The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

17 December 2015

Dear, sweet Jane

Dear, sweet, chocolate covered Jane. (Movie quote; do you know whence it comes?)

Yesterday, December 16, was the 240 anniversary of the birth of Jane Austen.

It must be acknowledged far and wide among those who know me, that I am a great admirer of her words.

When I read her novels I marvel at how very easy she makes it look, this business of telling a story. Because her tales are not bursting with contorted plots (insert Russian author here), strewn with minute descriptions (Edith Wharton and her paragraphs about lace), or casts of odd and quirky characters (Dickens), it is easy to assume there is no craftsmanship involved in Austen's writing. I believe the opposite is true: the appearance of simplicity demands great skill.

Any builder will tell you that embellishments are easy. Moulding and trim hide flaws, while clean, spare lines must be precise and perfectly executed. At the same time, all the extras can be trying to convince the reader, "I am a brilliant piece of writing!" like when figure skaters circle the rink six times in preparation for a big jump; the audience knows to expect a fancy trick. When Kurt Browning suddenly leaps into the air, it is all the more breathtaking because we didn't see it coming.

The embellishments, the tricks, the descriptions and crazy plots are not to be overlooked because to do it well, great skill is required. I think of it thusly: 

This is Dickens

And this is Austen

Both are beautiful. Both are well crafted. They offer two different aesthetics and each required a different approach in construction. One of them is almost bullish in its presence, and its strength is clearly visible. The other is delicate, elegant, almost weightless, its strength less obvious.

Aside from admiring the mechanics of her writing, the Austen novels are entertaining. It's fun to look into the drawing rooms of Regency England, to observe the customs and manners of the time. They are simple stories of love and family and how good character wins over pride and foolishness.

Pride and Prejudice is an obvious choice for favourite Austen of all, because Lizzy Bennet is feisty and funny and clever, while Darcy is just brooding enough to capture a female heart. Then there is the wonderfully frilly and flighty dear Mama, Mrs Bennet, and the unctuous obsequiousness of Mr Collins.

P+P is where I started my Austen journey. I must have been about eleven years old so of course subtleties and context went over my head, but I was entranced by the world I discovered on the pages of that book and loved how Austen used words. I think my love of history came from seeing domestic life through Austen's pen.

Over time, I'm drawn more frequently to the story of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. Anne is older, more subdued than other of Austen's heroines. She has experienced disappointment in love, as she was forbidden to marry Wentworth eight years previous because of his lack of wealth or position. Persuasion is about their meeting again, rectifying mistakes and misunderstandings, and discovering they now have the courage to face down opposition and choose for their own happiness. Anne is gentle yet strong; Wentworth is just brooding enough to be interesting, and as a written character has more depth and complexity than her other heroes (in my opinion).

For the words you left behind, dear, sweet Jane, I thank you.
Happy birthday!

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