Gentle readers: We are happy to share our second contribution to a new monthly column, Reading Austen. Today guest blogger Tara O’Donnell shares her personal story of how she discovered Jane Austen and why reading her novels is so special for her.
Persuaded into Austen
Like many of many fellow Jane Austen fans out there, I came to her books via a movie. No, it wasn’t that one where Darcy soaks his shirt (although, I have seen it numerous times and own two different DVD editions, plus a VHS set……so you could say I’m familiar with that film). The year was 1995 and I was hearing high praise from movie reviewers about a little British film named Persuasion.
That was also the year of Sense & Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and a pre-Titanic Kate Winslet, which received just as much praise but a much wider distribution in theaters. I had no
choice but to pick up the book first and Persuasion became my gateway into Jane Austen country.
What compelled me to check out this story in the first place was its heroine, Anne Elliot. I was around the same age as Anne was and that anyone, particularly back in a time where women were considered permanent spinsters if they weren’t married before the end of their teen years, would have a mature woman being granted a second chance at love and a life of her own was an eye opener for me.
Also, like Anne, I was somewhat of an “old reliable” sort within my social circle. While my family was much kinder and considerate, plus far from being any where near as snobbish as the Elliots, I did tend to be the one who was instantly counted on or asked to pass on advice from one person to another, much like poor Anne did whenever she went to stay with her forever “sickly” sister Mary and her down to earth in-laws, the Musgroves. That scene in the film where she’s clearly exhausted after a round robin session of grievances during the first couple of days of her visit is amusingly relatable.
Persuasion is a brief book and a bit more somber in tone than most of the more popular introductory Austen novels that people read such as Emma or Pride and Prejudice. It’s not as lively as say even Northanger Abbey (which was published with Persuasion after Austen’s death) yet the wit and satire is at Austen’s sharpest point in her writing. While Persuasion is getting its due more often these days, back in ’95, the story wasn’t seen as the prettiest sister amongst her more celebrated siblings.
Yet, it struck just the right note with me in its precise portrait of two people (Anne and Captain Wentworth) who felt keenly the regret of their earlier decision not to take a chance on love and so wanted to remedy that but were still uncertain if their affections would be returned. As much as I adore Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth’s declaration of “you pierce my soul….I am half agony, half hope.” makes him number one in my heart.
I then went on to not only reading the rest of Austen’s work but learning more about her life and times, which lead me to finding websites like The Republic of Pemberley where I discovered that Austen mania was a worldwide epidemic for which there is no cure, thank goodness!
In addition to joining in on many Austen related discussions, I joined the RoP folk on a trip to England in 2002 that took me to two of the prime locations in Persuasion. At Lyme Regis, I got to walk on the Cobb where silly Louisa Musgrove fell and then went sightseeing in Bath, which I probably enjoyed a lot more than Austen did in her day. That trip was one of the best experiences of my life and one that I will cherish always.
While in some ways I am still like Anne, in the best sense of that statement, over the years I have grown a little more assertive and prefer to take my cues in behavior and decorum from some of Austen’s fine examples of steadfast women such as Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price. I can’t credit all of my developing maturity to Jane Austen but she was and is a wonderful encourager of seeking your own way to happiness and it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge her part in my continuing emotional conversation.
Persuasion, much like its leading lady, may have been a most unlikely place for me to begin my literary journey with Jane Austen. However, starting at the end seems to have been a good choice and one that I wouldn’t change for the world.
Tara O’Donnell is a former independent bookseller who now devotes herself to writing and hopes to have some great novels in book stores herself one day.
In addition to her pop culture blog, Living Read Girl, she recently had a small sketch entitled “Bennet Bridezillas” as her entry into the 2011 Bad Austen writing competition, which was included in the completed companion book Bad Austen: The Worst Stories that Jane Never Wrote from Adams Media.
Over this past summer, Tara released her first eBook, a comic book novella called “The Hench Woman’s Handbook”, which is available as a free download from Smashwords. Jane Austen is only one of Tara’s many literary influences on a list that includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Louisa May Alcott, Gilmore Girls, Edith Wharton and Batman: The Animated Series. An odd list, to be sure, however she suspects that Miss Austen would approve at the very least of Buffy Summers and Rory Gilmore.
Would you like to share your personal story of reading Austen here with fellow Janeites? Submit your essay of approximately 750 words revealing how you discovered Jane Austen’s novels and why they are so special to you to Austenprose. It just might be included in our monthly column, Reading Austen, that will be published on the first Friday of every month.
© 2007 – 2011 Tara O’Donnell, Austenprose