Lumen Scholar studies masculinity in Jane Austen novels

Sarah Lentz '13 researches what it meant to be a man in the Regency era of British history by examining popular fictional characters.


What started as a childhood love for Jane Austen novels has become a two-year research project for Elon University senior Sarah Lentz.

An Elon College fellow from Hudson, Ohio, Lentz is using a top university award for undergraduate research to examine men’s courtship letters found in Austen’s fiction and comparing those missives to what scholars know about British letter-writing norms in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Her work is the latest to be featured this year in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2013.

In research that will serve as the basis for her thesis, Lentz posits that men achieve an “ideal masculine status” by using letters to express themselves to women. Men who fall short of achieving a masculine status among their contemporaries often lack the ability to write well, Lentz said, and her goal is to determine which of Austen’s characters achieve this status.

Her focus is on two of Austen’s most famous male characters: Mr. Darcy from “Pride and Prejudice” and Captain Wentworth from “Persuasion.” “Men were traditionally studied in the public sphere and women were associated with the private sphere,” Lentz said. “My approach is exploring their private, domestic selves — the feelings and feminine tendencies of stiff, controlled gentlemen.”

Austen, an early 19th century English novelist, is among the most commonly read authors in British literature known for her romantic fiction. Her novels focus on the landed gentry class in the Regency era.

Published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice” tells of Elizabeth Bennet, the issues she faces in the landed gentry class of England, and the atypical courtship process with Mr. Darcy, a gentleman whom she at one point despised. “Persuasion,” published in 1817, tells of Anne Elliot, who at 19 was engaged to Frederick Wentworth, a man of little means. After she breaks off the engagement and remains unmarried into her late 20s, Wentworth returns as a wealthy captain, hardened toward Anne until realizing his true feelings.

Lentz used archival sources to isolate five rules for letter writing at the turn of the 19th century, and she measured the characters’ letters against them. In a forthcoming thesis chapter on “Pride and Prejudice,” she found that Darcy adheres to all those rules, such as writing as he would speak to someone, confirming that he was a successful wordsmith.

In her chapter on “Persuasion,” one of the main conflicts between Austen’s characters is the problem of communication between the two lovers. Lentz found that because of guilt and regret stemming from the past, Wentworth was unable to communicate to Elliot how he really felt about her. A letter that comes at the climax of the novel resolves the problem of communication, and Lentz argues that through the letter, Wentworth is finally able to express his true feelings while obeying the conventions of letter writing.

“The letter is a good thing and offers these male characters a way to express their private selves,” Lentz said. Lentz said she hopes that a chapter of the thesis will be published in Persuasion, a journal by the Jane Austen Society of North America that focuses on scholarly Austen studies.

In a broader sense, Lentz’s work paints a more holistic picture of British life at the turn of the 19th century. It’s long been a common assumption that men had little or no involvement in domestic settings, but that doesn’t appear to be true as scholars today reevaluate the way both men and women are portrayed in literature from that era.

English Professor Janet Myers, Lentz’s mentor for her Lumen research, encouraged Lentz to apply for the Lumen Prize. Myers studies Victorian literature, which also encompasses Austen’s era. “We work really, really well together, and I noticed that when I was in her British Literature class,” Lentz said. “She encouraged me to apply and told me how I could use money for an English literature research project.”

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects. Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

“She is a remarkably fabulous student,” Myers said. “Sarah has a lot of things going for her. She is a great writer, a meticulous researcher and a passionate scholar. She’s somebody who drives around with a ‘What would Jane do?’ bumper sticker and carries Jane Austen tote bags. She really has been immersed in her topic since the very beginning.”

Having grown up reading Austen novels, Lentz said she has enjoyed the opportunity to attend Jane Austen conferences while conducting research. In addition to attending JASNA’s annual conference in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011, Lentz will be using her Lumen Prize money to go to this year’s conference in New York City to dialogue with other researchers about their studies.

Lentz also traveled to England for two weeks to research after studying abroad in Spain for a semester. There, she accessed Austen’s personal letters and other manuscripts at the British Library and took a Jane Austen tour of England, seeing locations from her novels and her birthplace in Steven Rectory.

“I like seeing how many humanities majors are going for the Lumen Prize now,” Lentz said. “There are more uses for the money than you may think. It’s an amazing opportunity that’s challenged me and given me experiences I will treasure for the rest of my life.”