Jane Austen in her cottage
garden at Chawton.
Painting by Tom Clifford, 2002
In the 1983 movie, Max Dugan Returns, Nora McPhee yells at a new love interest that Jane Austen was her favorite author because she liked an author you could depend on. I liked the line (even though I had never read Austen) and remembered it years later. Twelve years later, to be precise, when I dove into Sense and Sensibility after seeing the movie.
I fell in love.... With the author you can depend on, that is.
- She Wrote about Universal Themes
Jane Austen, a daughter of a British gentleman lived in post-Victorian England and wrote from the heart about things she was allowed to. The eternal elements in her story are in every one of her stories: the evil and good in all of us, true love (and fighting to get it) and maintaining an even keel in the face of gossip, false accusations and when your enemies appear to be triumphing over you.
- She Wrote about People we all Know
Jane Austen is eternal because she wrote about genuinely irritating, loving and enigmatic people that are a lot like the people we have in our lives. The relatives that have it better than you and make you feel inferior at every family gathering. The poor, unfortunate friends who seem to have happiness, despite their poverty. The mothers who love too much; the sisters that behave the way they shouldn't; the unexpected generosity of the good people in your life who quietly believe the best about you. The deep, layered characters could be anyone - even you.
- She Wrote as a Woman Who Valued Relationships
In her books (and she only finished five novels) I am given a wind of strength by a feminist author who believes in romance. I am reassured by Jane that it is okay to love and lose your heart. Men are worth it (at least the good ones are). In a world that hints I shouldn't trust people and make myself my own best friend, Jane tells me that it’s okay to need other people. Friends and sisters are there for us to confide in and it’s alright if I want to cry –with a select few I can trust.
Wrote Wrote Wrote Perfect Endings
While Jane wrote, she revised her work a lot
. She knew that her stories would stand for a long, long time and that the endings had to have a fabulous pay-off. In doing this, her polished work is eternal. First draft was good, but most of her books were revised at the end at least once before publishing. She teaches us to have patience in the process of writing: be believable but reward the reader with something that will leave them smiling for days!
- She Wrote for the Sheer Joy of Writing (without much of an audience)
While she was alive Jane’s novels didn't fit in with what people were reading: Victorian literature and Romantic literature. She was never a best-seller. Even modern fiction enthusiasts preferred Charles Dickens and George Eliot . To top it off, if you did buy a book she wrote it would attribute authorship to “A Lady”. Anonymity that respected the laws of a gentry that never quite saw ladies as people. *sigh* No one says “Poor Jane” now, though. Austen’s five novels outsell most classic English Literature today. In academia, she is regarded as one of the serious contributors to English Fiction, studied widely in Universities and Colleges. She is also seen as a feminist author – oh! What would the gentry say?
- She Wrote in the Face of Death
My friend Jane died when she was 42, probably from bovine tuberculosis or Addison’s disease. She got really sick the last year of her life and the doctors were puzzled with her sickness so for that reason couldn’t prescribe a good treatment. After all, the year was 1817 and treatment for unknown diseases were very crude and ineffective. Jane wrote this in a letter in February:
"I certainly have not been very well for many weeks, and about a week ago I was very poorly, I have had a good deal of fever at times and indifferent nights, but am considerably better now and recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour. I must not depend upon ever being blooming again. Sickness is a dangerous indulgence at my time of life."
In June she died, having published three of her five novels.
Her brother and sister campained to get the last two published –Northanger Abbey andPersuasion
both the year of her death.
In the end Jane gives us what we want: a mended heart, a faithful man in a sea of slimy
blackhearts, and a family restored to hope in human-kind. The queen of the happy ending, Austen pulls it off and makes me believe it every single time. Beautiful, juicy love… it never goes out of style!
Happy Birthday, Sister. You've come a long way, Jane!
Few authors have a body of work as dependable as Jane Austen. If I ever suggest reading Austen’s novels, I usually recommend working through the books in the order they were published. Try these links to see which one grabs you: