Happy Birthday, Miss Austen

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.

This quote from A Room of Her Own by Virginia Woolf is my favorite Austen quote and I’m honored to be blogging on Austen’s birthday. I’m one of many Austen enthusiasts who have gathered together today to offer fabulous prizes (including a couple of my books) and if you go to last week’s post you can find details.

Happy browsing, happy commenting, and good luck!

We all know Austen, or we think we do. She’s the first Romance writer–or is she?–yet she portrays few marriages that are happy in the happy ever after (okay, I give you the Crofts in Persuasion, in their eternal seagoing adventure). I can’t help feeling that she was wise to end her books with the wedding, because if anything, she knows when to stop, when enough is enough. She’s a master of understatement, the precisely poised comment, the ironic aside.

Talking of which … it’s her authorial commentary that makes the novels so brilliant and makes any TV or film adaptation second best. Instead you get the visuals which Austen threw around rather sparsely because she didn’t need them. Virginia Woolf again:

She could not throw herself whole-heartedly into a romantic moment. She had all sorts of devices for evading scenes of passion. Nature and its beauties she approached in a sidelong way of her own. She describes a beautiful night without once mentioning the moon. Nevertheless, as we read the few formal phrases about “the brilliancy of an unclouded night and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods”, the night is at once as “solemn, and soothing, and lovely” as she tells us, quite simply, that it was. The Common Reader

What I’ve learned from reading Austen is the supreme importance of author involvement. The author is the puppet master, the Prospero, if you like, of his/her world. It’s the writer who decides how much the reader should know and when they should know it, when the reader has to work something out for herself, and when it should be told to her. Emma, of course, is the finest example of Austen dropping hints, leaving clues, misleading and playing tricks upon the reader. Who gave Jane the piano? What are Mr. Knightley’s intentions towards whom? What is Frank Churchill really up to?

Austen keeps you on your toes, demanding your attention and promising rewards. I’ve read her books again and again over a number of decades, and each time I’ve greeted the familiar like an old friend but I’ve also found something that I’ve missed, or something new that relates to me now. You change, her books change with you.

Happy birthday, Jane. And thanks.

Thoughts on rereading Austen, anyone?

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