Welcome to all guests from the Austenesque Extravaganza. Thank you for visiting — please look around, stay awhile, make yourselves at home. As part of this week’s Touring Thursday, I decided to talk about what Austen has come to mean to me and why her body of work endures. The romance is only part of it — Austen’s characters are so well-drawn and so timeless, that while we love to love Darcy and Captain Wentworth and the rest, they are only part of her appeal. She died so young, and was just coming into her power as a novelist with Persuasion — I feel such a loss when we think of how The Watsons and Sanditon remain fragments only. Damn that 19th century medicine that failed to keep her alive!
I was in high school when I had to read P&P and was all meh about it. Yeah, I know. But I came back to it later in my 20s and totally fell in love. Each reading brought something new, and I reread it often. I remember thinking, “hmmm, how weird that people could just be sick at someone else’s house and be put to bed and it was all so accepted and normal. ” And then the epiphany! No! That was the point. It wasn’t normal, it was utterly mortifying, and that was why Mrs. Bennet’s ruse was so beyond the pale. How completely embarrassing for poor Jane.
There’s a point at which Lizzy lifts her eyes to the ceiling and it was on my umpteenth reading that I understood that she was rolling her eyes. That was my first insight into Austen’s modernity. Who hasn’t rolled their eyes at their parents? (Oh come on, you can admit it.) It’s touches like that that make P&P fresh every time.
I will always love P&P best but Persuasion is Austen’s best book. It is a gem of a story. There’s the Cinderella aspect, which has eternal appeal, there’s Captain Wentworth, and aside from the silly hat, which he totally wore the hell out of (have you ever seen pictures of British Navy uniforms from the era? Good lord.) he was a realistic and engaging hero. But even better is how Austen captures family dynamics. Read the part where Mary and her in-laws are telling poor Anne their side of the story about child-rearing and about who is giving the kids treats and you get the idea. There’s also a little gem of a moment when Charles Musgrove does the thing that we’ve all done, and yes, we all have:
The visitors took their leave; and Charles, having civilly seen them off, and then made a face at them, and abused them for coming,
Likewise in Emma, which was so wonderfully adapted into Clueless precisely because of its modernness, the family is the core of the novel. Emma loves her sister and her father and her nieces and nephews. She is a mean girl, sure, as her treatment of poor Mrs. Bates shows, but then we meet a true Mean Girl, Mrs. Elton, who is so deliciously obnoxious that she makes Emma look like a saint. Her jealousy of Jane Fairfax is also so well-drawn and so reasonable and so … right. By the way, where Emma goes wrong is the relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. Never got it. Never will. Jane doesn’t seem the type to go for the self-absorbed jerk.
I notice that Mansfield Park often doesn’t get mentioned as a favorite by fans and I admit it’s not one of mine. I wonder though if anyone else has noticed the similarities between Mansfield Park and Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl? I need to re-read Mansfield Park to get a better handle on it, but you have the poor girl living with the rich family, the wastrel brother who redeems himself, the sainted good brother who is dead in Alcott’s version but a likely Navy officer in the original. I may be way off, but it’s possible that Alcott was doing what many Austenesque authors have done, which is to retell the Austen novel for a new audience. It’s not just us. Feel free to chime in in the comments on whether you see a relationship or whether I’m all wet. I’m cool either way.
One of the reasons that Mansfield Park doesn’t appeal as much as the others is that Fanny’s kind of a wuss, but also this is the most 18th century of Austen’s novels. This is the novel that is truly of her time and religious upbringing. She was not really a modern timeless woman, but a woman of her era, as we all are. Austen was a staunch Christian and daughter of a rector. If this were the book that she was famous for, we wouldn’t be writing sequels. On the other hand, if we want to know the most about Austen, this is probably the book that is closest to who she really is and the way she really lived.
What have I learned from delving into Jane Austen’s world by writing The Unexpected Miss Bennet? Well first of all, Fordyce’s Sermons for Young Women is actually very readable. Everyone laughs at it, but there’s some good stuff in there. You should check it out via Project Gutenberg, and I also quote from it in The Unexpected Miss Bennet. I also needed to discover compassion for Charlotte Lucas and Lady Catherine and lo and behold, there it was. They aren’t just silly, self-serving, villains — Austen limned them so well all I had to do was add shading. Even Mrs. Bennet, who was so much fun to write, is really just a doting mother doing what she can to protect her children and ensure their security.
What have you learned from Jane Austen? What do you think of my rambles? Please comment here for a chance to win fabulous prizes at Austenesque. Thanks for coming everyone! I’m looking forward to your comments.