were precious few books or materials to read at all.

Arizona spends an estimated $20,000 more annually per inmate than per K-12 school student, a shameful fact. Yet little of the money earmarked for prisons is going to libraries or to education, despite every indicator that such programs prevent crime and deter recidivism. Many states do allow pathways for the incarcerated to complete higher education, something Arizona's prisons don't. (Its programs are limited to GED preparation and work-based education.) Continuing education's positive impact in preventing re-arrest and reconviction extends to sex offenders, in some categories of offense. Our refusal to invest in higher education for all prisoners is tragic for our communities, not just for these men, many of whom will one day be released.

I believe there is value in having male prisoners, in what are virtually male-only environments, discuss stories told from the perspective of intelligent, educated and disempowered women, living with codified strictures and unfair structures that limit their growth. I suggested that the man with the daughter might begin by watching director Ang Lee's fine film version of "Sense and Sensibility" and then discussing it with her. Of course, any contact this prisoner might have with his daughter will be up to the courts, the criminal justice system, those who surround her, and, one day, to her. I wouldn't want Jane Austen professors in charge of such decisions. But I did leave the prison classroom that day hoping that this father would someday be able to have meaningful conversations with his daughter about Austen. I hoped they might talk about female-centered stories that model independence, that prompt questions about consent and self-control, and that leave open the imaginative possibility for positive second chances.

By Devoney Looser

Devoney Looser is Professor of English at Arizona State University and the author, most recently, of "The Making of Jane Austen" (Johns Hopkins University Press), a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book (Nonfiction). Her recent writing on Austen has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Salon, The TLS, and Entertainment Weekly, and she’s had the pleasure of talking about Austen on CNN. Looser is one of the quirky weirdos featured in "Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom" and has played roller derby under the name Stone Cold Jane Austen.

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Books Education Essay Jane Austen Life Stories Prison Sex Offenders