My Jane Austen History: An Appreciation

Emma was my first Jane Austen. I was assigned to read it in my British Literature class in college. I devoured it, loved it, rented the Gwyneth Paltrow version from the video store and watched it over and over again. Same for the newer BBC version with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. And still to this day, I get super-embarrassed for Emma when Mr. Knightley chastises her for being so rude to Miss Bates. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about Mr. Knightley saying “badly done, Emma! Badly done.” The wedding dress I bought but never wore (we eloped instead) was an empire waist because of Emma, because of Jane Austen. I even love Emma’s last name. Woodhouse. I have two copies of Emma, my underlined, dog-eared copy from college and an annotated version. Emma’s father and Mr. Elton genuinely make me laugh. Mr. Knightley’s “if I loved you less, I would be able to talk about it more” satisfies so much in my romantic heart. And Mr. Knightley simply saying “I love to look at her” when he talks about Emma? Swoon. The high jinks and stakes contained within that novel and all of Jane Austen’s novels do please me so. It’s the specific sort of dreaminess I desire in my storytelling. Austen once wrote “My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.” And I am incredibly thankful for that. I don’t have to get too worried about anything. Life is hard enough. Yes, there will be a little trouble, but also yes, it’s all going to turn out just fine.

I am emotionally attached to Jane Austen. Her life, her books, the movie adaptations, the dresses and ribbons, the lovers torn apart, the lovers reuniting, the rogues and miscommunication, the weather. I wish I could see a scan of my brain whenever I encounter Jane Austen-related things because everything surely goes calm and sweetly blue. Back in the day, it was around Halloween when I saw the Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet version of Sense and Sensibility so when my husband and I went to the pumpkin patch in the misting rain, I named my pumpkin Willoughby after John Willoughby, Marianne Dashwood’s handsome love. The misting rain reminded me of a Jane Austen novel. When I’m wearing a dress and holding one of her books, I automatically feel like I’m in a period piece. In things both silly and important in my life, there is always Jane.

In the seemingly forever ten days in between my son’s due date and the day he was born, I bought a copy of the newest Pride & Prejudice movie adaptation starring Keira Knightley. I was already emotionally attached to the BBC Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth version. I fell in love with the new adaptation, that movie, immediately. And I cried into my hands at the end, the first time I watched it. Mr. Darcy kissing Elizabeth over and over again in front of Pemberley after she tells him he can only call her Mrs. Darcy “when he is completely and perfectly and incandescently happy.” And Mr. Darcy says then how are you this evening…..Mrs. Darcy….Mrs Darcy….Mrs. Darcy….Mrs. Darcy…” kissing and kissing and kissing her, the twin fires beside them roaring. I used to watch that movie every night before bed, ritualistically. I told someone this once and he asked me why. And I told him I couldn’t explain why. I just loved it. I sometimes find myself unable to explain why Jane Austen makes me feel better, even when I try. But she does. Her books do. The movies do.

When my daughter was three and my son was eight months old, I served on a jury for a murder trial. It was hard and emotionally draining, seeing the grieving mother everyday, hearing about such horrific violence. At night I would come home and cry, sleep. When I went back in the mornings I always took my $3 copy of Pride and Prejudice with me. One of those days during lunch, I walked to the bookstore and bought the thick annotated version of Pride and Prejudice too. Having Pride and Prejudice with me made me feel better. Made me feel better about the fact that people regularly murdered one another. Made me feel better about having to be downtown all day away from my babies when I wasn’t used to that. Made me feel better about having to park in the parking garage alone and walk to the courthouse everyday alone. I watched the 2007 Persuasion over and over again when I was editing my novel. Anne running through the streets to find Captain Wentworth and then, that kiss. I have a lot of stories like this.

Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Becoming Jane. I put them on when I’m working. I watch them while I’m knitting. Sometimes when they end, I just go back to the beginning and start them over again. I have scenes and lines of them memorized. Recite them to myself when a word reminds me. When my daughter coughs I think of Kitty from Pride and Prejudice and her telling her annoyed mother “I do not cough for my own amusement.” Whenever someone is cooking potatoes I want to say “what excellent boiled potatoes. It’s been many years since I had such an exemplary vegetable” like Mr. Collins. Elizabeth sitting on the swing when tells Charlotte Lucas announces her engagement to Mr. Collins and Elizabeth saying “engaged?!” then spinning and standing up only to say…”to be married?!” I love the music. Samuel Sim’s “The Last Dance” from the BBC’s Emma. Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s “Dawn” from Pride & Prejudice. And even the sounds everything makes in the movies — the doors closing, the chickens clucking, the footsteps, the carriages rocking, the horses running. The smallest things like Mr. Darcy stretching out his hand after touching Elizabeth for the first time. And the way Elizabeth says the word taciturn. Mr. Bingley secretly reaching out to touch Jane’s dress ribbon without her knowing it. And the biggest things like the Pride & Prejudice rain scene…the rain scene when Elizabeth thinks she’s right about Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy’s eyelashes are rain-wet too. The rain scene. The heartbreaking “forgive me, Madam, for taking up so much of your time.” And yes, the men are dashing but also Jane asks the all too important question: what are men to rocks and mountains?

And I’m in no way interested in arguing which versions are better or whether the right actors were cast, because that doesn’t matter to me. It’s all love. I love it all no matter what. It’s all locked in an untouchable spot in my heart, somewhere only I can reach. It’s precious to me and I keep it there. I love both Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy and I can do that. I’m allowed that. I don’t have to choose. Yes, there is so much to be negative about in this world, so much to be scared of. But also, I have Jane.

I watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries about the costumes and shooting locations. I cherish the cool, cloudy, rainy days when I can tuck up and watch the movies without feeling the least bit guilty about not going outside. I think of Jane’s quote “Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort” which is entirely appealing to a house cat like me. I think of Jane describing Elizabeth Bennet by writing “she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous” which once upon a time used to be the quote I used most often for my social media bios. I have a tea towel with Mr. Darcy’s proposal written on it. In my mind and heart, everylittlething about Jane Austen is comforting. Her books and the movies forever remind me of tea and knitting and friendship and so much love. Only love. There is no snark here, no epic takedowns. There are countless books and essays deconstructing Austen’s usage of language, breaking down the plots and her takes on society and propriety and feminism. I enjoy reading those, but for me it all comes down to love. And the love I have for Jane Austen is pure and true, unabashedly-almost-boringly normcore. The books, the movies, they’re my safe spaces. All of these cozy gifts Jane Austen has given me, has given us. Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam. Jane and Charles. Edward and Elinor. Fanny and Edmund. Anne and Captain Wentworth. All of them. Pemberley. Elizabeth’s face when she sees Pemberley for the first time. “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” The rain and carriages and can’t-stand-it-longing. The passion and restraint. The soldiers and men in ruffle-collared shirts. Mr. Darcy’s wet white shirt as he emerges from the lake. The complicatedness of human emotions and the happy, perfect endings. On the 200th anniversary of her death I want to say deeply and from the bottom of my heart, bless you, Jane. Because you have blessed me. And you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.