Confessions of a Reluctant Jane Austen Reader
In college I regarded Jane Austen as less than literary. From the indirect knowledge I had gathered, she wrote about dancing and marriage. Boring to a girl who was more interested in reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky or pretending to understand Faulkner. What could Jane Austen teach me about living?
(After writing this post I discovered that I certainly wasn’t the only one who felt this
Now a few years later in graduate school, general requirements plus a desire for a reasonable schedule have landed me in a Jane Austen major author class. On the first day of class, our professor asked us why we were there and what we wanted from the class. Many of us (especially those in the M.F.A. program), cited the requirement and confessed our resistance to, if not disdain for, Austen’s work, most of our familiarity with it stemming from the movie versions of Sense & Sensibility
and Pride and Prejudice.
There is a healthy reason to fear being labeled an avid reader of Jane Austen, too
. Her popularity today is exponential and global with Bollywood remakes called Bride & Prejudice,
endless fan fiction (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
and people who dress up in period costumes and call themselves “Janeites” who are all looking for their own special Mr. Darcy. Someone interested in studying only “serious literary fiction” may be more than put off by an author who can reach across age groups, decades, and cultures to excite and inspire. “Serious” writers want something a bit more inaccessible and daunting like Absalom, Absalom!
But cut through this contemporary chaos and kitsch and you might find yourself, as I did, put in your place by Jane Austen.
Not only is this woman skeptical
of marriage, and critical
of societal customs, but she is also one of the deftest portrayers of our enduring human flaws. As difficult as it was for me to imagine that women who spent their days with needlework and gossip or men who obsessed about hunting and carriages might have anything to instruct me about in my life, I could not escape learning a powerful lesson about human nature: the need to exert yourself.
While present day connotations of exertion primarily bring to mind physical work (and indeed physical exertion can often parallel psychic), for the most part Austen is talking about one’s will—the ability or desire to exert one’s self
in the face of hardship. Here’s an example of what this looks like.
Marianne Dashwood of Sense & Sensibility
(played by Kate Winslet in the Ang Lee film adaptation) is one of the most popular characters in all of Austen’s novels. She is Romantic (capital “R” here intended), sensible (meaning capable of great feeling), and beautiful. Her sister, Elinor is often viewed by Marianne as being “cold hearted” or in
sensible because she does not openly express her feelings, is not so fully dictated by them, as Marianne is.
Many of us are likely drawn to Marianne’s genuine spirit and heart. She lives passionately and fully with her heart on her sleeve. However, as Austen reveals, she does not exert
herself. Each pitch of joy and depth of despair is so overwhelming that Marianne leaves no room for anyone else around her to feel
anything but for her.
She suffocates those she loves, unwittingly it seems, because she loves too fiercely.
We all have Mariannes in our lives. Or perhaps we are the Marianne—too consumed in our own sensing, our own great feeling, that we don’t leave room for our friend to feel likewise, too demanding is our need to be consoled or congratulated. Great depth of feeling can be a wonderful gift in the capacity it lends one to feel for others. But without exerting oneself, what has the potential to give way to empathy spoils instead into selfishness.
We believe that we are the only ones to have felt in such a way. That surely if someone does not express themselves as we do they do not have the same capacity for emotion, or as Marianne unjustly accuses Elinor: “how easy for those who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion!...Happy, happy Elinor, you
cannot have an idea of what I suffer." Exerting oneself is a practice in generosity.
If we are always bound up in the extremity or singular uniqueness of our experience, then we will consciously or unconsciously act ungenerous to those who are suffering in our community. How is there room for Elinor to express her own despair when “The slightest mention of any thing relative to Willoughby overpowered [Marianne] in an instant”? There is none.
This is not to say that we should hide our true feelings from those we love; rather that we should learn to love better by first considering what turmoil another might be experiencing,
leaving room for the suffering and experience of others rather than first imposing our own. And if you find yourself in a relationship that leaves you no room to need, to feel, to suffer, may you have the bravery of Elinor who, finally, after weeks of Marianne’s suffering and self-induced illness, commands her with the firm love of a sister and friend: “Exert yourself, dear Marianne
…if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you
suffer; for her sake you must exert yourself."
Austen reveals how even in the midst of our deepest sorrows we are called to think of others. That though we may feel alone, even privileged, in the depth of our own feeling, that there are those around us who are experiencing sorrow too. Those whose long-suffering we might have neglected for the sake of nursing our own. Open your eyes and heart dear reader: exert yourself.
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