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. I have loved to read Jane Austen’s novels ever since.”
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.”
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 novels; how I found myself dreaming 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 doctoral thesis that examines 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.
“Reading aloud is a good way to feel yourself into a novel. I have learned to love hearing the sound of the words and working out what that sound does to the way I feel and to the way I construct a meaning,” she said.
Wilson suggests that student-readers can hear how hilarious some of the conversations in the novels become when they are read aloud, especially by professional actors such as Juliet Stevenson on Audible.
“Listening attentively to the vocal delivery of words that appear on the page, readers are more receptive to the way Austen’s artistry with words modulates mood and tone and acts upon the imagination,” Dr Wilson said.
“When younger students read the words aloud they really hear the vocabulary, and a description of a junior class in which this happens demonstrates how the role-play leads to a lot of laughter in the classroom and greater affinity to the language.”
Dr Ruth Wilson reading from Pride and Prejudice. Video by Sydney Morning Herald.
Wilson suggests that empathy is a second key to unlocking Jane Austen in the classroom. “Readers can think about their own lives, their families, siblings, parents and friends, when they read Jane Austen,” Dr Wilson said. “The books are about relationships.”
“Teenagers in classrooms today might think about what to say to a girl on a date or later, how to commit to someone or even to propose,” she adds. “They might be thinking about what they or their friends might do in a romantic situation.
“The selfie-generation still worries about sending a message to a love interest, perhaps by text or Instagram instead of a letter delivered to the door. Teens still think about whether they should say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an invitation, how to present themselves and how their parents might react.
“When we apply fiction to our own lives, reading becomes a more personal experience,” said Dr Wilson. “This personal approach and the practice of reading aloud for sheer pleasure can be used by teachers alongside existing methods of teaching, which includes close reading of the texts and critical analysis and historical understanding.” She emphasises that the approaches are not mutually exclusive.
Dr Wilson first entered the University of Sydney aged 16 when she commenced study for a Bachelor of Arts (English and Education) in 1949. She loved her literature studies and was a founding member of the theatre society University of Sydney Players. She played Lady Macbeth in a Sydney University Dramatic Society production in the Great Hall, and other roles in the Footbridge and Wallace Theatres.
She met her husband David in the quadrangle. He was studying a Doctor of Dentistry and was one year older. He completed his studies at the University of Sydney in 1970. They recently celebrated 67 years together. “We both revelled in our time at the University,” Dr Wilson said.
In 1979, Dr Wilson received a Master of Arts (Hons) from the University of Tel Aviv. In 1981 she returned to the University of Sydney to complete a Diploma of Education.
In March, 2021, she had her PhD conferred. “It’s an honour to receive this degree from my ‘alma mater’, and the topic is apt,” she said. “Reading has given me great pleasure and has helped me through some difficult life experiences – not just in terms of escape, although that sometimes helps, but by providing insights and perceptions that have been internalised over the years.
“Not every reader is attuned to Austen’s fiction, but student-readers who are inclined or who can be induced by skilled teachers to read her novels in ways that embrace the personal and the creative as well as the critical are offered an opportunity to experience pleasure and to learn something useful to prepare them for adult life.”
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