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What Jane Austen Was Telling Us

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Unknown It was about ten years ago that I first read the work of Jane Austen. She wrote only six complete novels before she died at 41, and they’re all easy reading, so I zipped through her entire oeuvre. A few weeks ago I learned that Pride and Prejudice is 200 years old, which inspired me to re-read it. I liked it more the second time around, and resolved to re-read all her books. Then, oh happy day! I discovered I’d somehow missed Mansfield Park; I don’t know how that happened, but I tore through it in two days, and so far it’s my favorite. Moving along, I just finished Northanger Abbey, a satire, and my least favorite, on both first and second reads.

P&P filmI’m becoming somewhat obsessed, as so many Jane Austen fans do. I rented the 1930s film version of Pride & Prejudice, with Lawrence Olivier (be still my heart) and Greer Garson, as well as a more recently filmed Mansfield Park in which the heroine, Fanny Price, does double duty as Jane the writer, and sociological elements such as slavery are added to the plot. I’ve listened to podcasts fashioned around various aspects of Austen’s life and work, and Googled up academic papers and discussion groups. Still, I’m a rookie compared to Jane-ites and other Austen fanatics—in SoCal, for instance, a group stages an annual ball in which participants dress, dance, and eat like the middle classes of Austen’s day.

In emails to friends and in journal writing I’ve found myself channeling Austen’s style. This has happened to me before: writers with particularly strong voices—Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood are two—seep into my brain when I’m reading them, and their style emerges in my own. I don’t do it on purpose, and it only occurs with a few select writers. I’m not saying, believe me, that I think I am half as good a writer as these Englishwomen; it’s that something in their tone is simpatico with me and I easily fall into their style. Because of this, whenever I’ve written a novel—six to date—I’ve had to stop reading fiction for the duration. Many sacrifices are made by writers, but for me this was surely the greatest.

Jane Austen BookIn the case of Jane Austen, my propensity to let her burrow so deeply under my skin is partly due to her primary focus—human behavior and the dynamics of their relationships. She’s generally referred to as “a writer of  manners,” which amounts to the same thing; I’m just putting a more contemporary spin on it. One critic pointed out that Austen doesn’t bother to describe her characters’ physicality—yet they’re more vivid in my mind than are those of most authors: their looks come through in the attention given their personalities with all the details and contradictions. And, interestingly, I myself rarely describe the characters in my fiction—or if I do, it’s from a sense of obligation. I’m not interested in painting scenery either; my main focus has always been on people’s psyches, individually and in relation to one another. Austen is big on nature’s beauty, but she typically shows hill and dale through the eyes of the people viewing them. Even the landscape becomes part of her characters; she doesn’t describe it simply for the sake of providing a pretty backdrop.

I only recognized this similarity in our approach upon my second readings. The observation has to do not so much with re-reading, though, as it does with my present state of mind.  I’ve lately come to realize that human beings are terribly flawed. I don’t mean to say that up until now I thought people were perfect—far from it!—but I now see that these flaws are innate, part of human nature. Previously I expected people to behave much better than they, or we, do, and when they didn’t, as they inevitably did not, I carped and complained and was forever offended by cruel words and careless intentions. Because of this, I am considered a “negative” person.

I’m afraid what I’ve actually been is like Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey: on a quest to find someone who won’t disappoint me, I frequently grab at first impressions, before someone’s flaws make an appearance. Then, after I’ve known someone long enough for their human flaws to emerge, I become bitter and angry. This has occurred so many times it’s a wonder I haven’t seen the dynamic sooner. I have Jane Austen to thank for this dawning clarity.Northanger Abbey

I suppose it’s one of life’s challenges to accept the truth about human beings, and I think this is what Jane Austen was saying in her novels. This is what she wanted to show us: that people’s behavior is flawed, and cannot be otherwise. Although her heroines in contrast to the people around her come off as nearly perfect, each one has an epiphany, a moment when she realizes her own flaws, her own bad behavior, and vows to improve. That is the other thing Austen was saying: that we must yet strive for improvement, and learn to accept others’ flaws, since we too are flawed. We cannot be otherwise since we are, like every flawed being around us, human.

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