Reading Austen: Guest Blog by Jeffrey Ward

Jane Austen, by Cassandra AustenGentle readers: We are happy to add the story of another conversion to Jane to our monthly column, Reading Austen. Today’s guest blog is by Jeffrey Ward, fellow book reviewer and frequent visitor here who shares his personal story of how he discovered Jane Austen and why reading her novels is so special for him.

“Intolerably Stupid:” My Improbable Journey to Jane Austen

As a youngster growing up in and near San Francisco, when I wasn’t goofing around outdoors, my earliest memories of reading were of an old used set of the massive encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge.  I remember it encompassing about a dozen intimidating volumes but this kid read EVERY page. This imprinted into my psyche a life-long habit of reading non-fiction and my overt disregard for practically everything fictional.  Consequently, I’ve been a life-long fact-finding trivia geek; however, by Jane Austen’s standards, I was still “intolerably stupid.”

This stubborn habit continued throughout high school, the military, and university.  After two decades and some 330+ semester hours of credits in every possible discipline, this career student finally received a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications from the University of Washington.  My lop-sided education was a mile wide and an inch deep.

I worked in the airline industry where my non-fiction reading continued unabated and most prominently featured history, biographies, current events, technical articles and industry-related topics.  My fiction-loving wife, family, and friends, continually asked me if I had read this novel or that novel to which I replied haughtily “Reading that stuff is a waste of time.” So, my contempt for fiction continued shamefully for about 55 years!

My fiction epiphany began a scant five years ago in an almost mystical manner. One evening, I had exhausted my current stash of non-fiction and was having a “nothing to read” anxiety attack.  In an effort to stave off withdrawal symptoms, I wandered into our home office and perused our largest book case.  At first, I saw nothing but my familiar non-fiction.  But what was THIS and how did it get here? My eyes locked on to Emma by Jane Austen.  I thought “Oh well, why not?”  So, I pried out the volume, blew some dust off the top and returned to my bedside. Little did I know that in my smug non-fictional pride I was just about to be struck off my mount on my own personal road to Damascus by an irresistible force which was poised to draw me inexorably into the sublime realm of fiction.

Still, it almost didn’t happen. Totally unfamiliar as I was with Miss Austen’s style, I struggled through the first 100 pages of Emma, trying to make sense of her bewildering cast of characters and how she so ingeniously “set the table.”  At around 100 pages, the “scales” fell from my eyes and I hungrily devoured Emma, starved from a lifetime of depriving myself of a great story!  When I got to the resolution of Emma and Mr. Knightley’s second turn in the bushes, I was totally overcome with emotion.  I jumped up, wept openly, howled with glee, and pranced around the room with exultation! What was happening to me?  Here was something I had seldom experienced in my drab, sterile non-fiction existence:  Being baptized into the warmth of human affection, irony, desire, longing, sorrow, comedy and suspense.  Dear God, I was an incurable romantic and it took Jane Austen to finally pry open my long-suppressed heart to release this latent gift!  With a wink and nod to Laurel Ann’s, Jane Austen Made Me do It.

I later learned that Emma was left in our book case and forgotten by our daughter following her graduation from college. I’m convinced that this was no coincidence but a divine appointment!

I’ve since read all of Jane Austen’s novels multiple times; this from a guy who hardly ever read a book more than once. Our divine Miss Austen has been critically referred to by some as the greatest writer of English literature since William Shakespeare.   Her unique and distinctive writing style has been imitated but never equaled. Her unforgettable characters fairly leap off the pages as if fully alive.  Her humor is a hammer covered in velvet.  Her gradual crescendos of emotional suspense are palpable. Her ironic twists and turns are astonishing.  Her dialogues are so captivating that I find myself vocally entering into her conversations as I read!

It is appropriate that Jane Austen was the gateway through which this stone-cold empirical naysayer would finally enter into the promised land of fiction.  Here at Austenprose, I’m now expanding my horizons by enjoying the works of many talented contemporary authors who ply the rich legacy left to us by Miss Austen.  As I post, review, and opine throughout the blogosphere, I hope my love, enthusiasm, and gratitude for all things Austen shines forth.

Jeffrey Ward, 65, native San Franciscan living near Atlanta, married 40 years, two adult children, six grandchildren, Vietnam Veteran, degree in Communications from the University of Washington, and presently a Facilitator/designer for the world’s largest regional airline.  His love affair with Miss Austen began about 3 years ago when, out of boredom, he picked up his daughter’s dusty college copy of Emma and he was “off to the races.”

© 2007 – 2012 Jeffrey Ward, Austenprose

18 thoughts on “Reading Austen: Guest Blog by Jeffrey Ward

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  1. Jeffrey,

    What a delight it was to read your confessional post! I am a 56 year old female and life long fiction enthusiast but did not pick up a Jane Austen book until about 2 years ago. Even then it only happened after I viewed our public library’s copy of the 1995 BBC P&P on DVD.

    This Christmas I gave my two twenty-something nieces copies of the 2005 P&P DVD so that they won’t live without Jane as long as I did. I gave one of these bright young women volumes of P&P and S&S for her birthday in October. Hopefully they are both now well on their way to their own romps through Regency.

    Elaine Dale


  2. I like these offerings LaurelAnn. They remind me of testimonials. “Hi,I’m Christina and I have been addicted to Jane Austen for 4383 days. I can quit any time. I swear. Any time.”


  3. I am an Austen and everything related to Austen addict, and I am so delighted to learn of more and more gentlemen who are becoming readers and admirers as well.

    Austen isn’t just chick lit anymore.


  4. Congratulations Jeffrey and welcome to the club.
    Having been introduced to Jane Austen at the age of twelve, having read and re-read her books, many times, each time discovering something more to love and enjoy in the work of this wonderful woman, I can understand your excitement and joy.
    I have appreciated your insightful comments on other occasions and thank you for sharing them with us.

    Rebecca Ann Collins


  5. Delightful to see a story of someone’s enthusiasm born for Jane Austen. Great post, Jeffrey! Thanks for sharing your story.


  6. Jeffrey:
    Yours was such a delightful story of how you came to read and appreciate Jane Austen, and it had the same effect on this reader that attending a wedding of a couple whose love is overflowing for all to see, might have on a happily married guest, whose nuptuals took place four decades past!
    Not to belabor the point too much, but your account of your total “conversion” has some of the Darcy/Elizabeth quality to it!
    Thank you, Laurel Ann, for sharing this with us.


  7. Hi Jeffrey!

    I enjoy these reader stories much, and yours is so amazing. It is incredible that you could go so long without fiction, and overcome that stubborn-ness/ prejudice to embrace not only fiction, but the queen of fiction. As a stubborn person myself, I very much understand how difficult it can be to change like that. It is truly inspirational.

    Your writing is very nice as well, and I would like to compliment you on two illustrative passages that were particularly well done in their imagery and tone.

    First, when I read this I wanted to put it on my quote wall, because of its cleverness and exuberance: “Little did I know that in my smug non-fictional pride I was just about to be struck off my mount on my own personal road to Damascus by an irresistible force which was poised to draw me inexorably into the sublime realm of fiction.” I enjoy the hyperbole, and the allusion you put into this!

    Also, I really enjoyed this one as well: ” Here was something I had seldom experienced in my drab, sterile non-fiction existence: Being baptized into the warmth of human affection, irony, desire, longing, sorrow, comedy and suspense.” I truly feel that you are correct in your comparison to baptism. Jane Austen’s writing is such an emotional and spiritual experience for many people, and as many Literary scholars would argue, good stories are transcendent Because they make us connect with our own humanity in an almost inexplicable way.

    P.S. Thanks for the shout out to Laurel Anne. Somehow, even though I have enjoyed this blog for some time, I didn’t realize that she was the author of Jane Austen Made Me Do It! I am totally going to read that now, partially out of fan excitement, and mostly because of your enthusiasm!


  8. I loved your post, Jeffery! I had a dramatic encounter with Miss Austen, too, and I felt much of what you described. It changed the trajectory of my reading. I loved your perspective and the sublime joy you experienced after reading Emma. Thank you for sharing!


  9. Thanks Laurel Ann for generously posting my improbable journey to Austen. Your encourgement, kindness, and patience with me is so gratifying and I have learned SO MUCH here.

    I’m humbled to be rubbing elbows with many published authors, reviewers, web-mistresses, and learning from all of you more experienced Janeites. I’m also glad that some of you picked up on my Biblical allusions, especially the conversion of St. Paul because J A has literally changed my life, in a sense.

    I don’t know if I’m an “old new guy” or a “new old guy” but I’m in it for the long haul. Blessings all around….


  10. Loved your post, Jeffrey!! I myself didn’t start reading Austen until late 1998 after recovering from a major surgery & having watched the movie Sense & Sensibility while recovering. I was in awe & totally IN LOVE with it, and my addiction to Austen has grown ever since. I really enjoyed your descriptions while reading “Emma”, and your comment about Austen’s “humor is a hammer covered in velvet”!! So true!!! So TRUE!!


  11. Okay, Jeffrey, I want you to talk to my husband, pronto!!!!

    I love this, ‘ Being baptized into the warmth of human affection, irony, desire, longing, sorrow, comedy and suspense.’

    What a perfect description of what it feels to read Jane Austen’s works, over and over.

    My favorite character in Emma is actually Mr. Woodhouse. A valetudinarian man who worries about his coachman James’ health, there’s something sweet about this one minor characterization detail that makes me a Jane Austen fangirl.


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