Today is Jane Austen's birthday. I'm conflicted about Jane Austen. I want to like her books, but I often do not. I may be the only English major ever to not like Pride and Prejudice--and no, you may not take my Ph.D. away; I earned it, and I'm going to keep it.
The only Jane Austen novel that I love wholeheartedly is Northanger Abbey. If that book didn't exist, I'd think that all Austen scholars were a bit touched. But Northanger Abbey proves to me that Austen is a woman of wit and intellect, and with humor thrown into the mix.
I loved that book when I read it in undergraduate school, long about 1986. It wasn't until the wonderful movies based on Jane Austen's books that came out in the last half of the 1990's that I understood the appeal of the other books. Now I understand why people love Sense and Sensibility. And more important, I understand the cultural critique that Jane Austen offered. In her books, it's such a subtle critique that I completely missed it when I first read those books in my late adolescence. In the movies, I saw it finally--and felt it, viscerally.
Here's a Jane Austen quote for the day: "Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance."
When I first read that quote, I read choice instead of chance: Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of choice.
Those two quotes (one by Austen, one by Berkey-Abbott) show to me the vast difference in being a 19th century woman anywhere and being a 21st century woman in a first world nation.
If I had the kind of life I wish I had (one of lots of time and leisure and friends with lots of free time), I'd throw a Jane Austen tea today. We'd have a pot of strong tea softened with cream and sugar, scones, clotted cream, lemon curd, and some cucumber sandwiches. And because I'd be a woman of leisure, I'd have made a beautiful coconut cake (that's why I'd have leftover lemon curd, because I'd be using the recipe out of Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts), and because it's close to Christmas, we'd have ambrosia, and I wouldn't care about repeating the flavors of lemon and coconut.
Astute readers might say, "Hey, you're sort of describing life in a Jane Austen novel." People who know me well would remind me that I first hated Jane Austen because those female characters didn't seem to have a meaningful life; they just sat around and drank tea all the time and went to a ball here and there.
Yes, the very reason I don't have a life with lots of free time and homemade lemon curd and cake is because I rebelled against the world that Jane Austen offered. Jane Austen showed us, subtly but powerfully nonetheless, the danger of that life of leisure. That life of leisure often relied on the support of males, and Austen novel after Austen novel shows us how precarious that support could be.
So today, to celebrate Jane Austen's life, I will prepare for the work week ahead. I'll do some laundry and reflect on how much I love my 21st century clothes--and the washer and dryer that take care of them.
And I'll have some tea, and since I have lots of Christmas cookies in the house, I won't make scones. I'll lift my tea cup to women like Austen who paved the way for generations of women writers who would follow in her footsteps, women like me.