Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Happy Birthday Jane Austen

Jane Austen's birthday
Today is the 240th birthday of my favourite author, Jane Austen. She and I are old friends; I've considered her my favourite author these twenty years at least ;)

I've been trying to pin down the exact reasons why Austen is my favourite author and it's not an easy task. One of the things I like about her stories are that they are largely happy - I think there is enough misery, unfairness, and tragedy in real life without choosing to read about it during my leisure time. In that, Austen and I are a wonderful match, because she didn't want to write about such things either!
“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”
Mansfield Park
I love Austen's ironic humour; for the reader who notices details there are gems on nearly every line. Take for example this famous quote, said by Caroline Bingley in 'Pride & Prejudice':
"I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library."
which is then followed with...
"No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest for some amusement;"
Austen makes it quite clear that Miss Bingley doesn't mean what she says, it's all flattery aimed at Darcy, but it's done in a subtle way. Austen is both unstinting and generous with her characters - she makes no effort to hide their flaws, but she is very tolerant of them. I think that tolerance would be something you'd have to cultivate in those times. If you lived in a society that was confined to a certain class, as all Austen's heroines did, and which was then further confined by being within a certain acquaintanceship, such as within the neighbourhood, like many of the heroines faced, you'd have to put up with some people who you would certainly find tested your patience. I always pitied poor Emma Woodhouse. Her day to day companions are all far beneath her intellectually (barring one notable exception) that although I cringe while reading her behaviour towards Miss Bates I can also recognise that she must've outrun her patience!

I imagine Austen as being similar in some ways to Mr Bennet, who is a real people-watcher - he delights in the absurdities of the people around him because you have to put up with them. Elizabeth takes this a philosophical step further:
"And yet I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason. It is such a spur to one's genius, such an opening for wit, to have a dislike of that kind. One may be continually abusive without saying anything just; but one cannot always be laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty."
Austen's books are so often categorised as 'just' romances, which really sells them short. They have been crafted with such expertise that there are layers in the story. We all know that there are books in that genre that don't especially do it justice and it doesn't seem fair to Austen to class her books as similar to those. Some people might criticise her for not taking on the wider issues of her day, but why should she? Austen's interest was more in the people of her stories than wider society. For me, this is one of the reasons that her stories are so compelling. Human emotions and journeys in understanding are completely recognisable 200 years on.
“And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.
Northanger Abbey
Although they are not 'just' romances, there is certainly some very satisfying romance. It wouldn't have been proper for Austen to write anything too demonstrative, as she was of course an unmarried lady, but there are some wonderful romantic lines here and there. My favourite page of Austen is the letter from Persuasion which contains these lines (let's all sigh together!):
"You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago."
When reading Austen's works I always feel a kinship with her, that we could have been friends. I am so grateful for her work, the works inspired by her genius and the hours of enjoyment that I have had due to her genius:
"I will only add, God bless you."
Let's all raise a virtual (or real!) glass to Jane Austen - Happy 240th birthday!

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing Ceri, I believe your first quote from Mansfield is how I have been trying to live my life for the last 6 years however trying to restore everyone isn't easy it seems people are determined to be miserable. Thank goodness I have Austen and JAFF, I just pick up a book and cheer up! Happy Birthday Jane

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  2. Very well done indeed Ceri!!! :)

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  3. Happy Birthday, Jane!
    I enjoy the points you make about what makes her a favorite this many years after her works were published. Well said, Ceri!

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  4. I, too, love that letter and upon consideration...it might be my favorite page/selection also in Jane Austen books.

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