A Conversation with Professor Yoon Sun Lee

January 10, 2024 by Kate Frank

On Tuesday, October 17th, Professor Yoon Sun Lee, who is Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of English at Wellesley College, presented the inaugural lecture in the Department of English’s Graduate English Speaker Series to a full audience of faculty and graduate students. This new Speaker Series is intended to foster intellectual community by inviting speakers who address topics of wide-reaching interest to the members of our Department. The title of Professor Lee’s talk, “Race, Labour, Time, and Gratitude in Jane Austen’s Emma,” demonstrates the scope of her lecture, which spoke not only to those of us with a particular interest in Austen and the early nineteenth-century British novel, but also to much broader questions about the literary representation and entwined histories of work, racialization, and emotion. As a PhD candidate in English with a focus on eighteenth-century and Romantic British literature, I was asked to interview Professor Lee ahead of her presentation – we talked about the new book project which she is beginning with the ideas presented in this lecture, the evolution of her work in several fields of literary studies, and the continual interest of Jane Austen’s novels.

Professor Lee began by explaining to me that the topic of her lecture, and current project as a whole, grows out of her previous monograph, The Natural Laws of Plot: How Things Happen in Realist Novels (Penn, 2023). Following that book’s attention to how emerging ideas of objectivity in natural philosophy shaped the development of fictive plot in the eighteenth-century novel, she is keen for her new project to turn from natural laws and the material world to the social world and its laws, and to “the novel’s universe of social arrangement.” As Professor Lee later told the audience at her lecture, this new work also marks a return to a longstanding interest in the development of racial categories, by investigating how these are entangled with labour and time in the novel.

While her larger book project will discuss the novels of at least both Austen and Sir Walter Scott, Professor Lee’s lecture specifically illuminated early nineteenth-century connections between labour, time, race, and gratitude by placing Austen’s Emma (1815) in conversation with two other near-contemporary works: Bryan Edwards’ The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies (1794), and Maria Edgeworth’s short story “The Grateful Negro” (1802). Professor Lee drew out ideas in these texts about principles of exchange, structures of commensuration, and the purpose of gratitude to frame her reading of two key invocations of labour in Emma. First, there is the work which the heroine assigns herself of setting up marriages within her circle, which Professor Lee argued presents a kind of “fantasy” about equality and equivalence within a couple through “the way that Emma is thinking about matchmaking.” Second, there is the “strange hieroglyphic” of the character Jane Fairfax, who seeks employment as a governess, and about whom there is a particular “emphasis on her complexion and relationship to labour and gratitude.” Near the end of her talk, Professor Lee discussed how gratitude articulates free and unfree labour, and posed the question, “Is gratitude a form of labour?” Though the lecture built towards this conclusion through a discussion of the very specific social world of Austen’s Emma, it seems equally relevant within a wide range of literary, historical, or geographical contexts.

Professor Lee’s own work encompasses several fields, particularly British eighteenth and nineteenth-century fiction, Asian American literature, and novel theory. In our conversation, I asked her about the process of moving from project to project, sometimes developing threads of previous research, and sometimes changing direction. Professor Lee told me that she was initially interested in Milton as a graduate student, and wrote her doctoral dissertation on Scott and Edmund Burke, which developed into her first book Nationalism and Irony (Oxford UP, 2004). Though always particularly interested in the realist novel, she was also drawn to “hybrid forms,” like the historical novel, and figures like Scott and Burke who are “had to pin down” and categorize. Her second book, Modern Minority: Asian American Literature and Everyday Life (Oxford UP, 2013), grew out of her movement into the field of Asian American literature through her teaching at Wellesley College. Published this year, The Natural Laws of Plot brought a long-term focus on the novel and the theorization of plot into the foreground, but also developed through a newer interest in eighteenth-century natural philosophy. “I’m always looking for ways to bridge things” Professor Lee told me, particularly pointing to the genre of the novel and the entry into modernity as points of connection and continuity across her work.

Austen has been a continual source of interest for Professor Lee, in part because she is “just endlessly fun to work with,” and also because of Austen’s complexity and the many sometimes contradictory voices in which her novels speak. We talked about why many who study nineteenth-century literature, as well as readers more broadly, keep coming back to Austen, and Professor Lee discussed how even though the body of Austen’s work is relatively limited, each of Austen’s six novels is “like a universe of its own, even though there are clearly recurrences and convergences, each one is just so amazingly distinct.” She also particularly emphasizes the amazing detail in Austen’s writing: “I never get tired of writing about Austen, you always see new things in it.” Specifically, the project Professor Lee is beginning with this lecture on Emma is invested in finding something new in Austen by “looking beyond the more obvious manifestations of class and race, and thinking about how other areas of the novel might contribute to producing those kinds of differences.” Though Austen can provide a sort of common ground, as a still globally-popular writer whose works remain familiar to many in their original forms and through adaptations, Professor Lee’s lecture demonstrated that there is much still to be explored about both the specific details and wider universes imagined in Austen’s novels.