As quirky as this may sound, the pandemic has provided unusual opportunities during the past several months for helping me cope with my anxiety in a variety of ways, a key one being my reading choices. Jane Austen and her body of work resurfaced in my world. While some consider her novels simple romantic escapism at the core, each novel, in fact, has much to say about perseverance and empathy. Reading them again at this point in my life surrounded in current events, experiences, sorrows, JOYs, and more to draw upon, her writing offers unexpected consolations. Looking beyond the preoccupation with love and romance (my 15-year-old self), and a layer of steel with a second layer of resilience is formed in her stories…and reading each novel again inspired me onward this past year.
Why should Jane’s novels be suited to our pandemic era? On one level, they seem to offer the perfect romantic escapism (similar to Bridgerton without the steam scenes). Dig deeper in her writing and you find she offers unexpected consolations. Her own life was a lesson in forbearance. She published six novels in a seven-year span and died at the age of 41 with unpublished pieces. Jane understood firsthand and lived most of her life with constant financial insecurity. As a woman with limited choices during England’s Regency time period, she felt trapped and surrounded by family friction and the constant overcrowding of psychological stress, even though she and her characters continued to “crack on” as expected. Austen showed families as imperfect, just like hers and ours. Her works spotlighted the reality behind the closed front doors of daily life.
Jane’s journey to actual publication was its own lesson in resilience and grit. With multiple rejections and fake promises, she carried forth. Her novel heroines reflected Jane’s own stoic perseverance and strength of character; self pity was not an option. Her characters emotionally grew during their challenging journeys, thus inspiring us during this time of uncertainty as we continue to re-evaluate what really matters. Characters adapted with a growth mindset, something our society in general must continue to pursue if we hope to survive. Life was, and still is, a constant process of change, of adapting to challenges, and accepting, while hopefully learning, from mistakes. Failure brought success…may it be so for us!
Personally, I think of Jane as a friend. She has been a part of my life well over a half century. Her particular kind of narration allows an intimate reading experience where I relax and find comfort in each of her novels. In fact, her works provide such emotional solace, I better understand why my father-in-law (who fought in WWII) read Jane on the front lines to his fellow soldiers. He told me, “If it was calming for the trench fighters in WWI and Prime Minister Churchill, it’s better for me.” My Granny B first introduced me to Jane. She claimed Austen’s works were read orally to her by her grandmother during the Pandemic of 1918.
As Lady Russell notes in Persuasion, “Time will explain.” We may not have all the answers or even the questions as this pandemic lingers, but there is hope. There is also a restorative power and slow-down effect in the rhythm of Jane’s words. The core of her writing for me is how she effortlessly comforts as she challenges us onward. She is poignant with her mixture of social satire and epiphanies. She embraces the dark and lonely aspects of life with lightness, gentle humor, and her signature touch. I cannot help by wonder if Jane were sitting next to me drinking a cup of tea what she would share about society and our families today. What, indeed, would Jane say?
Special note: A former professor of mine recently reached out to visit. This is lovingly dedicated to her in gratitude for her continuous wisdom, inspiration, and the challenge to what would Jane say…