Many years ago, we moved to a new neighborhood in suburban Chicago. As we unloaded the moving truck, a couple from down the street stopped in to welcome us.
After kindly extending a plate of freshly baked cookies, they got down to brass tacks. "Might I inquire which school the children will attend in the fall?" the gentleman asked. "Well, our realtor told us that this neighborhood's grade school is awesome," I replied. He cringed and leaned in. "You know," he whispered, "they teach trades in the public high school here. Perhaps a look at the Country Day School is in order."
Oh! What Jane Austen would have done with this pair. But since she was dead, we took it upon ourselves to carry on her legacy. For as long as we lived on that street, my husband and I secretly referred to our neighbors as The Odious Eltons, a reference to the snobby couple in Emma. "I don't suppose the Eltons would object to seeing our naked offspring on the front lawn this evening, would they," my husband would say through clenched jaw as he hooked up the sprinkler.
And therein lies the secret of Jane Austen's enduring popularity. She created characters we all recognize from our day-to-day lives. She wrote about regular people. Her heroines were underdogs. And everyone was flawed. This style was unheard of at the time, revolutionary even, and we modern readers forget that Austen invented it.
The above paragraph is your hint. If you are not a fan of Austen, if you nod in agreement with Mark Twain who said he despised Austen so deeply, he wished he could dig her up so he could "hit her over the skull with her own shinbone", then you better run along. Because this week marks the 200th anniversary of the death of the greatest novelist who ever lived and the following post shall be a bulleted list of fawning opinions, fawning book recommendations, and some gossip on Austen money.
Favorite Jane Austen Book in the Summer: Pride and Prejudice because it sparkles. When published anonymously in 1813, one critic called it "too clever to be by a woman." The novel contains a pleasing ratio of heroes to buffoons. The plot twists are salacious. You can imagine the steamy sex being had behind closed doors. And the ending should be a lesson to all writers, most particularly J.K. Rowling. With a deft plot and few words, Austen steers the narrative to an ending that is close to what we desire but not so much to be predictable.
Favorite Jane Austen Book in the Winter: I love Persuasion. Its setting, the seafront village of Lyme Regis, is perfectly moody and beautifully conjured. And Anne Elliot is a 27-year-old heroine stuck in the most awful family imaginable. Her father is obsessed with women's complexions and I think of him every time I pluck my eyebrows. Anne is gentle and kind to the point that we wonder if she's a victim. But we learn that underneath, she's iron. We are beyond thrilled when she ends up inspiring the most beautiful love letter ever written:
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F.W.
Favorite Book Influenced by Austen: Atonement by Ian McKewan in which a young girl spies on her older sister and misconstrues what she sees, to disastrous effect. McKewan read Northanger Abbey when he was seventeen, and it made a lasting impression. He said the idea that everyone is watching, that "no one can hide from public scrutiny when a network of communications and media can lay everything open" greatly influenced his book.
Favorite Retelling of an Austen Novel: I have read many and The Three Weissmann's of Westport by Cathleen Schine is the only one that stands on its own two feet. A modern take on Sense and Sensibility, it tells the story of Betty and her daughters Miranda and Annie. Betty's husband of forty-eight years has taken a mistress and Betty is jettisoned from her Upper West Side apartment. Betty's grown daughters want to help their mother but they've got a bushel of their own problems. If you like Elinor Lipman, you'll love this book.
Favorite Fake Retelling of an Austen Novel: Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding borrows very very little from Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It isn't a retelling at all, but I promise you that Austen would have laughed aloud at Bridget's accounting of cigarettes smoked, bottles of wine drank, and pounds lost and gained.
Favorite Books With No Connection to Austen Except They Remind Me of Her: Plainsong by Kent Haruf for its spare language, sly humor, and small-town setting and Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple for its biting social satire and satisfying ending.
Best Film Adaptation: Pride and Prejudice, (1995 BBC). First, Colin Firth's wet shirt. Second, the heat between Firth and co-star Jennifer Ehle is legit. Off screen, they were sneaking into each other's bedrooms. Third, Jane Austen's great great great grand niece, Anna Chancellor, played the delicious role of Caroline Bingley. Fourth, this BBC production inspired Helen Fielding to write the brilliant Bridget Jones's Diary.
Silliest Academic Study of Austen: The Word Choices that Explain Why Jane Austen Endures. One commenter wrote, "Studies like this are interesting, but they will drive good women to the likes of Wickham if brought into conversation."
Most Interesting Academic Study of Austen: The Many Ways in Which We Are Wrong About Jane Austen: Lies, Damn Lies, and Literary Scholarship.
Most Fitting Honor Bestowed Upon Jane Austen: Austen is the only woman besides the Queen to be featured on a British pound. Her face decorates a new ten-pound note issued last week by the Bank of England in honor of the 200th anniversary of her death. I believe this gesture would have delighted Austen. She talked about money the way other writers talk about scenery - very specifically. And thank goodness she did, for it improves our understanding of the dire economic situation faced by many of her heroines because of primogeniture. This post offers more on the subject, including a table of currency conversions.
Favorite Line from an Austen Book: "Charles Adams was an amiable, accomplished and bewitching young man, of so dazzling a beauty that none but eagles could look him in the face." This is from Jack and Alice, part of Austen's Juvenilia, which she wrote as a kid. If she lived today, I imagine she would earn her college money by freelancing for The Onion and writing ads like this: