A Jane for Every Age

The Jane Austen Signs of Middle Age,” Jane Austen’s World, September 2, 2010

Jane Austen fans tend to read her books repeatedly throughout their lives.  In an article in the Guardian UK, Charlotte Higgins describes how her identity with a Jane Austen character changes with age. Here are some of her thoughts:

If you read Jane Austen more or less annually, as I have done since my late teens, you end up marking yourself against the characters. Oh reader, when I first read Pride and Prejudice I was Lydia’s age. I am about to become older than the delightful Mrs Croft in Persuasion. I still hang on to Anne Elliot, though. A tender 27 she may be, but in modern money I reckon you can give her another 10 years.

This is so true. I am starting to identify more with Mrs. Croft and Lady Russell than Anne Elliot. Charlotte Higgins goes on to say:

Persuasion is a very middle-aged novel, with its melancholic flavour and its acknowledgement that yes, you can make a grotesque mess of your life (the romance part I find much less satisfactory than the bleakly comic first three quarters of the book, essentially before one reaches Bath). It is true, however, that you can tell you are middle-aged when you start to empathise with P&P’s Mrs Bennet: with what Sir Walter Elliot would call “the rapid increase of the crow’s foot” comes a sense of sympathy with this character, written off as absurd in one’s heedless youth. At least she is trying to save her daughters from a future of poverty. And she’s certainly not getting any help from that husband of hers.

So true again. Only in recent years have I become impatient with Mr. Bennet and more sympathetic with his silly wife. I have also become more observant of Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility, of how hospitable she is, how she tries to become a matchmaker to all the unmarried ladies, and how her house is open to guest seemingly all the time. Yes, she is a silly and irritating woman, traits I could not stand when I was young (thus I could not appreciate her other than as a comic relief character), but now I rather like her positive qualities, as I do Mrs. Palmer’s. Elinor Dashwood is aware of Mrs. Palmer’s good nature and would tolerate her better if she weren’t such an unflaggingly cheerful airhead all the time.

 

As I get older I see that Lady Catherine de Bourgh is all bluster, and that her authority over Elizabeth Bennet is precisely zero. Young Lizzie is smart enough to know that, but as a 19 year-old reader, I was in awe of Lizzie’s stubborn attitude towards that lady when she stormed to Longbourn to demand Lizzie promise never to marry Mr. Darcy.

 

There are other ways that my attitude towards Jane Austen’s novels is changing. I notice how few happy marriages are portrayed. Right off the bat I can think of only the Crofts, the Gardiners, the John Knightleys, and the Musgroves. These days, I am more on the side of a pragmatic Charlotte Lucas, who has learned long ago not to look at the world through rose colored glasses, than Elizabeth, who waits for love. To be sure, she snagged her Mr. Darcy, but would Charlotte have had such an opportunity? I think not. I also see that Fanny Price’s strength of character and resolve in the face of so much bullying is a trait to admire; and that Mr. Bennet’s extensive library and unwillingness to compromise a cushy lifestyle were acquired at the expense of his family’s future financial security.

As the years roll by, my tastes and preferences for Jane’s novels are changing. Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice are running neck and neck in my favorite category. P&P used to have the field all to itself. While I loathed Mansfield Park the first time I read it, I don’t mind it so much now, and I find Emma less and less interesting and much too long. Perhaps I should lay the book aside for a few years.

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