I just took state in Jane Austen.
Let me explain.
There’s a highly addictive trivia app called “Quiz Up” in which you race opponents from all over the world answering trivia questions in over sixty categories. One of the categories is Jane Austen. I don’t think a lot of people in Nevada are playing this game. My husband got best in state for the “Charles Dickens” category, and my son for “Legend of Zelda.” Yes, we are a family of state champions, ahem.
As I’ve played, I’ve marveled how many people know minor details about Austen’s novels. What was the name of Mr. Darcy’s aunt’s daughter’s lady’s maid? Mrs. Jenkinson, of course. Which character penned the words: You pierce my soul. I am in half agony, half hope…? Captain Wentworth! (side note: best love letter ever!) Which character in Harry Potter was named for Fanny Price’s unlikable aunt in Mansfield Park? Mrs. Norris. Everyone I play knows these answers. Why do we care about the minutia of Jane’s novels? Why do we read Jane at all?
For me, there are many reasons. She’s funny. Well, witty is the better word. Her love stories are intense. Intense? You may question. Yes, I know, her novels are full of gentry walking around, going to balls, staying home from balls, drinking tea, writing letters, engaging in endless conversations, but that’s what’s so amazing about Jane. When this is all the action of the book, and yet I can’t keep myself from turning the pages–one after another. Each glance holds significance. Idle chatter is anything but idle—each word matters, so much that a heroine’s entire future happiness can hang on just one.
But the biggest reason I read Jane is because I’m in love with her characters. The woman could sketch a character! My favorite character in Pride and Prejudice is Mr. Collins. (It used to be Mr. Darcy of course—I had a crush on Mr. Darcy from age fifteen to age…um…well, up until I met Mr. Kynaston. Now that I’m married I never think of Fitzwilliam Mr. Darcy. I swear.) But back to Mr. Collins. Why do I love him? Because he’s so much fun to laugh at. His ridiculousness is so cleverly composed I can only stand back and admire the master at work. You just know as you read the absurd, hypocritical, falsely humble, and downright nerdy things he says that Austen had real acquaintances just like him.
I’d love to be friends with Jane Austen. I’d love to sit down and have dinner with her. But the thought also frightens me. Would I later show up in one of her novels as a character of ridicule? Or could I possibly possess qualities sufficient to be cast as a heroine? Or—most frightening of all: would I not be interesting enough to even appear?
You get the feeling when Ms. Austen has Mr. Bennet say: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” that she is voicing her own sentiment. Her books are full of her “making sport of her neighbors,” though we would dislike her if she did it in any way but her own. She’s never hoity-toity about it. You never get the feeling she’s looking down on the rest of the world, and this is why: When you laugh at her characters, you get the oddest feeling you are really laughing at yourself. And Jane is laughing with you. (With you, not at you—there’s a difference.)
Case in point: the opening of Sense and Sensibility. Though it is in the first chapters of her first novel, it encapsulates her wit as no other scene she’s written since. It is the story of Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood. They are both independently wealthy–John through his mother, and Fanny through her family inheritance. They have a house in London, and estates to live on, yet upon the death of John’s father they discover they are to inherit even more: Norland Park–the home of his father’s second wife and three half-sisters.
On his death bed, John’s father had made him promise he would provide for his wife and daughters and John agreed. He decides to give them three thousand pounds—it is a pittance, but it is something. As you turn the pages on this scene, you observe his shrewd wife working on the weak Mr. Dashwood, talking him down to half that sum—1,500 pounds—then a 100 pound annuity—then 50 pound annuity—then no annuity at all, finally concluding that the devastated family are better able to give him something.
We laugh at the Dashwoods. Their hypocrisy is so cleverly written, we can do nothing else but laugh at them, as Jane intended us to do. Yet there is a feeling of awkwardness as we laugh at them that we are really laughing at ourselves. For, who among us has not stifled a generous impulse? Who among us has not justified giving less than we ought to give?
This week I’ve had the flu. It’s been terrible, but there’s been one high point: my return to Jane. I eat her up like comfort food. When else do you have an entire week to re-read your favorite books and re-watch your favorite movies? It’s the one consolation for getting the flu, the Jane-a-thon. As I’ve sneezed and coughed my way through this week, I’ve also laughed—at the social climbing Eltons, the mercenary Tilneys, the scandalous Crawfords, the hypocritical Dashwoods, and the clever heroines finding happiness in spite of them all. And after I laugh I get that uncanny feeling that I’m not alone in my laughter.
And this is how Ms. Austen lives on.