Your Favorite Five
Tell Me Five Things About Jane Austen
Hello dear readers,
Thank you for being here. I hope your world is spring-like and beautiful today. Whatever’s going on in your world right now, it’s a good time to talk about Jane Austen.
And to get us started, please let me know your top Favorite Five Things that are important when it comes to reading Austen.
What are your Favorite Five? Is it Regency era romance, Regency costumes, Regency manners, or is it something deep that strikes you - connects with you - about Austen’s characters and how they relate to each other and find their way in the world.
Give me your Favorite Five.
Here are mine:
The Battle - Style vs. Substance
For me, possibly the most power thing Jane Austen does is to center the lives of women. And she does this in a radical way - but a way that is also subversively subtle. Before we know it, however we identify, we are in with this protagonist. And the protagonist has become, magically and before our very eyes, the smartest person in the room. (In fact, keep a lookout for our first Letter, dropping tomorrow, called: “The Smartest Person in the Room”!)
This centering of women’s lives is powerful, radical even. Other novelists before Austen made women the Subject. But what Austen does is elevate these heroines from being Victims of Rogues of the Samuel Richardson variety to showing Regency readers that we’re all held back, or even harmed, by a society that elevates Style (status, income, fashion, and all kinds of hierarchy) over Substance (character, integrity, true affection, equality, and connection). This is a lot.
Do you feel that, friends?
The suspense of every Jane Austen novel is, ostensibly, will they marry? But the real suspense is about which one of these forces will win out, and whether our heroine will survive it.
And the way our heroine survives is through her own inner resources. Everyone is familiar with Austen’s constant recounting of outer resources - from that famous first line of her most famous novel, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” And she lets us know the exact amount of that fortune - 10,000 pounds a year.
But what is less celebrated is that often just at the time that Austen is calculating the available funds, she’s also sizing up the inner resources of her characters: Do they have intellectual capacity, curiosity, and fostered interests enough to amuse themselves? Or are they overly focused on hunting, shooting, matchmaking, their unruly children or their dog.
Even more - what reserves of grace, kindness, and genuine affection are in their holdings?
And there is a method to this madness: For an Austen protagonist to survive in a world where ridiculousness reigns, you have to educate yourself and arm yourself with astute judgement, knowledge and lively interests that will support you, sustain you, and keep you safe, even if society won’t.
Reading Austen is like a wealth planner for your inner resources.
Anyone having a hard time talking to their family right now?
You may have noticed - there’s barely a good parent in Jane Austen. And in times when our society - wherever we are - is increasingly divided by disparities, misinformation, and clashes of philosophy, it’s somehow liberating to know that this is nothing new.
Jane Austen gives us an up-close-and-personal look at the treachery of polite society, even family members. There are entire room-fulls of people causing harm against our heroines in all sorts of ways - financial ruin, sexism, hypocrisy, neglect, and straightforward abusiveness, almost all of it sanctioned by Society.
Maybe Jane Austen doesn’t have all the answers - but there’s a feeling of solidarity in identifying with these experiences across time and place and all the other boundaries.
The Hard-Won HEA
But you can choose your own family. Austen makes this clear - and it’s liberating.
Not only that, if you are astute, and gracious and true to yourself, you just might find true love in the process.
Austen’s stories are not primarily about that Marriage Plot that provides that Happily Ever After, but still we get there in the end. And along the way Austen shows us - every time and without exception - how the stronger, better informed and deeper you are in character, the more meaningful and powerful will be that romance.
It’s the hard-won Happy Ever After.
Problems and the Problematic
For many of us right now in 2021, as we seek answer to the questions of injustice, disparity and oppressions in our own culture, illuminated by a year of crisis, especially when it comes to race but also gender, sexual orientation, ability and other ways we are marginalized - what does reading Jane Austen offer?
These are questions that the scholars, Janeites, and organizations like JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) and Jane Austen & Co with its recent “Race and the Regency” series, and the independent, lively annual Jane Con are investigating in exciting dialogues.
I’m all in. The Austen Connection is a place to continue and support these kinds of discussions, find community, and get some fun and inspiration along the way.
That’s not to say that Jane Austen is a prophet for the kind of progress many of us would like to see. My sense is that she was challenging the oppressiveness of Regency society and urging us forward, broadening our imaginations to think differently about humans and their capabilities regardless of gender, ability, perhaps even race; but she was writing in an era of Imperialism, slavery, social and physical disease and cruelty of all kinds - although the many screen adaptations of her works help us to forget that. Like the scholar Edward Said wrote in Culture and Imperialism, what’s helpful is to discuss both what’s there in her works and what isn’t there.
That’s a beginning. So let’s keep this conversation going!
Send me your Fave Five things you love about reading Jane Austen.
Comment below, or get in touch by email at AustenConnection@gmail.com, or on Twitter at @AustenConnect.
Stay well, stay strong, keep reading,
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