Looking for comfort: heroines, readers, and Jane Austen's novels
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ComfortÃ¢ÂÂwith its various connotations of physical ease, wealth, independence, and serviceÃ¢ÂÂis an important concept to Jane Austen, who uses comfort in her novels to both affirm and challenge accepted womenÃ¢ÂÂs roles and status in her culture. In the late eighteenth century, new ideas of physical comfort emerged out of luxury along with a growing middle class, to become something both English people and foreigners identified with English culture. The perceived ability of the English to comfort well gave them a reason for national pride during a time of great anxieties about FranceÃ¢ÂÂs cultural and military might, and Austen participates in her cultureÃ¢ÂÂs struggle to define itself against France. AustenÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂcomfortÃ¢ÂÂ is the term she frequently associates with women, home, and Englishness in her works. AustenÃ¢ÂÂs depiction of female protagonists engaged in the work of comforting solaces modern readers, who often long for the comfort, good manners, and leisure presented in the novels. Surveys of two sample groups, 139 members of the Jane Austen Society of North America and 40 members of the online Republic of Pemberley, elicit data confirming how current readers of Austen turn to her works for comfort during times of stress or depression. Although some readers describe using AustenÃ¢ÂÂs novels as a form of escapism, others view their reading as instructive for dealing with human failings, for gaining perspective on personal difficulties, and for stimulating their intellects. AustenÃ¢ÂÂs fiction grapples with disturbing possibilities, such as the liminal position of powerless single women at the mercy of the marriage market and fickle family wishes, as much as it provides comforting answers. Comforts (decent housing, love in marriage, social interaction) are such a powerful draw in AustenÃ¢ÂÂs works because womenÃ¢ÂÂs discomfort is so visible, and for many, so likely. Thus, AustenÃ¢ÂÂs comfort challenges as much as it reassures her audience.
Himes, Amanda E. (2006). Looking for comfort: heroines, readers, and Jane Austen's novels. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Texas A&M University. Available electronically from