Recently I went to a conversation between William “Bill” Deresiewicz, author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, and Karen “Karen” Joy Fowler, author of Jane Austen Book Club. There were about 15 of us there at Books, Inc in Berkeley, and OK, it was almost a month ago (don’t you just love instant reporting on the Internet?), but it was really cool! It was like hanging out with all you dear readers, all of us gabbing about Austen, all of us being surprised at just how differently we see the books. One of those, you know, life metaphors.
Here’s a few of the things we talked about. And because I think of you all as my Jane Austen friends, I’d love to hear what you think about any of them.
- The way that the humor of the books is generally lacking in the movies, and if this could be remedied. I and a few others said, yes, it could, but those movies would not be the rather swooshy pink rom-coms lots of people want from their Austen films. (Talk about irony . . . .) How you would do this I’m not sure, being better at watching movies than making them. Any ideas out there?
- Secularism in Jane Austen—how church and religion are hardly ever mentioned in her books, yet she was the daughter of a clergyman, etc, etc. And how the clergymen run the gamut from Edmund Bertram and Edward Ferrars to Mr. Collins and back again. Now my own take is that church and the clergy were such a ubiquitous part of Austen’s life that she hardly ever thought to comment on them, and that she saw the clergy in particular as just a bunch of guys. What do you think?
- Bill said that widowhood and loss are a theme in Persuasion. I’m not so sure. He pointed out that most of the characters are widows or widowers, which is true. Anne’s loss of Captain Wentworth and other losses do play a role, but as Miss Ball argued, the recovery of love and happiness is crucial to the book (and is significantly lacking in widowhood). And the way Austen treats the widows and losers of Persuasion, other than Anne, is not really very sympathetic. Like the clergy, I would venture to say that they were just more common in an age of earlier deaths. But it is an interesting thought.
- So was Karen’s comment that Mrs. Smith is a rather sinister character—she doesn’t tell Anne how wicked Mr. Elliot is until after Anne declares she won’t marry him. This is a common problem in friendship, though, isn’t it? In my own circle I know of two instances of one person on the brink of a disastrous marriage and their friend deciding whether or not to say something. One friend did, the other didn’t (having already made her opinions known). It didn’t make a difference in either case, and both couples are now divorced. Aside from the fact that it had never occurred to me that Mrs. Smith was sinister, this discussion pointed out parallels in Austen’s books to my own life that I hadn’t even thought of!
- One person asked how reading Jane Austen has enlivened your life. Do you think and act differently because of her? Karen said she suffered fools better than she used to, enjoyed them even! And Bill said she’d made him able to admit the possibility of his being wrong. For myself, I think that I started reading Austen young enough (~13) that she helped shape my entire outlook on life, both my morals and my ever-present sense of irony. Though I also simply felt that I had found a friend.
What about you? How has reading Jane Austen enlivened your life? Has she changed you?