Lost in Austen

by A Latter-day Bluestocking

I have recently picked up a book that I can’t seem to embrace.  Not because of the subject matter, March, an historical fiction by Geraldine Brooks, would normally be something I would be all over.  It is the story of the absent father, Mr. March, of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and documents his experiences during the Civil War while his “little women” tend to the home fires.  I will go back to it certainly but right now I have many on-going  literary projects focusing on Jane Austen and I find myself preoccupied by her and repeatedly drawn into her world.

This month my book club, The Petty Rebuttals, are reading Pride and Prejudice.  It is my turn in the line-up, and since we collectively decided to read classics this cycle, I chose to introduce the group to Jane Austen.  We are a mixed bag,  evenly divided of those who have read P&P and those who have never had the pleasure.  I am excited to give my insight to the group and share my love and enthusiasm for this novel (and of Jane) and only hope that I don’t overwhelm the group with my zeal.  P&P is universally acknowledged (yes, that was intended) to be one of Austen’s best novels and I am currently trying to decide what of the novel I want to focus upon.   Do I focus on character, storyline, class?  My latest re-reading I specifically examined the characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, their imperfections and their strengths.  I am intrigued how they evolve through the story and am struck by their capacity for self-awareness.  Both come to terms with their pride and prejudice and become mindful of helping one another to overcome their shortcomings and give prominence to their assets.  In other words, form a true partnership of  like mind and heart.  I think I will allow the group to take initiative though, regardless of where the discussion leads it, no doubt, will be stimulating.

I am also preparing to lead a discussion next month for the Jane Austen Reading Society.  I am thrilled to be presenting Catharine, or the Bower.  A work of Jane Austen’s Volume, The Third of her Juvenilia.  A charming piece, written in 1792 when she was only 16 years old.  It is an unfinished story,  predominately for the gratification of her family but has enticing elements present in her more mature works.  The diversity in characterization and domestic realism is already evident in this short piece; it exhibits her wit and seemingly light and playful prose but also emerging is her perceptive understanding of class, gender, social decorum, and wealth.  It is an important piece still raw in its youthful vivacity but intimates a more developed novelistic approach as she attempts to move away from her earlier mocking works.  Catharine highlights the potential of the young Jane Austen’s scrutinizing eye and sardonic humor that fans know and love and appreciate.

A lamentable picture of an insipid Victorian-friendly Jane Austen. She's wearing a wedding band for crying out loud!!!!

In anticipation of all of this, or perhaps in consequence of, I have undertaken a biography I have not read before.  My favorite has always been that by Claire Tomalin but I decided to give David Nokes’s biography, Jane Austen:  A Life, a go.  Both biographers diverge from the generally accepted portrayal of Jane Austen as the staid and dour spinster, happy and accepting in her quiet life of little event.  This myth of Jane Austen was perpetuated by her family soon after her death, in fact, her tombstone at Winchester Cathedral doesn’t even mention that she was an author and became more pronounced as Georgian England became Victorian England.  In the Victorian era, a woman’s place was the domestic sphere; home life and motherhood were considered all that was necessary for a woman’s emotional fulfillment.  Reading the little that is left of Jane Austen’s letters, her Juvenilia, and her novels it is clear that Austen was not willing to place her well-being in a virtuous ideal of femininity.  She was feisty, opinionated, mirthful, and cutting.  She wasn’t one to not cut to the chase and often described things the way they were, albeit with a derisive wit.  Comments to her sister in letters emphasize her dry humor: 

 “I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.” [upon the birth of a nephew]

“Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted.”  [upon arrival in London]

“How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!”  [commenting on the Peninsular War]

“You express so little anxiety about my being murdered under Ash Park Copse by Mrs. Hulbert’s servant, that I have a great mind not to tell you whether I was or not.”

I love the “rebellious, satirical, and wild” Austen!  This Jane and I could be great friends unlike the virtuous, devoted, and retiring maiden Aunt popularly portrayed for nearly 200 years.

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