Happy Birthday, Jane Austen
“What chance would the craftiest biographer stand against the subject who saw him coming and decided to amuse himself.”- Wrote Julian Barnes about Gustave Flaubert, in Flaubert’s Parrot, a semi-biographical fiction on Flaubert. Essentially his point is let the writer be, as a person, that is. Jane Austen makes for an even difficult person to be traced. Mr. Austen Leigh (Jane Austen’s nephew) wrote about her, “I doubt whether it would be possible to mention any other author of note whose personal obscurity of was so complete.” It sure does help when we consider the work of a writer which defined the way we looked at things for generations to come. That is the reason having spent one chapter arguing against it, Barnes ended up writing Flaubert’s Parrot and I end up writing here about Jane Austen. But this is not a biography, not even a biographical note (which can be found on Wiki), rather an homage and an ode.
Jane Austen was born this day, on 16th of December, 1775. I am always in awe of women writers. The amount of attention they pay to the words they pen is evident in the exquisite arrangement of the language, and how the works of most women writer caresses the soul. Virginia Woolf might beat me up with a stick, if only she were alive today, for suggesting women’s writing to be different from that of the writing of male writers. But then it is true. Both Heart of Darkness and Orlando for that matter are great work of literature, but there is a wry baritone which runs in your mind when you read Joseph Conrad, which is distinctly different from the soft and elegant tenor of Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen. I am particularly fond of the writings of women author from Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century. There is certain calm, a noticeable peace and patience about those writings. Probably it reflects the time in which they were written. When you read these books, they don’t leave scars on your soul, they leave your soul smiling and satiated.
She died at the age of 41 on 18th of July, 1817. She published six novels in this short time – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Emma; her first, Sense and Sensibility written at the age of Twenty-One. She wrote about the dogmas of her times, and without any bitterness of feelings or shrillness of sound she describes her world as a neutral narrator, with an almost uninterested vantage point. But that is nothing but a smart and successful tool to fool us. We know she is not merely a talkative bystander when she wrote what was to become the most famous first lines of a novel for all times “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” in Pride and Prejudice. As we read through the anxiety of a mother of five girls, Mrs. Bennett, struggling to get her daughters married in a prosperous and respectable family, we know that Jane is breathing in not only Mrs Bennett or another woman in the story. She is in all the women of the story, while Elizabeth Bennett is what she strives to be. Elizabeth, the scholarly girl, is not a cynic; she has a deeply romantic world view. She is not the one wanting to let go of her intellectual moorings to leap into the world of love. She represents the girl who gets it all by refusing to let go of her true self. She thus becomes a woman of aspiration for all girls, and remains so now after more than two centuries. Her stories are happy and hopeful with the bright sunlight pulsating across the pages, even in the rains and storms.
Jane Austen, George Elliot, Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Woolf are the writers, whose work stand as light houses, on the voyage of women emancipation across the centuries and their glory lies in the never-fading, never-diminishing charm that their work holds, in the timelessness they encompass. There work irrespective of the styles they represent, have one common theme: of women discovering the inner beauty of their soul, of women choosing intellect above the skin. All these writers, build amazing characters, way ahead of their times. All these writers did not write critiques of their times, they were much smarter. They instead created lovely characters who were ahead of their times and thus their characters became their argument against the inconsistencies of their times. That is why they succeeded so profoundly. Their heroines are incongruous to their times, but by God, they are so adorable that one want to be them. For a young girl, no sermons would set her on a path of intellectual discovery swifter than a reading of the character of Elizabeth Bennett; and Jane does it without killing the softer romance. Miss Elizabeth Bennett’s emancipation is not in quarrel with her desire for love, it rather created the foundation for a self-respecting and real romance. They did not give their readers a shrill slogan; they gave them a dream to pursue. She celebrates womanhood, she is proud of being a woman. For Jane, her story is the message, her characters are the slogans. Her slogans never shout, they whisper softly, they speak to the soul – about identity, about social divide, about intellectual discovery, about refinement of the soul. It is this tenderness of representation which makes Virginia Woolf compare her with none other than Shakespeare when she writes in A Room of Her Own, “Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That is how Shakespeare wrote.” And she didn’t have a room of her own, she wrote in her sitting room, hiding her papers whenever someone walked in. She would never come in the way of the story she told, she would only breathe into her words at a very subliminal level.
It is not easy to write about Jane Austen. It is not even brave; it is actually foolhardy to try to explain that greatness. Virginia Woolf wrote in 1924 “Anybody who has had the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of two facts: First, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are 25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts.” I still attempt to write about her, not as a literary historian or an author of such worth to attempt to evaluate her, rather as a fan and an admirer of the expansiveness of a woman’s mind when she decides to soar high. I also write as a father to a little girl, in whom I see Elizabeth Bennet of Jane Austen, Jane Eyre of Charlotte Bronte, Dorothea Casaubon of MiddleMarch and well, I would confess, Dagny Taggart of Ayn Rand. I hope I will be forgiven for this audacity. Happy Birthday, Jane. May your stories be read for all the centuries to come, may our girls be intellectually as brave as Elizabeth Bennet who would look into eyes of every challenge and proclaim in a soft yet unwavering voice , “My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.” Forget the grays, girls, true emancipation will come about in the bright sunlight of Ms. Austen’s world. We need more, not less of it.
A technology worker, writer and poet, and a concerned Indian. Saket writes in Hindi and English. He writes on socio-political matters and routinely writes Hindi satire in print as well in leading newspaper like Jagaran. His recently published Hindi satire collection “Ganjhon Ki Goshthi” is on amazon and getting excellent reception and readership.