University ridiculed after telling students Jane Austen is offensive

Students have been alerted to certain themes in ‘Northanger Abbey’

Ellie Harrison
Tuesday 31 January 2023 09:07 GMT
Andrea Leadsom calls Jane Austen 'greatest living author'

A university has been criticised for “infantilising” students by issuing trigger warnings on a Jane Austen novel.

The 1817 classic novel Northanger Abbey has been given a “gender stereotyping” warning at the University of Greenwich, leading to the accusation that students are being “coddled”.

Northanger Abbey follows a young woman, Catherine Morland, as she comes of age in Regency Britain. It is a satire that wryly mocks gender roles in literature written by men.

At one point in the book, Austen comments on women having to feign being stupid to please men, writing that “a woman especially, if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can”.

English literature students studying the book at the university have been warned about “sexism” in the book, according to content notes seen by The Telegraph.

Professor Dennis Hayes, a teacher at the University of Derby and director of the campaign group Academics For Academic Freedom, called for academics to “stop infantilising” and “coddling” students.

“Universities should put up one simple statement: ‘Trigger warning – this is a university, you must expect to be offended,’” he told The Telegraph.

Students have also been alerted to the notion that the novel contains “toxic relationships and friendships”.

Professor Janet Todd OBE, Jane Austen expert at the University of Cambridge, told The Independent: “I’m pleased to know that Jane Austen has such power to disturb! Most encouraging. I hope the students are jolted into thinking about the past, literature, irony, and themselves.”

One person commented on Twitter in response to the news: “Jane must be rolling in her grave.”

Jane Austen
Jane Austen (Getty Images)

A Greenwich spokesperson said: “Content warnings were first used in July 2021, in response to student requests relayed to the teaching team via their student representatives during the 2020/21 academic year.

“It was agreed that content warnings should be included in reading lists so that students would be able to take them into account before encountering each text.”

This is not the first time a trigger warning on literature at a British university has made headlines.

Last summer, students at the University of Warwick were given content warnings about “upsetting scenes” in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

For at least five years, UK universities have been increasingly introducing “trigger warnings” to give students notice of any potentially distressing material in lectures, following a trend in US colleges to attempt to protect young people’s mental health.

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