Dr Ruth Wilson had her first glimpse of Elizabeth and Darcy in the performances of Hollywood movie stars Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier in the 1940s film, Pride and Prejudice.
“I met Jane Austen in the picture theatre in the country town of Griffith with my parents,” said Dr Wilson. In her recently completed PhD in which Jane Austen’s novels are the exemplar for analysis, she proposes a reading model that allows for personal responses to characters. “Greer Garson is my Lizzie Bennett – she had such a merry way about her, such an archness without being coy. ”
Dr Wilson, who completed her PhD aged 88, has spent a lifetime reading and rereading Austen’s six novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.
Her PhD thesis, Milestones in a Reading Life: Jane Austen and Lessons in Reading, Learning and the Imagination (doc 450KB), is part personal reading memoir and part a re-imagined approach to teaching Austen’s fiction in schools, where the novels have appeared on reading lists for over a century.
Dr Wilson examines how reading Austen might be of value to student-readers, especially those preparing for adult life in the twenty-first century. She draws insights and techniques from memories of her own reading life and from the reading memoirs of other lifelong readers. One of the strategies she proposes is reading aloud in the classroom so that students learn to read with their senses, savouring the feel of the words in their mouths and the sound of the words in their heads.
“It’s about reading for pleasure,” Dr Wilson explained. “Jane Austen often sat with her parents and siblings in the evenings, reading for pleasure. She would have read her chapters aloud to gauge how they sounded and how listeners responded. She possibly adjusted spaces for pausing, tone of voice and emphasis in her writing. It’s as if she wants us to read them aloud.”
Jane Austen memoir
Dr Wilson’s PhD led to writing a memoir, The Jane Austen Remedy, on her reading life and finding her voice again after a period of sadness. It was published in 2022, the year Dr Wilson turns 90.
“In writing this book I have tried to show others how my life was transformed by that single decision to re-read six ing the hitherto impossible dream of falling in love with life again,” Dr Wilson said. “Without quite realising where fate was taking me, I drifted back to my Alma Mater and wrote a dines and advocates my reading remedy: reading and re-reading Austen’s novels, silently and aloud, and thinking deeply about how they relate to our own lives.”
“When I was writing down my memories, I felt that I was sending a message to people who read fiction; people who, like me, love and need to read fiction,” Dr Wilson added. “I have to confess that it has not always been easy to share my memories and cross from the private to the public sphere. I have tried to address the challenges of my 90 years with integrity as well as discretion, and to show how my now-unconventional life, defined by the sort of companionate marriage that Jane Austen described two hundred years ago, has grown wings and flown me into my twilight years.”
When students slow down and read the text aloud “they can pay attention to alliteration and to the images that are evoked by Austen’s choice of language,” Dr Wilson said. “You notice more when you read aloud and you are using all your senses. You don’t dip-and-skip over the pages, you become more finely attuned to the bright and sparkling words”. She treats attunement as a key concept in her research reading model.