Jane Austen at 60


Virginia Woolf photograph by Gisèle Freund, 1939 Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

I’ve read this before, what Virginia Woolf wrote in 1924, but I just came across it accidentally in search of something else. It still makes me cry, because she was right, as Woolf generally is; or if not right, at the very least, wonderfully persuasive.

“She would have stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, travelled, and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure. And what effect would all this have had upon the six novels that Jane Austen did not write? She would not have written of crime, of passion, or of adventure. She would not have been rushed by the importunity of publishers or the Battery of friends into slovenliness or insincerity. But she would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered. She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us a knowledge of her characters. Those marvelous little speeches which sum up in a few minutes’ chatter all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs. Musgrove forever, that shorthand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature. She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but (if we may be pardoned the vagueness of the expression) what life is.”

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When Ideas Acquire Solidity, Part II

Almost five years ago now, I wrote about the strange feeling of going to the a local copy shop to print out copies of my novel in preparation for a manuscript workshop. More specifically, about the strange feeling of walking out of the store with them, that something existing only in my mind had now taken a physical form, had become a thing that existed in the world, like a rock or a highway or a batch of cookies cooling on the counter. Continue reading

Jane Austen Projekt auf Deutsch?

img_0528-1A few days ago I was surprised (but pleased) to learn that someone in Germany wants to publish The Jane Austen Project. Although foreign rights are one of the topics a standard publishing contract covers, the idea that this would ever happen had always seemed more hypothetical than real. Perhaps because Jane Austen seems so rooted in Englishness  — though I knew, in an abstract way, that she was famous beyond her own language.

There is something so strange about the idea of my own story existing in a form I can’t read myself, that it will go to a place I can’t. I remember thinking about this the last time I read Anna Karenina. Reading his words, I felt so close to Tolstoy’s amazing mind — and yet these words were not his, only some approximation. But then, language is always only an approximation, the cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to. Everything, ultimately, is lost in translation.

What Did Mr. Darcy Actually Look Like?

 

imgresThe internet has been all over this, a “dramatic re-appraisal,” as the headline breathlessly puts it.  But we never knew just what Darcy looked like in the first place —  about all Jane Austen gives us is “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance of his having ten thousand pounds a year.”  The piece by John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery is great, a  thorough exploration of early 19th-century ideas about male desirability,  ticking through things like the importance of cravats, of knowing how to move gracefully, and of having a well-turned leg. None of this was news to me, so I personally can’t be too surprised to learn that  the first readers of Pride and Prejudice probably did not imagine him as looking like a certain late 20th-century English actor.

darcy firth

What surprises me, instead, is that seems to be seen as surprising. Continue reading

Get Obsessed, Stay Obssessed

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When the idea first seized me of writing a book about time travel and Jane Austen, I realized that despite being a fan of her work, I knew  little about her life or her England. There was no way around it: I had to do some research. I joined the Jane Austen Society of North America, impressed that there actually was such a group, and started attending meetings of my local chapter. I got an alumni library card and read my way through the Jane Austen shelves at Barnard. My need for more obscure and specialized knowledge about things like the history of housekeeping and slavery-era Jamaica  led me to the New York Public Library reading room and online collection. To great websites  like  Two  Nerdy History GirlsJane Austen’s WorldJane Austen’s London, and many others. In search of atmosphere, I went to  London, Bath, Winchester and Chawton. Also, oddly, Dublin,  better than London for trying to imagine 1815 London, with its streets and streets of Georgian terraced houses and the excellent Number 29 house museum.  I set up Google alerts so as not to miss any Jane Austen news.

When I look back on all this,  I think of a line from John Irving’s weird masterpiece The Hotel New Hampshire: “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” And when I look back on all this, there seems a kind of innocence, an undergraduate assurance that if one could only learn enough about a subject, the rest would fall into place.

Still. Did I over-prepare? Probably.  Did I need to read that many biographies? Probably not. There are all kinds of ways of not writing, and research is a great one, because it’s so respectable. There is no possible world in which this amount of time spent on one entertaining but slight novel could make any sense, economically or artistically. Not unless love or its mysterious twin, obsession, enters the picture.

For in the end, it boils down to time. Given varying lifespans — but we don’t know that part ahead of time — we are all equal in our allotment of 24 hours to a day, seven days to a week, 365 days to a year. We are crying babies, curious toddlers, restless teenagers and so on, until we look in the mirror one day, surprised to find ourselves trapped in the body of an old person.

You cannot conquer time. Unless, maybe, to lose yourself in something to such an extent that time ceases to have its usual dominion.  It’s passing as always, but you don’t notice. The world just goes on without you, people dying and being born and seeking public office. And that, I see now, was the real gift of my multiyear obsession with Jane Austen.  Not the novel I ended up with, but the experience of writing it.  Not in the finding, but in the seeking.

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.

                                                                          –Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Early this morning I walked the dog along the waterfront in the windy darkness, looking at the lights of Manhattan and wondering what Jane Austen would have made of the fact that she’s world-famous and still relevant today, nearly two and half centuries after she was born. I like to think she would have been amused — and not entirely surprised. Does genius recognize itself?

Over at Austenblog, there’s a giveaway of a book of essays that looks to  be excellent.  Sarah Emsley has a fascinating post about Jane Austen and grandparents. The BBC has a great article by Rebecca Smith about the daily routine at Chawton. And you can still enter the Goodreads giveaway for The Jane Austen Project right here. It runs until next Tuesday.