Summer Scholars Program Sparks a Mentorship

Student takes an unconventional view on Austen novel, finds support in faculty

During a year abroad, English major and honors student Ashley Gilliam '07 became captivated with the works of Jane Austen. Through a Roanoke College direct exchange with University of East Anglia, England, she took two courses in British literature, which further developed her interest in the 18th-century author.

Gilliam had been reading Austen's novels ever since middle school, and she enjoyed the vibrant female characters who are witty, strong-willed and know what they want. Tackling a Summer Scholars project on Emma, the novel often considered as Austen's biggest literary achievement, was the natural next step.

Dr. Paul Hanstedt, an associate professor of English at Roanoke, became Gilliam's valued advisor and mentor. He had taught her in a Victorian literature course, where she had done some of her best work. "He was great in helping me edit and showing me how the argument would work," Gilliam says. The mentor relationship also helped Gilliam become more comfortable with writing and dealing with large amounts of research.

Hanstedt explained that Gilliam had already explored the topic a lot while in the UK, so he "basically pushed and prodded and made sure she didn't bite off more than could be chewed in a single summer."

In her project, Gilliam takes a closer look at socially marginalized heroines. Little scholarly work is done on fairytale archetypes in Austen's novels. Gilliam examines the "Cinderella motif" to suggest an interpretation that differs greatly from the traditional moral reading of the novel. This complex social reading sees Emma's acceptance to marry as a "progression from autonomy to conformity," as abandonment of her creativity and independence - a freedom that essentially is being taken away. Emma's fate represents the struggle between female individualism and the traditional patriarchal structure.

Hanstedt was impressed with the results.

"I liked the way Ashley sought to tie together many levels of meaning: the Cinderella narrative, Austen's life, Austen's audience and their expectations," Hanstedt says. "Everything [she] explores - gender, personal goals, marriage and compromise and societal pressure - still happens in the world we live now. This stuff matters."

And it certainly matters to Gilliam, who is planning a career in writing, editing or book publishing. She is going to continue her education in graduate school but says experiences like the Austen project are invaluable.

"Roanoke College provides a supportive network. I was able to experience research that is comparable to graduate level work," she says.

Gilliam, who is from Glade Spring, Va., is a part of the Roanoke College Honors Program. She also is the recipient of the Fortnightly Club Award for excellence in academics and active community service and was included in the 2004 edition of Who's Who among Students in American Universities and Colleges.