Monday, August 12, 2019

Austen

I can't remember a time when I didn't know that there was a famous British author named Jane Austen, but I never encountered her work as a younger reader. As an adult, my first encounters with her work were through film adaptations, which prompted me to purchase three of her best-known novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, with the intention of reading them. But life and a couple of international moves didn't support those reading goals for several years.




When I was finally able to sit down with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice a few years ago, I immediately understood why her work endures. As an astute judge of character and observer of human behaviour and motivations, her exploration of human society and social interactions still resonates today, despite shifting mores and societal norms. Here's a perfect example, spoken by Mr. Bennet to his daughter Lizzy, near the end of Pride and Prejudice:
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Sadly, what was true in Regency England is still true today. Only the means and the medium for the sport and laughter have changed (and have a broader reach).

A couple of years ago, my path intersected with Jane Austen's unexpectedly when I was at a conference in Winchester, England. The day after the conference ended, my friend and I had a free morning to spend in the town before catching our bus to the airport. To escape the gray, rainy weather we visited the Winchester cathedral, where we were surprised by a small exhibit devoted to the life and works of Jane Austen, who is buried there.

Jane Austen died young, at age 41, but her work and its public appeal has endured. There are accounts that tweet quotes from her work, fan fiction, and even mashups (though I confess I prefer my Pride and Prejudice without zombies).

Likely some people are drawn to her work by the period costumes and stately homes, idealizing the society that Austen was looking at with a critical lens, and failing to realize* that at its heart, Austen's work is not a celebration of the society of her day, but rather an exploration of human nature within the framework of societal structures. They are, like Lydia Bennet, so focused on the superficial that they cannot perceive what lies underneath.

*despite the fact that Austen spells it right out in two of the titles: Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility

Over the generations, how our societies are structured may change, along with the conventions of conduct, but at our core the human experience is still about love, loss, aspiration, regret - about trying to understand oneself within the broader social context, to survive and thrive, and to establish and nurture relationships with people we care about. I think Austen's work will always find appreciation among readers who, like Elizabeth Bennet, reflect thoughtfully on themselves and the societies they live in.

Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, England
photo copyright Elisabeth Norton, 2017, all rights reserved



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