Thursday, 16 December 2010

Happy Birthday, Jane

Today was the anniversary of Jane Austen's birthday, maybe you've heard?

At Jane Austen's House, we honoured the day with an open house:
mince pies, cups of tea and free admission.

For the past 18 months, I've spent most of my Thursdays in Chawton, Hampshire -- talking about Jane, thinking about Jane, and of course, reading about all things Austen.  Having said that, I'm not one of the dedicated miniaturists in life.  I don't read the six books over and over, as some of her fans do.  I'm much more likely to read a novel that's been obviously influenced by the Austen style or plot-lines.  (The Three Weissmans of Westport  comes immediately to mind.) There is one novel that I do read almost every year, though, and that's Persuasion.

It is not unusual for Austen lovers to nominate a favourite novel, and by a long chalk the front-runners are Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.  I like and admire P & P, but without hesitation I would choose Persuasion as one of my desert island books.  I recently read an interview with Nigella Lawson and she named the following as her all-time favourite books:  Persuasion (listed first), any Nancy Mitford, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  I didn't really need any other reason to adore Nigella Lawson, but discovering that we have the same short-list of favourite books did make me feel that extra bit of kinship to her.  (I would argue that being influenced and formed by the same body of books does create a sororal bond.)

Not everyone is similarly persuaded, though.  A friend recently asked for a recommendation for her Book Club and I encouraged her to choose Persuasion
Her feedback was not, to put it delicately, enthusiastic.
I can't remember the particulars of what she said . . . probably because I was too busy refuting them, both in mind and mouth . . . but I do recall that she didn't care for Anne Elliot, the heroine.  Something about "wimpy;" something about wanting to shake her and why didn't she take more control of her life.
I immediately went into my professor mode, trying to explain the aristocratic confines of life for an on-the-shelf and not-quite-rich-enough woman like Anne.   There is no denying, though, that Anne has a certain passive quality.  I'm quite susceptible to characters who are good and kind, but a little prone to being pushed around -- but not everyone shares that taste, I realise.

Some biographers believe that Anne Elliot was partly based on Jane's sister Cassandra, who had her own experience of "loving longest, when existence or hope is gone."  (Cassandra's fiance died, and apparently she long carried a torch for him.  At any rate, she never married -- nor even seemed to contemplate marriage.)  If so, the dénouement of Persuasian -- in which two lovers, long separated, are reunited -- was the ultimate in wish-fulfillment.  Although it is not the most obviously romantic of Austen's novels, with its slightly melancholy and autumnal tone, I think it is the most profoundly romantic.  It is the novel for every shy girl (or wallflower woman) who thinks someone will come along and see her for what she really is.  Don't we all want to be loved for our intrinsic qualities?  In a world that admires surface gloss more than ever, the idea of being seen and recognized and chosen is still heart-thrilling.

Why not seize the pleasure at once?
How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation.
(from Emma)

I long to be the sort of person who seizes the pleasure at once, but I have the feeling that I am too often caught planning and worrying and second-guessing myself . . . definitely more of an Anne Elliot.  Happily, Jane Austen -- who only wrote six completed novels -- provides more than one kind of heroine.


Alyson (New England Living) said...

Love this - "Don't we all want to be loved for our intrinsic qualities? In a world that admires surface gloss more than ever, the idea of being seen and recognized and chosen is still heart-thrilling." Well put!

I prefer "Persuasion" as well and I believe "Emma" is my least favorite because of the main character herself. You are so lucky to be able to volunteer at Austen's home! And being there on her birthday must have been especially interesting. I dream of doing such a thing, perhaps at the home of a New England writer, maybe Emily Dickenson's home or Mark Twain's.

Lisa said...

I've been meaning to tell you that Chloe will be attending classes at Cambridge this summer and she has plans to visit Jane Austen's House. She's also taking an Austen class this coming semester.

Yes, I am living vicariously through her at the moment. I can imagine you laughing.

Also, every time I go to the library and see the copy of The Finkler Question on the shelf, I think of your comment at my blog and get a happy feeling. In case I never thanked you for the comment, Thank You.

Dragonfly said...

I love this post.

I'm a Persuasion kinda gal too... although I do love P & P... almost too hard a decision to make.

Did you see that Google honoured her birthday too?

Bee said...

Alyson - the quotation about "why not seize the pleasure at once" is actually from Emma. After I read your comment, I went back and added it to the post. Yes, Emma has all of the impetuous (and entitled) qualities that Anne lacks . . . but I do like her still the same. I like all of the books, really, but there is something about Persuasion that I find very moving.
I love, love, love going on literary pilgrimages and I really need to come to New England and do Concord and Amherst. Someday!
p.s. You would be GREAT as a docent/steward at a literary home.

Lisa - Please give Chloe my contact details. (I hope she visits JA House on a Thursday!) I know that you are very happy for her, but you must be feeling a tad jealous! You will have to "travel by book," as E Dickinson said.

Dragonfly - my husband sent me that Google notice! Yesterday was the 235th anniversary of her birth.

ArtSparker said...

Rereading is a bit of a guilty pleasure- going home to a familiar place where one knows one will be taken care of. But sweet!

mouse (aka kimy) said...

wonderful post!

yes i had heard - jane was born on what happens to be one of my favorite dates.

ah, i like the idea of trying (emphasis on trying) to choose a favorite austen novel.... most days i think it would have to be emma.

what did you think of the book or film the jane austen book club?

never read the book (wonder if i should?), did see the movie thought it was quite fun - not a great movie, per se but a jolly romp.

Teresa O said...

I keep commenting and then getting errors...not sure why. Love the Emma quote and it applies way too much to me. I think it's time I revisited the words of Jane Austen.

CashmereLibrarian said...

I need to re-read Persuasion. It's been awhile.

Am dying to visit you at the Jane Austen house!

Tess Kincaid said...

I'm seizing the pleasure! (I say in the midst of much foolish preparations.)

Happy Birthday, Ms. Austen.

kristina said...

I thought of you straight away when I saw the Google banner in the morning. And you already know we share the same taste in heroines :) Now you've persuaded me to pull down my copy of Persuasion.

K x

Nimble said...

Smiling. Many happy returns of the Jane day!

Elizabeth said...

How did I miss your ghostly tree below?
When you said Costco this zen proverb sprang to mind:

After enlightenment, laundry

I would have loved to have been at the carol concert.

I, too, love Anne Elliott, who gets her just desserts (one or two ss's?) spite of being, at 29, past the first blush of youth.....

We can't all be wildly active and bold.
Happy Birthday to Jane and Season's Greetings to all.

Marcheline said...

I know I'm guilty of interchanging the books with the movies, but my favorite of all time is "Sense and Sensibility"... I can so relate to Marianne Dashwood's romantic impulsiveness, rushing into love with Willoughby, and I can feel so deeply the pain of Elinor Dashwood, loving a man who's promised to someone else. And the way it all comes right in the end (who wouldn't want to end up with Colonel Brandon, really... especially if he looked ANYTHING like Alan Rickman... YUMMY) just makes me cry every time.

Anna said...

Bee thank you for sharing this great information about Jane Austen.

On the other hand wishing you happy holiday season filled with love and peace. Let it be also healthy and wealthy. See you in the next year.

Anna :)

Dick said...

I wish my mother were around to check out Nigella Lawson's trio of picks: these were her all-time favourites too!

Amanda said...

i'm also a big nigella fan, but have trouble explaining the appeal of jane austen to my daughter. even with all the recent films that have been done based on her works, could it be that the younger generation has a hard time relating to these characters from a bygone era? (although your point is well-taken -- wanting to be loved for our intrinsic qualities never goes out of style)

i visited your lovely blog when i first started blogging some months ago, and then didn't find you again until today......i just did a post on a poem by baudelaire.........what coincidence and what a surprise to now understand where your name 'bee drunken' comes from!

David Cranmer said...

How amazed she would be to know how popular her work has remained.

rachel said...

Yes, definitely Persuasion, above all the others! I always felt that Mansfield Park's Fanny Price was profoundly irritating, but Anne Elliot had an extraordinary inner strength. I could have done with some of her self-discipline - might have saved me from some regrettable life choices in my youth!

Cottage Garden said...

Thank you Bee for a most interesting and literate post. I have just finished reading a biography of Jane herself which made for fascinating reading in itself.

I'm quite fond of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, of whom it is noted 'no one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine'. I like that!

How lucky you are to spend your Thursdays in Chawton! It seems quite unbelievable that it is the 235th anniversary of her birthday AND we share the same birth sign!


herhimnbryn said...

I shall re-read some Austen this summer. Keep in the cool and immerse myself in Jane's world. Thankyou for such an erudite post Bee Lady.

Kristen In London said...

Don't forget Laurie Colwin on that short list, Bee! I was just out in Hampshire and I passed a sign that said, "Jane Austen's house." It was actually just on the line between Hampshire and West Sussex. Is that where you go?

Meri said...

Why not seize the pleasure, indeed? I'm tired of loving overlong.

k said...

i haven't read your blog, or any blog for that matter in ages, but i'm so, so glad i clicked on yours again. and this post! oh how i've missed you.
this was just lovely, and makes me want to read persuasion again. i am a committed p&p fan, if i was forced to choose my fave austen, but i so admire persuasion, and the roger michell film version from several years ago also.
hope you're having a wonderful 2011 so far. one of my resolutions is to read more- books & your blog!

Lucy said...

Bee, this set me thinking; might you be there at the beginning of June this year? Some of my students have expressed an interest in making a trip to that part of England following some work we did around Jane A, and it might be an opportunity to meet... nothing's booked or decided finally yet, but it's cheering to think about summer projects just now, and reading this encouraged me a bit.

If you feel like e-mailing, I'm at lucy-dot-kmptn-at-gmail-dot-com (you may have had an e-mail address for me yonks ago but anyway!)

I like Persuasion very much now, though it was the first one they had us read at school at about 14, and I'm not sure it was a good choice, P&P would probably have been better. I have mixed feelings about filmed Austen - I tend to enjoy them but feel I shouldn't! - but I'd say the TV film of it with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds was one of the better ones, good casting and atmosphere, I thought.

I must seek out 'I Capture the Castle'. My mother was fond of it but I'm not sure I'v read it, perhaps heard it on the radio. I've a mind to read it then pass it on to my teenage step-grand-daughter, perhaps along with 'The Greengage Summer', with a view to gently extending her reading beyond Jacqueline Wilson! What do your girls like to read these days?

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Ah well, you know Persuasion is my favourite as well. I wonder if an informal poll would reveal that all our friends prefer the same JA books?

One day I'm going to make it out to the JA House. Shame on me for not visiting yet!

Christina said...

two of my favorite people. this post makes mw wonder, why we aren't neighbors... i often wonder that.