Confession #1: I love Jane Austen.
Not quite to the heights of Austenland’s heroine, but still.
In graduate school, I took a course on romantic satire that included a unit on Jane Austen, which began about a month into the semester. That first day, while the dignified middle-aged professor and our male peers looked on in shock (I assume we’d seemed reasonably intelligent and dispassionate to that point), I and a few of my female colleagues went full-on fan-girl about Jane Austen: high pitched voices, fluttering hands, the whole bit. I’m not sure I ever quite regained that lost credibility.
I own at least two copies of her major works. (My husband, in the throes of newlywedded bliss, bought me the entire Oxford Illustrated classics set and set my giddy heart reeling). I’ve even read her unfinished novel, Sanditon, and her short epistolary novel Lady Susan, and own books like The Friendly Jane Austen, Becoming Jane Austen, and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. (And yet, I’ve never been to a Regency ball or joined JASNA).
Confession #2: Sometimes I’m ashamed of my addiction.
Austen is a) not a remotely cool addiction and b) something I probably share with a majority of women. If I’m going to hand-pick an addiction, I’d at least like to be unique.
Confession #3: I get swoony about well-dressed men in period costume. (Did any of you see this? This is me, only with nineteenth-century breeches and top hats).
My husband knows this about me. He still loves me, though he’s yet to dress in period costume himself.
To be fair, this is more than just an Austen thing: at seventeen I had a month-long crush on the young man who played Rochester in BYU’s musical (yes, musical) production of Jane Eyre. And any of you have seen the BBC’s North and South will understand why I admire John Thornton.
Confession #4: I’m prone to reading Austen at inappropriate times.
Like the year I read three of her novels during finals week. Or when I should be feeding my children lunch.
Confession #5: I’m a sucker for Austen adaptations. And spin-offs. And remotely Austen-inspired products.
Most of the time this means I slodge through books or movies I wish I hadn’t wasted the time on. (Like the one that takes Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship places I had no wish to go to and quit after three chapters).
But sometimes I find a gem. Like the irreverent Lost in Austen T.V. series. Or Jo Baker’s lovely Longborne, which I finished last week—Pride and Prejudice as told from the servant’s perspective. Or Shannon Hale’s delightful Austenland (the book, and the Jerusha Hess directed movie).
And Georgette Heyer’s Regency era novels remain a staple of my go-to comfort reading.
Confession #6: Like many addictions, mine has evolved.
What began as a teenage fascination with her romances (Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy!) has emerged as a more sustained fascination with Austen’s character perception and her sharp insights into social and economic issues facing women.
Most of Austen’s books focus at least to some extent on the financial uncertainty of well-bred, impoverished young women. The Bennets must marry well because Longborne is bound in entail to Mr. Collins; Elinor and Marianne Dashwood struggle because a similar entail left their ancestral home to their half-brother and his scheming wife; Anne Elliot’s father and sister are near to ruining their family because they have no sense of economy; Fanny Price knows all the snubs and indignities of being a poor cousin; and even Catherine Morland finds her romance frustrated when her humble economic prospects are not grand enough for her suitor’s father. Only Emma seems free from the taint of economic uncertainty—indeed, she is the only one of the women who need not marry from a sense of economic imperative. It’s a happy coincidence in Austen’s books that the women find wealthy men they can love—but love is only part of the equation in these books.
In the last two weeks I’ve twice seen the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Sense and Sensibility (If you have a chance to go, it’s marvelous), and the sharp contrast between the sisters stands out to me: Elinor’s sense against her sister’s over-sensitivity. It’s not simply that Austen favors Elinor’s control over Marianne’s lack thereof, it’s that Marianne’s indulgence becomes selfish and hurtful, and I find myself wondering how many times my own indulgence (in a bout of temper or tears) has hurt those around me when a little more restraint might have spared them.
Ultimately, I return to Austen not simply because I love the romance of her world (I do), or her characters (ditto), but because I learn things about myself and my own world in her pages.
I may be an Austen addict, but I’m unlikely to reform any time soon.
What about you? Do you have any favorite addictions–literary or otherwise? What draws you to them? What pulls you away?