by Laurie Viera Rigler, author of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict
[This is how I started off my talk at the Whittier Public Library's Jane Austen series on March 5, 2008:]
In all the excitement of the recent releases of The Jane Austen Book Club movie and Becoming Jane, and now that we are well into Masterpiece Theatre's Complete Jane Austen, one might be tempted to say that 2008 is turning out to be the year of Jane Austen, perhaps even more so than 2007. But let's not forget that 2008 is also an election year. And with all the hoopla and fuss over should it be Obama, Clinton, or McCain, I submit that it should be Jane.
Sure, she's been dead for almost 200 years, but that doesn't seem to stop Masterpiece Theatre, Hollywood, Bollywood, authors like me who are inspired to write books because of how much we love her, and readers like me who continue to read and re-read her six novels incessantly.
And most important, who is better qualified to run the country than she?
Let's talk about character:
If we go by the assumption that there is a little bit of the author in each of her characters—well, at least in each of the characters she likes—than who can lead the country better than someone who has the wit and intelligence of Elizabeth Bennet, the diplomacy of Anne Eliot, the prudence and strength of Elinor Dashwood, and the stay-the-course steadfastness of Fanny Price?
Let's talk about experience: People like to say that Austen never left the south of England, that she led a circumscribed, uneventful life. But in all fairness, it would be pretty hard for her to take a Grand Tour of Europe—supposing she were able to afford it—during the Napoleonic Wars.
Just because one doesn't write about war doesn't mean one is ill-informed about war. Aside from being very well read herself, Jane Austen had two brothers who served in the Navy and fought in those wars, and a cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, who married a French count who got guillotined during the Reign of Terror.
As for that uneventful, quiet life, it's not like Jane Austen was a recluse. She loved to socialize, to dance, to be in company. She traveled many times to London and lived in Bath.
And she may not have married, but she was hardly sheltered. Just read Lady Susan, one of her minor works, and see how sheltered you think she was. For Jane Austen, staying single was a choice. She had at least one proposal that we definitely know about, and very likely more. Being a single woman was a brave choice for a woman of Austen's time, especially for a woman like Jane Austen, who was not exactly flush with money.
So, we've got character. We've got experience. We've got courage.
Let's talk about special interests.
Some people think that Jane Austen panders to special interests—in particular, the special interests of women. After all, her stories are all about bonnets, pretty dresses, balls, and who gets to marry the rich guy.
But are not these stories rife with handsome men in knee breeches and women in beautiful gowns? Does that not pander to the special interests of the fairer sex?
Well yes, I suppose, if you are to take the movies to be the same as Jane Austen's novels, which they are not. The novels were actually quite spare of period detail, as Jane Austen wrote them for her contemporaries, who already knew what a barouche-landau was and what type of waistline the latest gowns had. Of course, we women love the eye candy the movies provide, but so should the men, considering all those heaving bosoms in all those low-cut empire waisted dresses.
Just to illustrate for you the difference between the movies and the books, let's take Sense and Sensibilty as an example. In the book, Edward Ferrars is plain. In the movie, he is Hugh Grant.
In the book, Colonel Brandon is grave and solemn and singularly un-dashing. In the movie, he is Alan Rickman.
Am I complaining about any of this? Absolutely not.
Willoughby, granted, is a beauty in both book and film, but then again, he is the villain of the piece.
As for Jane Austen's allegedly overly zealous interest in female finery, I beg to differ, for she relegated such pursuits to her silly, superficial female characters, such as Mrs. Elton with her overly trimmed dresses and her fishing for compliments, ditzy Mrs. Allen whose main joy in life was dress and shopping, and the vacant Lady Bertram, whose main purpose was to sit on a sopha all day nicely dressed.
How many discerning men might have laughed knowingly had they read this passage in Northanger Abbey:
"It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire…Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it."
Even the empty-headed Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey acknowledges that "Men commonly take so little notice of those things." Said she; "I can never get Mr. Allen to know one of my gowns from another."
If Jane Austen were indeed pandering to the special interests of women, then how come
T.C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Paul Auster, Gregory Peck, and Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat all love Jane Austen?
Apparently they know something other men may not know, which is that Jane Austen's genius speaks to all of us, not just women. Her stories have universal resonance, because they are stories of self-knowledge and self-discovery. They are witty social satires, and they are commentaries on the follies and flaws and majesty of human nature.
And yes, each of her books is all wrapped up in a love story—not an overly sentimental one—but one with a happy ending.
And who, male or female, can resist a happy ending? Doesn't this country need a happy ending? Doesn't this country need a lesson on how to become a better human being, especially when that lesson is wrapped up in such an agreeable, amusing package?
I submit that it does.
(Image courtesy of Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose)
[The Whittier Public Library in Whittier, California, is hosting two more events in its Jane Austen series:
Wednesday, March 12th, at 7:00 PM:
Jane Austen, Love & Friendship:
Come and listen as Jane Austen, as portrayed by Mary Burkin, shares family and neighborhood gossip.
Wednesday, March 19th at 7:00 PM:
Tea and Tasteful Conversation:
Enjoy tea while learning about the culinary world of Jane Austen's England.
Presented by Anne Kiley, Ph.D., Professor at Whittier College and WPL Foundation Board Member
RSVP $25.00 per person; limited seating. 562-464-3450; 562-464-3470.
All events are at the Whittier Central Library
7344 S. Washington Avenue, Whittier, CA