If anyone out there has ever wondered where I get my inspiration to write continually about one subject – Jane Austen – for six months and counting, you might be amused at what from time-to-time inspires those brain cells into action. Many times, I will be Googling along and happen upon something that I was not searching for in the first place. Serendipity and all that! Often I get an inspiration while driving in my car! Go figure. Here is a meanderin’ tale of my trail of discovery and inspiration for this post today!
Recently I purchased the most amazing book My Dear Cassandra: The Letters of Jane Austen, selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallet, Clarkson, Collins, New York (1990). I had been aware of this book for years, but had never had the pleasure of seeing it first hand. A few months ago I read a beaming review of it by Book Chronicle whose opinions I respect and admire, resulting in it being pushed up to the top of my ‘must have’ Austen book queue. Yes, gentle readers; – I keep a list! La!
The book is sadly no longer in print, which is *never* a deferent to this obsessive used book lover! I was able to track down an American first edition in ‘like new’ condition at Advance Book Exchange (www.abe.com). Hurrah! It arrived last week, and it is an eye popper; beautifully designed, copiously illustrated and reverently edited. It was a spiritual experience for me, like one of those beautiful Medieval illuminated manuscripts that monks laboured over for years to glorify the Bible! The holy grail of Austen books. Wow! Serious book swoon here!
The book jacket included a short biography on the author Penelope Hughes-Hallet; she was born in Jane Austen’s village of Steventon (double swoon), lectured in English literature at Oxford (a deep curtsy to you Ms. Hughes-Hallet), and has also written another book in the series entitled The Wordsworth’s and The Lakes: Home at Grasmere which I also own, and could write about at length, but I digress. Back to my point; – which was who is Ms. Hughes-Hallet? Googled her, and then got totally sidetracked by another site and another article entitled, Fighting the Culture War With Culture: A Weekend with Jane Austen, by Dale OÍLeary. Ms. Hughes-Hallet can wait a bit while I explore!
Ms. OÍLeary talks about how she pulled together an elaborate Austen weekend retreat for a group of young Catholic ladies. Her reasons for choosing Jane Austen as a model of culture for her group are interesting, and I was particularly struck by her friend’s response.
Why did we choose Jane Austen? Because as one friend put it, “When I read Jane Austen, I want to be a better person.” Miss Austen never ridicules true virtue as so much of modern culture does. Her humor comes from exposing so brilliantly the ordinary vices to which we are all tempted that the reader comes away determined to never be as silly as Miss Lydia Bennet, as cruel as Miss Bingley, as interfering as Miss Emma Woodhouse, as greedy as Mrs. John Dashwood, as foolish as Mrs. Bennet, or as imperious as Lady Catherine DeBourgh.
Ms. OÍLeary is spot on of course. Jane Austen points out human vices with humor for our moral benefit, but I am uncertain if that was her primary object in creating her stories. To do so, would be a lofty ambition indeed, but quite plausible considering her families strong religious background. Does reading Jane Austen result in making us a better person? Is that the subliminal hook that has grabbed readers for close to two hundred years, or are they just well written stories, with engaging plots and memorable characters? Is Jane Austen a barometer for proper moral behavior, or is she just pure entertainment?
I know from personal experience that reading Jane Austen is different for me with every re-reading. I am not alone and have heard this echoed by other Janeites. How does this happen? Are we picking and choosing what we need from the text to suit our mood or objectives? These questions dip into the realm of who is your ‘personal Austen’? Author Karen Joy Fowler explored this question quite extensively in her best-selling novel The Jane Austen Book Club. We meet six diversely different characters who read all six of the major novels together and have parallel life experiences to Austen’s characters in the books which help them through some major life challenges. Austen’s cannon worked for them; does it work like that for everyone?
Ms. OÍLeary’s objective in her Jane Austen weekend was to help young ladies discover a moral compass and enhance their spiritual experience. Ms. Hughes-Hallet’s objective, (if I may read her mind here), was to glorify and amaze us with Jane Austen’s wit and spirit in her personal correspondence. Two entirely different vantages created for different reasons, but both enlightening and spiritual. Both equally beneficial.
Does reading Austen help us become better people? The simple answer for me is yes, but for different reasons then Ms.OÍLeary or Ms. Hughes-Hallet. My personal Austen tends toward appreciating her clever irony and wit; because I dearly love to laugh at life in defense of the serious reality. However, there will be some who disagree with me entirely and think that I have missed Austen’s point. That’s ok. There is room for many opinions, and like Jane Bennet, I will try to find the good in all of them!
Honestly, I think that Jane Austen would be laughing at us for taking her so seriously which she expressed so clearly through her character Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice when he quipped…
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” Chapter 57
I will pull a Lizzy Bennet and be excessively diverted by it all, and then be awed by her majesty at being so many things to different people.
P.S. If anyone can add to my knowledge of author Penelope Hughes-Hallet, I would be so grateful if you would contact me!