When I was nine years old, I longed to use the words amiable, countenance, and clergyman – though they never appeared in my spelling or phonics workbooks. I knew what it meant if a manor was entailed away, and I guessed that £2,000 in the 19th century was a sizable fortune. I understood that the oldest daughter in a household was addressed by her family name while her younger sisters would be addressed by their first names. I recognized that married women always wore a head covering: a wide-billed bonnet or a lacy cap. Sometimes the caps had ribbons or draping fabric that gave the lady’s gestures a swaying elegance.
I absorbed these extra-curricular customs by watching the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries with my great-aunt, who explained the finer details of Regency culture around the familiar onscreen dialogue. I had first encountered Pride and Prejudice through a children’s TV show, “Wishbone,” in which a remarkably literary Jack Russell terrier guided viewers through abridged versions of the classics. Wishbone narrated in 25 minutes what Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehie dramatized in 5 hours – and I was enthralled with every second.
I loved the characters, especially stoic Mr. Bennet, melodramatic Mrs. Bennet, witty Lizzy Bennet, ebullient Mr. Bingley, and unctuous Mr. Collins. I appreciated how each character seemed like a real person, someone I could meet (or choose to avoid). And I loved how long it took for the couples to finally coalesce. Both Jane and Lizzy met their beaux in the first installment, but the couples weren’t solidified until the final installment; the in-between time covered family dramas and personal revelations.
Along with the characters and their vocabulary, I developed a penchant for the sounds of the series. I contrasted the tinny notes of the 19th century pianoforte with the full-bodied timbre of my grandmother’s honey-colored upright. I admired the delightful crunch of gravel beneath sturdy Georgian shoes. For weeks after I first saw the series, I shuffled my feet across any paved surface – hoping to replicate the textured noise of gravel underfoot. And I liked the deep clink of heavy silverware in use, the hearty swish of cloth napkins and table linen, the hollow snap of closing doors.
While I watched the characters adjust bonnet-ribbons or trade places on the dance floor, the author herself hovered in the background. I vaguely understood that this lively and colorful world had been created by Jane Austen. I knew that Austen had never married, that she wrote in the early 19th century, but to me, she was only a name. When I was ten, I decided to read Pride and Prejudice and meet Ms. Austen on the page. From the book’s first paragraph, I recognized lines skillfully repurposed in the onscreen version, and I felt confident navigating Austen’s prose.
Austen continued to be extra-curricular: I didn’t encounter her work in a schoolroom until eleventh grade – and even then, the excerpt we read was part of a mock final exam, not a serious literary immersion. My teacher chose the passage where Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, and I instantly recognized his pompous, unromantic language. In the same year, I took a similar test to measure my reading level, and the passage indicating a twelfth-grade reading level also came from P&P: it was the scene where Lizzy Bennet first visits Pemberley.
In the same eleventh-grade English class, I discovered Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and her ardent discussion of early women writers motivated me to reexamine Austen’s work. When I reread P&P, I found that none of my early enthusiasm had waned: I still felt an unruly admiration for Jane Austen’s prose. I knew I wanted to spend my life working with great women writers, in person or in print.
Early on, I only knew Austen through P&P, but I eventually moved through her other novels – Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. So far, Persuasion, the story of the contemplative Anne Elliot, is my favorite Austen work, with Mansfield Park at a close second. Persuasion is an ecstasy of balance and precision while Mansfield Park is an untidy journey of self-discovery. Emma, in print and onscreen, is my least favorite Austen creation, but even here, she displays superb character-building.
After exploring most of her work, my curiosity about Austen’s life has led me to some “on Austen” reading. I enjoyed John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen (2013), which explains how age, money, names, and even British seaside resorts work as cultural code – often misinterpreted or totally ignored by 21st-century readers. Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen (also 2013) recounts the details of Austen’s life through treasured objects – an Indian shawl, a small notebook, a portrait – and describes how early family biographers strove to color Ms. Austen with appropriate Victorian modesty.
In Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (2010), Claire Harman devotes an entire chapter to debunking the modesty myths. According to family biographers, Jane Austen didn’t struggle with her writing or worry about making money. She didn’t value her work enough to be mortified by failure or overjoyed with success. She wasn’t worldly, never traveled far, didn’t look beyond her home sphere. She was satisfied with the crumbs of a literary life.
I don’t need Claire Harman to point out the falsehood here, but I’m glad she does anyway. To create such crystalline, proportionate prose, Austen had to care about her work; she had to consider it a worthy venture, or she would’ve spent her time elsewhere. Luckily, Harman has found passages in Austen’s letters that contradict the Victorian “model authoress” – passages that show the author’s spirited devotion to her craft.
Though Austen’s birthday was December 16, I am continuing my festivities: revisiting my favorite Austen texts and Austen-inspired media. I need to honor the woman who encourages me to write and pulls me toward kindred spirits – the woman whose work has been part of my orbit for 18 years.