Jane Austen, Literary Godmother

darcysintownIf you were anywhere near the Internet yesterday, you probably know that it was the 200th anniversary of the debut of Pride and Prejudice. To which we say, Yay Jane! Two centuries of continuous publication is nothing to sneeze at, and the fact that the novel’s commentary on class, marriage, money, and perception still holds truth for a modern reader speaks well not only of Austen, but of us. Plus what better way will anyone find to say not very much at all, yet still manage to be vaguely literary about it, than to call something a truth universally acknowledged? There’s something comforting about it.

But it’s also nice to hear that Austen has transcended the usual affable tropes—that she is enduringly wry, clear-eyed, au courant—to be designated one of the most influential authors of her day. Recent literary data crunching shows that she, along with Sir Walter Scott of Ivanhoe fame, topped all other early 19th-century writers for sheer powers of stylistic and thematic inspiration.

Matthew L. Jockers, the man behind this latest bit of computational analysis, is an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. He uses algorithms based on word patterns and textual elements to show stylistic links among novels, which in turn reveal patterns of influence—something like Klout, but without the annoying email alerts. A better analogy, which Jockers used for the title of his own research presentation, would be that of genomics. This is just the most recent note in a long line of quantitative work in the digital humanities—readers with long memories will recall Like Fire‘s infatuation with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which is still crunching away. The potential for both useful research and excellent trivia are inspiring. As Jockers puts it,

We’re at a moment now when there is much greater acceptance of these methods than in the past. There will come a time when this kind of analysis is just part of the tool kit in the humanities, as in every other discipline.

At any rate, it’s always pleasing to see Jane Austen getting a little extra respect. At the very least, this helps put all those zombies and sea monsters in a larger context. And we can all feel a bit better when The Werewolves of Mansfield Park eventually comes out.

(Image courtesy of Pulp! The Classics.)


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