Saturday, May 7, 2016

May Memories: First Encounters with Jane Austen and why we still read her: Part II

In this series of guest posts, a meta diary of sorts,  Austen readers recount what brought them to Austen in the first place and reflect on why they keep returning. The following is by Ellen Moody. 

On first encountering Jane Austen and reading her again and again even now

The 1926 edition of Sense and Sensibility edited by Chapman, bought for me by my husband on my first birthday after we were married

      I first encountered Jane Austen as two books in one of my father's sets of “classic English” novels when I was around 12 to 13. These were books published (he told me) by organizations like The Left Book Club, meant to make available to ordinary readers great books at an affordable price. They had light-weight hard-back covers, these two in a set of beige and dark brown books, announcing thereby how serious they were. In other words, not packaged as romance, or a girls' book, but including the more available or well-known respected books as well as (often times) more unusual choices: this set had Dickens's David Copperfield but also (so sex was part of this world to some extent), Richardson's Pamela.  Another set in black with silver letters contained R.D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone.

Of course, they were Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, still the best known and most widely read, the most frequently adapted. I read first and loved Pride and Prejudice. I saw it as exquisitely witty, very funny. I recognized the parents as versions of mine: it was validating to see this incompatible couple. I sided intensely with Mr. Bennet as I had with my father. It was a revelation and comfort to see truths about marriage out there. It was only years later I admitted to myself how softened the portrait was, how overt little punishment meted out.

Then I read Sense and Sensibility. I have, in a sense, never stopped reading it. Elinor Dashwood became interwoven with my being as I endured the abrasions and contradictory demands of teenagehood.  It wasn't that I could imitate her literally, but I kept in mind how she prudently guarded herself, how safety and self-respect lay in not letting the world see. Self-control. Again it took years for me to see that it was the Marianne in me she was teaching me to protect. Steady I would now say. Not just from men but the policing of outward cant and unexamined norms. We are ever offending every moment of our lives, cries Marianne, in protest, to which  Elinor replies that she has not told her to adopt these others' views or even act as they do when it comes to what counts. It was Elinor I reminded myself of in moments of distress. I figured out what to do.

Fast forward two years and I was in an old-fashioned drug store in NYC, the kind that used to sell classics in paperback for 40 cents. On a turning contraption I found Mansfield Park, a soft white book with Restoration comedy type caricature figures, where the blurb promised “a rollicking comedy.” In my naivete, I assumed the editor misunderstood what she had read. There too was Jane Eyre, a drawing of a Victorian looking young women dressed in a dark color against a dark green background. I don't know which I read first. Jane Eyre I read so many times I could envisage favorite scenes on the page, like Helen dying in Jane's arms. “Reader, I married him,” yes, for me, a third relationship at age 23. But it was Fanny who stayed with me. I identified utterly with her, with her real strength and also her sense of herself as utterly undervalued. I knew what she felt on the other side of the door, hesitating, dreading to walk in. When I got to the end of the book and read of life as a struggle, as endurance, I felt I had read something so strengthening, I turned back to the first page, and reread immediately.  I've reread it so many times, I do think it has ever left my mind since.

Alas, I cannot recall when I first read Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Between ages 17 and 19 I cannot remember my life very well. There are blanks. I know I read them by the time I was 21 because it was that year Emma was assigned in a college course on the eighteenth-century novel I was in.  I knew it was the only one I had not read. (I was in my thirties when I read Elizabeth Jenkins, the first biography I read and realized there were other serious novels! Not just the hilarious Love and Friendship whose wild mockery I couldn't get over when I encountered it either in graduate school or a second-hand bookshop (yes it was Chesterton's edition) because here I was 200 years later and these jokes hit home. At fifty-five surely we may give over worry about “the persecutions” of males. ) Northanger Abbey had gotten into me by that time; the professor suggested we reread it with a sliver of Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho.  I was fond of it, and it seemed to me I had reached one of the important goals of my existence when I got to Bath, enacted some long-standing dream, looking down from Beechen Cliff, at the ready to reject all I saw. I didn't. But a high moment.

Persuasion was my favorite by that time. I knew it was. That nadir of shattered nervousness when Wentworth comes into the room after eight years of absence. When I had a bad miscarriage at Keswick Hospital in the Lake District, Jim brought it to my bed to read the next day. My daughter, Isobel, took is with her to college to function similarly. Years later I've understood it is truncated, parts crude, a third volume planned and never executed, but those parts finished to perfection, especially that revised ending.

I conclude I must've read them in a blue paperback reprint of Chapman's texts because I had them when it came time to go to England (when I was 22). They were then to me sister-novels, packaged together, not misrepresented, but not particularly attractive. I must've hunted them out in a better bookstore.

But I didn't like Emma. I didn't understand that while my conscious mind recognized her malice, unjustified self-conceit, how she was hurting the foolish Harriet and plangent heroine, Jane, I had also identified enough. I used to say the scene where Emma insults Miss Bates was so painful, it was worse than the final moments in Lear because after all they were after all that had gone before a final “after-loss” after life had meted out its worst. What I didn't understand was it was not that moment I couldn't bear but this afterward when Mr. Knightley reproaches her so brutally. I now think it one of Austen's two supremely virtuoso works of art (the other Mansfield Park) but its text is too rebarbatively defensive despite its texts' strongly harmonizing rhythms  and continual turns to reasoned perspectives outside all the stories, which enable me sitting there to feel the diastole and systole of a heart-beating calm. A blue Houghton-Mifflin paperback, the kind assigned to students in those days.

It was post-1995 when I first read her three unfinished fragments, Catherine,or The Bower; The Watsons, Sanditon, and Lady Susan. It was due to being on Austen-l, and I read Austen's letters for the first time then too. I grieve she never wrote the second and third volume of The Watsons in any state. Here she was unguarded. So too in a kind of reverse mirror, Lady Susan. (I will write a post-script blog to this one on my own Under the Sign of Austen, Two.) Like E.M. Forster, the letters shocked me as utterly disjunctive from the abiding presence of the implied author of the novels. It took a long time and re-readings for me to realize, yes here is the strain, the inculcated antipathetic self-policing, the regaling us as a form of anesthetizing to keep what we have to at bay.

It's increasingly a problem to keep in contact with these texts. So much gets in the way, distorting contexts, the insistent complacency of fans and scholars too. I see why Henry James cried out against the careerist “in” use of “everyone's Jane” back in the 1890s. It doesn't do to find fault in Jane either.   To see the actual distance from what we might wish her to have written and what in her circumstances and given her background, what she did write.  I am one of those who can find in close readings and through some of the films enough of Austen coming through to extend the texts a little.  I am grateful for the enlargement of her small oeuvre through some of those which turn a kaleidoscope to offer another perspective. Rare, but a few of the sequels: Jo Baker's Longbourn, Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club; Juliette Towhidi's mini-series film adaption, Death Comes to Pemberley, with its depiction of a later strained Elizabeth (Anna Maxwell Martin deepened for me Elizabeth's ability to be "excessively diverted" when others might cry). To other of the actors, actresses, script-writers who have realized the books adequately now and again. I enjoy reading her close contemporaries as in dialogue with her.  Whenever I do return to one of her texts, as I did two weeks ago Lady Susan, what she writes, the very words, her stance, what she does see exhilarates and consoles me. That she has seen it too. Even in Emma, she never fails me..

Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood.

Ellen Moody, who holds a Ph.D. in English literature, is an independent literary scholar who has taught in colleges for more than 30 years. She has published in various areas (Renaissance through nineteenth-century, the gothic, French and other eighteenth-century novels, translation, film studies). Her edition of Charlotte Smith's Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake is due out late this summer.  She maintains a website with much often-consulted material on Jane Austen's novels as well as e-text editions of later eighteenth-century French novelists, translations from Italian Renaissance poetry – and Anthony Trollope.


  1. A beautiful piece, Ellen. I especially liked how you identified with the characters in Pride and Prejudice at a young age. I also read that novel at 13, in the Rainbow Classics edition, and I was hooked by Austen after that and read all the other novels and even the fragments before I finished high school. But I have long been absent from Jane now. Perhaps it's time to revisit her for me.

  2. Ellen,
    I find it interesting how closely some of us identify with characters in Austen. I continue to have trouble with Emma's blatant use of Harriet and imagine it as harsher in earlier drafts.