Saturday, August 25, 2007

A is for Austen

The summer I was ten years old, I signed up for the Summer Reading Program at the Mary Taylor Memorial Library in Milford, Connecticut. The standard was to read ten books. Nine of them I don't remember, but somehow -- whether by sheer luck or a librarian's suggestion I don't recall -- the tenth was Pride and Prejudice. I suspect I became a Janeite on the first page. I've now read all the volumes in The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen several times, have seen many film and TV adaptations, and even attended a meeting of The Jane Austen Society this past winter. One of my daughters is named (in part) for an Austen character.
When I am reading Jane Austen, I do not have the feeling that I'm reading "a classic" in the sense of something that's good for me even if I'm not enjoying every word; no, though I know that each book will end, as the films invariably do, with the appropriate wedding, I am drawn along by the story, charmed by the insights into human character, made to chuckle at the caricatures of the less admirable denizens of the English village. I've never studied Austen's work in an academic setting and am not sure I'd want to. I read her for fun.
Yesterday I had a chance to see the film Becoming Jane. (The Jane Austen Society website linked above has a nice little discussion of the film's historical accuracy.) I thought the film was believable and truly evoked the society that Austen's work detailed so carefully. I'd recommend it.
One of my college roommates picked up Pride and Prejudice for the first time during our junior year. After a few pages she put it down, because, she said, she couldn't stand to read a book where husband and wife addressed each other as "Mrs. Bennet" and "Mr. Bennet." Please, gentle reader, do not make her mistake. Enjoy the look at the mores of a long-ago society, but also let yourself see the constants in human nature which Jane Austen described so well. Read some Jane Austen soon!

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