Saturday, October 8, 2011

Finding Jane Austen

Jane Austen. Just saying her name makes me feel better. She is my buddy on the plane, my ever-present dating consultant and she is always there to help size up any situation.  When I mention my obsession with Pride and Prejudice at my shows, I see all the other Janeites in the audience smile, and I have instantly made new friends.
Jane has gotten me through more rainy Sundays, lonely weekends and Christmases  than I can count. Sense and Sensibility is often times randomly playing in the house so I can walk by and hear “besotted” or “Give me an occupation or I shall go mad.”

Lately I have found myself needing to know more about Jane. Her face and physicality in particular. So much is known from a face. There are so many people from history that I simply will need to meet in person somehow, before I am satisfied. John Adams, Jesus, St. John, Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra and Helen Of Troy are just a few names on the list.

But Jane..... was she like Emma Thompson, did she just look intelligent? Was she as pretty as Anne Hathaway? Or is she more serious like Amanda Root?

In my search for Jane, I recently found a clue that really shed some 18th century light. A few years back a documentary aired called “The Real Jane Austen” hosted by Anna Chancellor. Anna informs us that she is Jane’s great great great great niece! Or something like that.  Anna Chancellor plays Caroline Bingley in P&P and gives a knock- out performance in Four Weddings and A funeral. She is a funny, witty, warm and brilliant British actor. Jane was said to be tall, brown in coloring, have an animated expression and very pretty, to be sure. I can totally see Jane’s blood running through Anna Chancellor! This missing piece to the puzzle is extraordinary indeed. I could suddenly see Jane at her writing table, smirking to herself. I could imagine her at dinner parties with insufferable company, too many ladies and not enough gents.

But something more profound was discovered that goes deeper than skin. Jane was telling me who she was all this time, and I can’t believe it took me this long to figure out.

I always thought of Jane as one of those wise oracle people. Calmly and cooly finding inspiration from the intrigues and vignettes of others around her. As if she looked at the world from a safe, mocking, distance . As a writer, I should have known better.

Jane’s story exists in all of her stories. She wrote from experience. Jane was a wild child. She was sensitive, she had real fears, and she wrote with passion.

Like vulnerable and lovesick Marianne Dashwood, she fell for the charming Tom Lefroy. He was in no position to offer marriage, but wooed her and left her with a broken heart, eventually marrying an heiress.

When her parents decided to move to Bath, Jane watched helplessly as her brother James and his wife inherited her family home. They were as eager to move in as John and Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Jane is said to have fainted. She also stopped writing.

I can’t help but wonder now if her sister Cassandra was a mixture of Elinor Dashwood and Jane Bennett, always acting with reserve and moderation, suffering through life’s trials quietly.

I think Jane, in her best-loved character Elizabeth Bennett, included a big part of herself. Elizabeth, we are told, is not a great beauty but strong willed, spirited and alive. She has a sharp wit and is not afraid to walk in the mud. She is also under enormous pressure from her mother to marry up. When Darcy finally “sees” Elizabeth, he “gets” her and falls in love with her. I can’t help but wonder if Jane desired to be really known and understood by her suitors. She must have felt invisible at times because she didn’t have the qualities most grooms were looking for-childbearing genes and an inheritance.

Later in life, Jane is found in the character of Anne Elliot. Jane was a fish out of water in Bath-a place she loathed.  It is said she waited for an “unnamed suitor” to return. In Persuasion we find a happy ending, when Captain Wentworth returns for Anne, but in real life we do not.  Jane had hopes of an offer from this mystery man, but he never returned. She later found out he had died. Had he lived, Cassandra believed he would have been a very suitable match for Jane. I can’t help but wonder if Jane just threw in the towel on romance after that.

In yet another layer, I find myself very close to Jane. I am single and a writer living from my pen. I won’t settle for a marriage without love. I have had my share of Willoughbys and Wickhams and am still hoping for an Edward Ferris to show up.

In Jane’s time, it was a scandal for a woman to be a writer. Her first novels were written by “A Lady.” More women died in childbirth than men died fighting the Napoleonic wars. After around age 28, unmarried women were in a precarious position.

As I face the struggles of daily life, I think of Jane, who faced them all the same and chose her pen. I think of Jane, devastated when she had to leave Hampshire for Bath and can only relate knowing my own sensitivities when it comes to location. I think of Jane who found love and lost it and lived her life without it. I also think of how I lean on my older sisters who are far more level-headed then me.

Jane is more than your everyday genius writer who invented the modern day novel. She is the Elizabeth Bennett in all of us who stand up for ourselves, refuse to crumble under pressure and won’t settle for anything less than a passionate life.

Fall is just around the corner, and soon I will drink in all of my favorite Jane Austen scenes. One of my favorites being when Edward Ferris comes to Devonshire and proposes to Elinor Dashwood and she cries with tears of joy.

Oh Jane, I am so sorry you never had the love you wrote about, but so grateful that you were brave enough to write novels concerning the heart. We would be lost without you.

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