Why I Love Jane Austen

A drizzly, languorous Sunday here, with all the usual restful ritual of the day for me: church in the morning, shopping afterward at CVS for dry goods and Steve's C-Town for groceries, back to my apartment for lunch (blue cheese, crackers, and a green apple today), check e-mail, a little work, talk to Katy in the UK and Ted for our ongoing joint read of The Odyssey, run, shower, fix dinner, relax, talk to my family in Missouri, go to bed.

This is very solitary, you will note. It is not exciting. It is like two hundred other Sundays I've had in my nearly six years of New York life, and for most twentysomethings, it would be stolid beyond belief. But I love it and am happy in it; and as odd as this sounds, that is partly due to Jane Austen.

I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was thirteen years old, finishing the entire book from the First Proposal on in one breathless, besotted night. I loved Elizabeth, I loved Mr. Darcy, I loved "In vain I have struggled," I fangirled all over it. Two years later, the famed A&E/BBC production aired on TV, and I watched it in a state of mild disbelief: Was Mrs. Bennet really that awful? Did Mr. Collins actually say that in the novel? Surely Mr. Darcy didn't swim? I went back to the book and discovered what my romance-clouded reading had missed the first time through: Jane Austen was funny, often screamingly so, if you paid close enough attention to hear what she was saying. I reread the novel with new eyes, and the fact that I had missed such a major component of the book taught me to try to listen, really listen, to the books I was reading and the people around me.

This experience made me an editor, more or less, because editing is nothing but close attention to every word, every comma. And with further reading of Jane Austen's novels, I learned what I think of as the Zen of Jane Austen: Observe everything you can. If it is good, celebrate it; if it is funny, relish it; if it is wrong, condemn it; and if you can, record it, as clearly and accurately and intelligently as you know how, and it will speak for itself for ages to come. Austenblog quoted this passage from Emma in a recent post, and it made my jaw drop all over again with its brilliance:

Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking–strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.–”The best fruit in England–every body’s favourite–always wholesome.–These the finest beds and finest sorts.–Delightful to gather for one’s self–the only way of really enjoying them.–Morning decidedly the best time–never tired–every sort good–hautboy infinitely superior–no comparison–the others hardly eatable–hautboys very scarce–Chili preferred–white wood finest flavour of all–price of strawberries in London–abundance about Bristol–Maple Grove–cultivation–beds when to be renewed–gardeners thinking exactly different–no general rule–gardeners never to be put out of their way- delicious fruit–only too rich to be eaten much of–inferior to cherries–currants more refreshing–only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping–glaring sun–tired to death–could bear it no longer–must go and sit in the shade.”

In one paragraph, Jane Austen gives you an hour in Mrs. Elton's company, beginning with her "apparatus of happiness" (such a lovely phrase), her desire to lead the way, her perky never-tiredness, and her cheerleading for strawberries; then the ease with which she changes her favorite kind of strawberry, Maple Grove (her rich sister's estate, which she mentions at every opportunity), the gardeners not knowing as well as she does how to grow the fruit; and then her developing tiredness, which leads to trashing strawberries and her desire to sit down. All of Mrs. Elton is there in this paragraph, her small mind; her flexibility of principle in the face of circumstance or social advantage; her infinite undeserved sense of superiority; and most especially the fact that she doesn't listen to what she's saying, that she speaks without any real meaning to her words -- always the hallmark of villains and fools in Jane Austen. It's a little miracle of dialogue and characterization, and it advances the scene by moving us through an hour of the garden party!

So Jane Austen taught me first to notice these features in a text, then she taught me to appreciate them for their truth and the beauty in that truth. But the Zen of Jane Austen works outside literature as well. The taste of a sweet wine or sharp cheese; a friend's characteristic turn of phrase; the finery of a sparkling summer night: Appreciating these things begins with paying attention to them, being in them, almost, and outside yourself. And from appreciation grows love, and love, happiness -- a small kind, but an important one: the pleasure of having such wonderful things in your world.

Thus I love Austen for the romance, humor, wisdom, the snapshot of a world seemingly more beautiful and orderly than ours; I love her for the endless pleasure of her texts -- the perfect plots, gloriously balanced sentences, truthful characters, the fact I always find something new. But most especially I love her because she taught me to observe and appreciate the little things, beginning with one paragraph in one marvelous book, and expanding out into kind people, funny menus, great music -- and quiet Sundays.