I’m one of those freaks who could find a reference to Jane Austen in an auto repair manual. People in my life are not supportive of that. I am perfectly aware that my unconcealed regard for her invites comments of ungenerous nature. I don’t care. I would even read a grocery list if I knew she had written it. Let’s face it, the woman has it all – wit, irony and intelligence. What more could one want in a person?
My own love-affair with Austen started in august of 2008. I had just finished my final exams and I was looking forward to a study-free summer. Even though I had worked those textbooks to the bone, in consistency with my low self-image at the time, I was convinced that I probably failed … everything really. Preparing to embark on a career in sanitation engineering, I decided I should at least be well-read. Who knew, maybe one day I would get promoted to the rank of a coordinator of interpretive teaching (that’s English for a “museum tour-guide”).
Having failed to come up with ideas for a good read, I turned on the TV and saw the trailer for Sense and Sensibility. I remember thinking at the time that Emma Thompson sure looked like she could act (I was right). I decided to watch the film, but only after reading the book. It felt the right thing to do. So, the next day I confidently marched into the library and borrowed the alliterative duo: P&P, S&S. I didn’t know it then, but my life changed forever that day.
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The very same night, I entered a world where social Etiquette ruled with an iron fist and Politeness wore an affected smirk, a world where oppressive Propriety was dissected through the prism of sardonic Wit while Complaisance playfully ceded to courtship to better torment the soul. It was a lovely place to wander into and if the truth be told, I don’t think I have ever truly left it. It is my Neverland.
Now, can you keep a secret? Mr. Darcy is not my dream man. (I can just imagine the Janeite sisterhood being seized with a communal coughing fit). He’s too proud and … well, prejudiced for my taste. Besides, I have always considered myself more of a Henry Tilney kind of gal. I mean, the man knows about muslin (!). A rare quality even in our day.
Having chosen the perfect life-partner, I needed, in turn, to decide which Austen heroine I most resembled in mind and body. (You never know when the information might come in handy). Like thousands of girls before me, I sought the answer on the internet. After answering around 60 questions regarding my views on exercise regime (against it) and petticoat length (none of your business), the cyberspace oracle decided I was 81% Elinor Dashwood and 81% Jane Bennet. Putting this mathematical absurdity aside, I needed to focus on what the quiz genie would do next. In order to “properly” determine my literary alter-ego once and for all, I had to answer a bonus question. (I did it because I didn’t want it to look like I had just wasted an hour of my time.) Anyway, it was no brain teaser, I was merely asked about my preference in men. I tend to like them smart, so the dashing Elinor it was. (Note to self: update facebook status.)
Despite my light banter, I take her works very seriously. Therefore, when someone drops a half-baked comment about her being chick-lit, I suffer a miniature stroke. Not only that, my eyes bulge out, my bosom starts heaving with indignation and for some arcane reason I get bilateral twitching in my nose. I will admit that her plots invariably end with marriage proposals, but so do all of Shakespeare’s comedies. Her novels are interesting because at the heart of them lie human relationships – a subject that will never become outdated. Also, her extraordinary ability to endow even the most casual remark with significance and candour, makes her one of a kind even amongst fellow novelists.
The following quotation is taken from the ending of Mansfield Park where the authoress rendered the hero’s thoughts in free indirect speech (and accompanied them with her own opinion as well):
Even in the midst of his late infatuation, he had acknowledged Fanny’s mental superiority. What must be his sense of it now, therefore? She was of course only too god for him; but as nobody minds having what is too good for them, he was very steadily earnest in the pursuit of the blessing … (Austen 2006, p. 489).
These choicest pearls of irony are diffused with great frequency throughout her books. In Persuasion, which is my personal favourite, one stumbles upon a veritable treasure:
He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead. (Austen 2004, p.46)
It doesn’t matter how many times I read this passage, each time I feel I’m in danger of rupturing a vital organ due to the laughing cramps caused by the semantic implications of the latter remark. In spite of the strict policy on colourful language, she calls the poor miscreant a dick! Don’t forget that this was written at a time when even expressions like “dash it” seemed to offend readers’ sensibilities. What a lady! She is even able to insult someone in a classy and intelligent way. A singular achievement indeed.
Finally, it is a truth universally acknowledged that once you fall in love with Austen’s style, there is no way back. It is a rewarding experience in every possible way. The exquisite beauty of her prose, aptly coupled with felicity of expression, lends her writing a timeless charm. Oscar Wilde was just one of her many admirers. Now, off to the nearest library.