Today is the birthday of Jane Austen, one of the most famous writers of the English language. To celebrate, I asked my good friend and fellow blogger Amy, an Austen fanatic, to write something about the author. I hope you enjoy Amy's musings on Jane!
235 years ago today, Jane Austen was born in Hampshire, England. It was there that she grew up reading, writing little plays and stories for her family, and honing the all-observing eye and wit for which she has been remembered these past centuries. Whether you personally enjoy Austen’s writings or not, the continued presence of her oeuvre on bookshelves worldwide, in academia, and in practically every corner of popular culture speaks to the virtues of the lady who should, by all standards of her time, have been insignificant and not worthy of any special notice.
Happy am I that she wrote, though, and that she was significant. And that we still read.
You see, the beauty of Austen’s novels lies in their total reality. True, barouches and assembly room balls and entailed estates are no longer really part of the common experience. But what about friendship? What about negotiating your place in the family unit, or in the neighborhood? What about working through conflicts between what you want and what is expected of you? What about the struggle of wanting to be an adult, and sometimes mis-stepping? What about having faith in yourself?
All of Austen’s characters experience at least one of these things, and for good reason—they are universal themes. We all experience them at some point. We all struggle to be kind to that one person who completely grates on our nerves. We all secretly want to smack upside the head that person who only thinly veils their boasts. And we all do boast, sometimes even when we know we shouldn’t. We all do all of the things that Austen’s characters do, and we encounter the same people (do you know a Miss Bates? a Mr. Collins? a Mrs. Bertram?). Sure, the mechanics of daily life have changed since the Regency period. But what we experience and feel as humans? That has remained remarkably constant.
My point, I suppose, is that reading Jane Austen is like peering through a window into our own lives, albeit dressed up with some finery and the sort of language we’d be so lucky to encounter. When all the waistcoats and muslins are stripped away (metaphorically, of course!), the stories have just as much place in the modern day as they did in the Austen’s time—Clueless, Bride and Prejudice, and the recently-published book The Cookbook Collector are all proof. The strength is in the story, in the wry observations of how people act, of what is in their nature.
It is in my nature to read Austen, and I hope that, in honor of her birthday, you’ll read something of hers as well. Two hundred-years’ worth of readers recommend it.
I want to close by attempting to answer a question posed to me at the library earlier this week: what do you think Jane Austen would have thought about the fact that people still read and discuss her novels so passionately?
I think, publically, Austen would have been properly embarrassed by all of the praise and attention.
In private, though? I think she would have laughed, turned to her sister, and very astutely characterized us all: “I am sure that they all fancy themselves an Elizabeth Bennet or an Anne Elliot, a Darcy or a Wentworth. If only they could see themselves as I see them, as they really are! But, if all human creatures were so handsome and well-principled, I would never have had anything to write about in the first place.”