My dear friends, I hope you will forgive me if I write this post in haste, for I am deep in Jane Austen country this week. And I find I cannot pull myself out of it. Indeed, I do not want to pull myself out of it. “How has this happy circumstance come to be?” you ask. Well, attend to my words and I shall tell you all. After I force myself to drop the phoney Jane Austen-y style. And cease to converse in a ghastly imitation of a Regency English accent. Hopefully the latter happens before dinner. Else I will be subject to the usual rolling of eyes and the mild epithets often uttered by my esteemed husband whenever I am in the clutches of our dear Jane. Ha. But I digress.
Earlier in the week I finished a charming book which we are reading for book club this month, The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner. Jenner’s novel concerns a group of people who, in the years after World War II, decide to form a society to preserve the last home of Jane Austen in the village of Chawton, in Hampshire, England. There is a real Jane Austen Society and a museum in Chawton, but Jenner’s characters and society are fictional. The plot eventually centres around the establishment of this fictional society, but begins by introducing us to each of the eventual members, their lives which become intertwined, and their love for Jane Austen and her work. Jenner, born in England but raised and educated in Canada, obviously has a great love for Jane Austen herself.
Oddly enough, the book captivated me, and at the same time, it annoyed the heck out of me. This was due to the occasional lapses in Jenner’s knowledge and understanding of English culture in the 30s and 40s. Mostly these were small stylistic blips in language usage by the English characters, and a few other anachronistic details in the plot. At one point a character makes tea with tea bags. “In 1946? Really?” I thought, “Can that be right?” I checked and turns out that tea bags were not introduced to common usage in the UK until the fifties. So Jenner and/or her editors and copy editors should have picked up on this error, as well as a few other instances that I won’t mention.
But, here’s what is really odd. These problems did not put me off the book. I enjoyed it. I became quite attached to the characters, and saw and loved so many parallels with their stories and the stories of Austen’s own characters. And I loved all the talk of Austen’s books, the conversations between Jenner’s characters about plots and characters in Austen’s books. I loved the varying insights shown into Darcy’s behaviour versus Elizabeth’s, for instance. And in particular the reasons put forth for reading Austen, and for rereading her. Especially the rereading. The comfort found in revisiting favourite characters in full knowledge of the outcome of the plot. The joy of being able to focus on Austen’s genius without the worry about how the book will end. If the characters will find happiness. Or not.
I’ve long been a fan of Jane Austen. Of her books. And of the myriad of film and television versions of her books. Primary of these is, of course, the 1995 television mini-series Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. I cannot tell you how many times I have watched that. For years my mum and I watched it at least once a year when I was home. Happily staying up way past bedtime, making extra pots of tea, and at the end of each episode, looking at each other, raising an eyebrow, and murmuring, “One more, episode, do you think?” We also love Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett in Sense and Sensibility, Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds in Persuasion, and to a lesser degree Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma.
I usually find that the books spawned by the Jane Austen canon, the sequels and spin-offs and whatever, leave me cold. But there are a few notable exceptions. I loved P.D. James’ imagining of Lizzy and Darcy five years after their marriage when a murder takes place near Pemberley. Death Comes to Pemberley is vintage P.D. James, conveying both her skill at mystery writing and her love for Jane Austen. I also really liked The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Australian writer Colleen McCullough. I had not read any McCullough books since The Thorn Birds back in the seventies. A few years ago, I bought McCullough’s Mary Bennet book for Mum for Christmas, and we both loved it. The reimagining of Mary Bennet as something beyond a pedantic stick-in-the-mud, as she is usually portrayed, was delightful.
But my favourite Austen spin-off novel is undoubtedly Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Baker’s book is a brilliant retelling of the Pride and Prejudice story from the point of view of the servants who are notably absent beyond a brief line here and there in Austen’s book, but without whom the lives of the main characters would have spun out of control. From the merest mention of maids, cooks, and footmen in Austen’s book, Baker builds a wonderful below-stairs story.
According to Nicholas Dames in his 2017 article Jane Austen Is Everything in The Atlantic, Austen is now more popular than ever. He says that, like Shakespeare, Austen has become a symbol of literature itself, that to the modern reader “the hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap [is] as iconic as the balding man in the doublet.” Ha. I loved that line. Apparently we Austen lovers are a contentious bunch though; we simply cannot agree as to why we still love her work. Nicholas Dames asks whether the appeal of Austen is the “fantasy of escape” from our modern world? “Or is it the pleasure of recognition, the sense that she is describing our world?”
Either way, reading and rereading Jane Austen is a pleasure sought by many, many book lovers. Including me, this week. For after finishing The Jane Austen Society, and hearing about the pleasures of rereading Austen, I was anxious to dig into Pride and Prejudice again myself.
So I have been doing double-duty. Reading the novel on my iPad. And listening to it on my phone while I walk or do housework. For the past two days as the cars sped by me on my walks, I was at Longbourn with the Bennets, or at Hunsford parsonage and Rosings with Charlotte and Mr. Collins and their house guests. I heard Mr. Darcy’s disastrous proposal while I made the bed this morning, and ate my lunch while Lizzy, in Derbyshire, read the letters from Jane relaying the news of Lydia and Mr. Wickham. I reluctantly put down my book to begin this post just as Lizzy and the Gardiners fled back to Longbourn from Derbyshire. It’s been total Austen-immersion therapy for me this week.
My mum and I share a love of Jane Austen. A love of reading and rereading, and watching and rewatching our favourites, again and again. We had a long talk on the phone on Mother’s Day, and spent several happy minutes chuckling over our favourite scenes from the Pride and Prejudice series. Mr. Collins’s obsequiousness, Mrs. Bennet’s shrieking, “Oh, my poor nerves.” Lizzy’s refusal to be quelled by Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mum said, “Remember the scene where Mrs. Bennet is winking?” “What’s the matter, Mama? Why do you keep winking at me?” I replied. And we both laughed.
“Those were good times, weren’t they Susie?” she said. “They sure were, Mum.” “Let’s watch the whole thing again when you and Stuart come home this summer.” “Let’s do that for sure,” I said.
“Maybe we can get Stuart to watch with us, eh?” she suggested.
“Nah,” we said in unison. “Not a chance,” I added. And we laughed again.
Now, my friends and fellow readers, it’s time for me to cease writing and get back to my reading. Or my rereading. I’ve left the poor Bennet family in an agony of suspense as to what will become of poor Lydia. How about you? Are you an Austen fan? Do you partake of the joys of rereading?
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