The Mysterious Miss Austen
Mystery didn't bring me to Austen, but mystery keeps me coming back. I first read Austen as a teenager, so I missed the cosy, wide-eyed, heart-pounding immediacy that a child brings to a text. How, then, might I have identified with young Catherine Morland, who, just like me at age 10
"loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house."
|I too disliked piano lessons|
My first Austen novel, unsurprisingly, was Pride and Prejudice. I read it because it was famous. Then I read Emma because I heard it was Austen's masterpiece. I moved on and very much enjoyed the autumnal Persuasion, then Sense and Sensibility, at which point I was in love. Mansfield Park came later, and though it is now a favorite, I can't say I enjoyed it at first. Most likely, I was too old for the first encounter. I thought Fanny a prig and longed for Mary and Edmund to marry.
|The scene where Fanny cuts roses in the sun ... similar to the strawberry picking in Emma. I no longer wish for Mary and Edmund to make a match.|
I loved Austen too for doing what I found so rare in literature: acknowledging and laying out financial realities. This was congruent with my own life, where money mattered, and “shillings” were not laid out lightly, especially in graduate school. And I would have loved Austen for Charlotte Lucas alone. Charlotte married with her head, not her heart, yet remained a decent human being and attained a decent life. (I naturally, however, would marry for love.)
|Charlotte marries with her head and it all works out.|
So from early on I was an Austen fan. It was only later I developed a fascination.
That happened as I began to recognize what Kenneth Johnston in has called the white spaces in Austen’s work:
the sense that there is something 'missing' in Austen's stories often gives rise to, or provokes, parodies or critiques of her novels in which the 'blank' spaces in her novels are filled up ... (Unusual Suspects)Long before Johnston, I'd started to intuit a mystery bubbling below the bright surface of these texts, as I did in Henry James. What was it about Fanny Price? What really was going in Mansfield Park? And Emma? Timelines and back stories began to fascinate me as indications of how completely Austen had planned her novels--and of how much was submerged, waiting for an astute reader to uncover. Allusions started to pull me deeper. Seemingly offhand details began to catch my eye.
Some have called Emma the first mystery novel, with its authorial misdirection about Frank and Jane Fairfax and the possible murder of Mrs. Churchill. What constitutes a mystery is a matter of debate, but Austen directs us perhaps to the mysteries lurking beneath her own surface texts, even as she seems to satirize the very quest for mystery.
As Henry Tilney says to Catherine:
Unable to … repress your curiosity, you will instantly arise … and proceed to examine this mystery. After a short search, you will discover a division in the tapestry so artfully constructed as to defy the minutest inspection, and on opening it, a door will immediately appear … your eyes will be attracted towards an old fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold … you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer—but for some time without discovering anything of importance –perhaps nothing but a considerable hoard of diamonds. At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner compartment will open—a roll of papers appears—you seize it—it contains many sheets of manuscript—you hasten with the precious treasure into your own chamber … when you lamp suddenly expires in the socket …
|Maybe there really is a mystery lurking in Northanger Abbey?|
Wicked Jane stops us there: she knows we love a mystery. Henry's mocking Catherine: but is there a real mystery he doesn't want her to see?
Austen will properly chide us for looking for mysteries, using Mr. Knightley as her proxy:
Mystery; Finesse—how they pervert the understanding! My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?
But can we trust Mr. Knightley? For there is a mystery dancing all around Emma, only she simply can't see it.
For me, the pull towards Austen continues to be in the mysteries, the dropped hints, the double entendres, the possible puns, the dual readings that lie just below the surface. What VirginiaWoolf, in a different context, calls Austen’s laughter, draws me in, Austen laughing at us as we topple in the face of her repeated misdirection. As long as I keep finding news clues, I will keep coming back, looking for another a "secret scroll" in her texts and knowing the whole time she may be playing us all for fools. If so, I will laugh yet again: Austen has not disappointed me yet.