Tipping the cap to Jane Austen

Tomorrow, December 16, is Jane Austen’s birthday–her 241st to be exact. I always mark the day, usually with a special nibble at teatime and a hoist of the teacup to her memory. It’s a point of amusement (and horror, if I’m honest) that I managed to get an English degree without ever once being required to study Austen. My university was pretty solidly into dead English dudes as a field. So I encountered Austen on my own, and what a revelation she was!

I’m still not certain what prompted me to pick up PRIDE AND PREJUDICE when I was 26 and pregnant with my daughter. I had quit my teaching job and had months to fill, and there are only so many Peter Rabbit prints you can hang in a nursery before you run out of wall space and need a new hobby. I ran across a cheap omnibus edition of the six major novels in B. Dalton and picked it up for a few dollars.

I started at the beginning with P&P and read my way through the end of PERSUASION. Then I hunted down SANDITON and LADY SUSAN and the JUVENILIA, and from there I dove into the letters and any biography I could find. By the time my daughter was born– and given the middle name Elizabeth after my favorite Austen character–I had read everything Austen I could possibly get my hands on. I had been a Bronte* fan for years, but the Brontes were always just a titch overly emotional for me. I invariably emerged from a Bronte novel wanting to shake someone by the shoulders and tell them to get hold of themselves. As much as I loved wind-swept moors and lowering brows, I craved lightness and brightness and a bit more self-control. More sense and less sensibility, as it were. It turns out, Austen was everything I had been looking for.

There is a special and sharp joy to discovering a novelist for yourself as opposed to being introduced via syllabus. Every deft turn of phrase, every keen choice of word seems crafted just for YOU and only you are clever enough to have appreciated it. You meet characters as friends rather than specimens of study, and the coldly critical eye of the scholar is shuttered. There is only pleasure. Instead of being instructed on Austen’s place in the canon of English literature, I devised a spot of my own choosing for her. (At the top, of course.) Rather than toiling over her role in post-Enlightment feminism or debating whether she was a gentle satirist or wholly sincere sentimentalist, I formed my own opinions, no doubt cherry-picking facts and phrases to fit my portrait of MY Austen. (For the record, I find her sharp and astringent, like a preserved lemon. While imbued with a strong sense of morality and decency, she had a biting wit and a sometimes racy sense of humor. I refer you to her jokes about Rears and Vices in the Royal Navy and her observation that an acquaintance had been brought to bed early of a child owing to a fright–no doubt catching a glimpse of her husband unawares. And these are the things that we KNOW she said. The really revealing stuff was destroyed, alas.)

Austen has, since that pregnancy 22 years ago, been a comfort read for me. When the 21st-century gets too ugly or demanding, the Regency is my retreat. For all the necessity of paying attention to what’s going on around us and taking steps to make our voices heard and our dollars added to the efforts we support, we also need to take care of ourselves where we can. (It is a privilege, certainly, to be able to check out for just a little while, but stamina levels vary and being engaged for the long haul in any effort means understanding where and how you need to recharge yourself to be of any help to others.) With restoration in mind, I’ve been rereading PRIDE AND PREJUDICE at bedtime, interspersed with a few new nonfiction books I’ve found on Austen’s life.

Austen has been criticized for not writing specifically about the historical conflicts which touched her life, but as I read through a piece on her various Christmases, I was struck by how much of her existence was shadowed by conflict. Born during the American Revolution, Austen had one brief period in childhood when war did not threaten. By the time she turned 14, the French Revolution had begun and the horror of it came very close; her cousin and eventual sister-in-law, Eliza, was widowed when her husband died on the guillotine. The upheaval of those years was unnerving for the English. From across the Channel, they watched and waited, horrified at the bloody excesses and never certain if they were to be spared. The successful rebellion of their own colonies was unsettling enough; the overthrow of the French monarchy and the aristocracy undermined the very fabric of accepted civilization as they knew it. There were no easy answers; what happened in France was unprecedented and terrifying.

By the time the Terror had calmed, a new threat appeared–Napoleon–and he was a more direct and frightening reality than any they had faced before. While English royal power had been slowly eroded over time and the will of the people gaining more traction as the driving force behind policy, the French were content to be led by an autocrat whose ambition was boundless. The real possibility of invasion by a foreign power hung over England for the first time in centuries, and Austen spent much of her life not knowing if the worst would come to pass. She had brothers in active service in the Royal Navy; there were no guarantees that the Austen family or England itself would emerge unscathed from the years of Napoleon’s warmongering.

But still she wrote. She worried about the state of the jam and she trimmed her hats and she wrote. She must have been worried for her beloved brothers; she must have feared for herself and her country. But she did not let those fears and worries and the specter of uncertainty turn her from living her life. She was not cowed or diminished by the possibility of calamity. She put on a brave face and she kept herself busy and she helped those she could. It was a small courage; she was never called upon to pick up a musket or sail into the mouth of a cannon or nurse battlefield casualties. But living her life was a worthwhile thing. It was even, when considered in a certain light, a defiant act. She provided comfort and support to the dispirited; she buoyed the morale of those in harm’s way with letters and good cheer, and she consoled the despairing. And through it all, she carried on as if everything would be well in the end.

*Yeah, there’s supposed to be a diacritical mark there, but I have never mastered that on WordPress, so we’re going to pretend it’s present.