Portrait made just after confronting her about Antigua
I met Jane Austen through my parents. She occupied a top bookshelf between Aristotle and Balzac, wearing the same tan tweedy jacket all the Great Books wore. From my teenager perspective, she seemed as accessible as a marble goddess in a museum. Nonetheless, one acutely boring day while wondering WILL I EVER ESCAPE THIS SMALL TOWN, I found myself precariously bereft: between books with nothing to read, and decades before the day of instant downloads. Thus, the annoying choice: either not read, or resort to my parents’ Great Books collection. I pulled Sense & Sensibility off the shelf and spent several days out of town—in Jane Austen’s world. I could have mustered greater enthusiasm if she’d included a Heathcliff in her pages, but she was a friend of my parents, after all.
I met Jane Austen again as a young adult, busy launching my entry-level self in the big city and wondering WILL I EVER FIND LOVE, which is to say, I was meeting my fill of characters and navigating rapid plot twists. Home sick one day, I read Persuasion which led to Northanger Abbey and might have continued except I recovered, went back to work, and lost touch with Jane Austen. Back then, I read without regard to author, subject, or literary orientation and, in the blur of young life before Facebook, relationships fell through the cracks.
And then I met my husband.
From that moment, I avoided plot twists. No conflict, please. The tension that makes fiction so compelling, doesn’t translate to real life, and as my life perspective changed, so did my literary perceptions. We read Love in the Time of Cholera aloud on our honeymoon. Heathcliff? GAH. What was I thinking? Books that moved me in my youth no longer had the power. I was aware of Jane Austen’s growing popularity—and Mr. Darcy’s wet shirt, who wasn’t?—but I was too busy changing diapers to get involved.
Twenty years passed before running into Jane Austen again. We met by chance in the New York Times Book Review through our mutual friend, The Jane Austen Book Club. By then, I had four sons and a novel-in-progress. Jane Austen was an immortal supernova. My reading program had narrowed to novels reflecting life’s complexity, often leading me to revisit classics, which led to reading all six Austen novels without interruption. Jane Austen spoke to me from between the lines of her prose, a perfect blend of irony and optimism and we became best friends. We agreed on many things, most importantly that bookish women should be the heroines of their own lives. We spent five years together writing My Jane Austen Summer, experiencing ups and downs, including a revelation regarding her father’s trusteeship of a slave-owning plantation in Antigua she never bothered to mention. But we’ve established boundaries and moved on and, thanks to books, discussion groups, and cyber-celebrations, we meet almost every day; one fixed point in the chaos of life.
What about you? How did you meet Jane Austen?
Welcome, Austenesque revelers! This post is offered in conjunction with Austenesque Extravaganza, a month-long celebration of Austenesque novels and authors hosted by Meredith Esparza. Leave a comment on this post to be included in the drawing for one of 80 Austenesque novels she’ll be giving away. For more information on the festivities and to enroll in her giveaway, visit Austenesque Reviews.