Oh, Jane (Austen): A love letter.


I woke up early on Sunday morning. I never wake up early if I can avoid it.

I woke up early, turned over in bed and spent the next two hours sitting wrapped up in my duvet, reading the last 1/3 or so of Pride and Prejudice. I’m tempted to go right back to the beginning and reread it again, in a way that I haven’t been with a book for a long time. Jane Austen is wonderful. It’s not just that she’s immensely clever, or that she builds a world you feel you could walk into any time. Lots of writers do that, and I love their books. When I’m finished their books, I miss their characters and worlds. But Austen? She doesn’t just do that. She does all of that and simultaneously leaves you feeling like the whole story has been narrated to you by your oldest friend. Like you’re the kind of friends who don’t see each other for months at a time, and when you do the two of you curl up on your comfiest sofa or armchairs with great big mugs of tea to catch up.

It was wonderful. Exceptional. I can see why she is so loved after centuries. I want to give a copy of P&P to every kid I know who’s just old enough to really love novels. And simultaneously I find myself despising the idea of P&P being set on a school syllabus.

That’s not a book to be dissected in a group for assignments. It’s a book that’s as cosy and intimate as it is witty and insightful. It’s a book to nurture a relationship with. To find joy in. To have a conversation with- scribble notes in the sidebar, exclamation marks and little written gasps of delight. To pass a dog-eared, well written-over copy along to a friend after years and share all of that joy of discovery. It’s a book to carry with you, to reread countless times and share with all of your past selves.

In a way, reading Pride & Prejudice is how I truly understood what it is to achieve immortality through writing. Austen is no more- she hasn’t existed for centuries. But while I’ve often closed a book and missed the characters, it’s rare to close a book and miss the author. To have such a wonderful sense of the voice behind it that it is that voice, more than the characters she creates, that you truly feel connected to. I was born hundreds of years after this woman died. But damn, do you get a taste of who she was. In a way, some essential part of this funny, clever, warm and deliciously biting woman survives her.

Falling in love with a 238 year old woman, eh? I’ve pined after some pretty inaccessible people before, but this might just be a whole new level. I’m certain I’m not alone, though.

But seriously- how magical is writing? I don’t mean that in any supernatural sense. I mean in the sense that in writing, we created a one-way time machine. We don’t just get to share information over vast swathes of time and space- although we do that, and it’s pretty damn cool. But more than that, we can meet people who lived centuries ago. We know who they were, who they loved, where they lived. Which is nice, but we also get to know what they were like. Whether they were the kind of people we’d pretend not to notice walking down the street, or someone we’d talk with for endless hours if they’d let us.

I’ve always found it difficult to imagine the reality of living in different times. A deficit of my own imagination, I guess. I know the past is real, but it feels cartoonish. Like an old video game, all clunky pixels and garish colours. I guess it’s because we often have to talk about the past in broad strokes- here are the buildings people lived in. There is a tool they used. Here is an outline of their social structures, and the names of some of the men in fancy hats with political power.

But Jane- I hope she wouldn’t mind if I call her Jane- does more than that. With a work of fiction she takes you past those brush strokes, leads you into her living room. She sits you down, pops the kettle on. You ask her how she’s been, and she smiles. You wouldn’t believe the story she has for you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a stack of books to read.

(Although I am having a bit of trouble deciding which to go for next. Which do you think I should go for?)

If we weren't living in a magic digital future, this would have been a crime against humanity.

If we weren’t living in a magic digital future, this would have been a crime against humanity.

 

12 thoughts on “Oh, Jane (Austen): A love letter.

  1. Well put… that is exactly how I feel about P&P. When I was a scared insecure teenager traveling in Europe for six months, my little paperback copy was always in my bag… as much a security blanket as something to entertain me on inevitable long waits. To this day I can open it up at any spot and feel at home and happy.

    Are you choosing between Austen books for your next read? I think the two next best are Emma and Persuasion. Emma shares more of the wit and fun that’s on nearly every page of P&P, and Persuasion has a sort of autumnal maturity and gentle depth to it.

    • Ah, that’s so lovely! I love it when books feel as much like old friends as stories.

      And thank you for the recs! At the moment I’m barely stopping myself from going right back to the beginning of P&P for another read, but I think it’ll be better with at least a few weeks in between. I like the idea of autumnal maturity and gentle depth, right now🙂

  2. I was named after an Austen heroine! Although not really the one anyone would want to be named after…

    Anyway, despite my namesake, I vote Sense and Sensibility. To be followed up by Emma Thompson’s adaption because it’s just lovely.

  3. Persuasion is the Austen novel I love best. I like P&P but if I could only read one of Austen’s novels it would be Persuasion every time!

  4. Northanger Abbey is my favourite Austen. But I just finished reading Death Comes To Pemberly, which is PD James’ sequel to Pride and Prejudice, it was just incredible! So worth a read.

  5. I see you linked to my post–as a pingback–on Jane Austen. Great! Would you consider listing Dirty Laundry on your site–or even just the Jane Austen posts under “Posts I Like”. (I’ve written at least one more, just a few posts back from the other one). Thanks! Now I’m going to explore yours.

    • Only too happy to explore your writing! The ‘Posts I Like’ section is an automatic thing that happens when I hit the ‘like’ button up top, though, and I don’t seem to have any of those when I’m at your blog? It might be something you can change in your settings- I vaguely remember doing something like that.

      And it’s lovely to ‘meet’ you- I loved that post of yours, not least because it resonated massively with the impressions I got of her when I was reading P&P. Particularly the reading of her as, if not explicitly so, then definitely what we can retrospectively speak of as a feminist author. The way she claims and opens up women’s perspectives and social sphere is fantastic.

  6. OH! I’m so sorry–I just noticed my article under the Related ones. Thank you again.
    I love this phrase of yours: ” It’s a book to … share with all of your past selves.” Beautifully done! And may I suggest your next Jane Austen: Emma! It’s my favorite, although almost nobody else’s on Goodreads, which has quite an Austen contingent. I adore Emma; others think she’s a spoiled brat. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie Clueless in between first and second reads of Emma…or maybe it’s just my personal taste; I see another commenter up there also recommends it. And I endorse your decision to wait before your re-read of P&P; read the others first. How I envy you, just embarking on an Austen journey!

  7. Mansfield Park, Fanny is as wonderful a depiction of a survivour of childhood trauma as has ever been created. I disagree about studying tho, I had the joy of doing Emma for A level, Austen is so well crafted that she shines even brighter under study as you spot every little nuance.

    • I think that at this stage I might just have to close my eyes and pick one to start from- everyone seems to have such good reasons to pick entirely different books. Which is wonderful!

      I think I said that about studying more because I remember how, when I was in school, a lot of the time studying them for exams really did suck the joy out of every one of them. It’s hard to immerse yourself in loving a book when your reading and study is tainted with having to score points in state exams. That could be a specifically Irish perspective, though- our Leaving Cert is well known for being nothing more than a trial.

      Y’know, in my first draft of this post I did add to that that I thought studying it at college level would be fantastic, but school level terrible, for exactly that reason. I have no idea where that sentence went- serves me right for editing first thing in the morning. But I absolutely agree with you about in-depth study of her work- even reading (solely) for leisure, I was constantly exclaim-out-loud struck. I imagine really delving into her work would be gorgeously rewarding.

  8. I love Jane Austen. Love her, love her, love her. If I had to be dropped on a deserted island with only one book, it would be my collected works of Jane Austen. They’re all excellent, but Northanger Abbey is my favorite.

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