Happy birthday, Jane Austen

Circa 20 years ago, I received my first Jane Austen book, a copy of Emma, a Christmas gift from an aunt who knew of my passion for reading. At the time, even though I was already reading classics and other advancing literature, I thought perhaps it might be a little above my head. But I only let the book sit for about a year on my shelf before I couldn’t wait any longer, and promptly devoured it. I was hooked.

Next, I read Sense & Sensibility and then Pride & Prejudice. I followed that with Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and finally, Persuasion. I have loved Jane Austen before I had heard of Colin Firth, or before Keira Knightley became a star. I’ll admit something — I’ve never even seen the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, but I’ve read the book at least five times.

People always tout P&P as their favorite Austen novel, and for many, it is king among classic literature. But like many of the essayists in Why We Read Jane Austen, I agree that choosing your favorite Austen novel is akin to picking a favorite child, or for me, a favorite dog. It’s nearly impossible. If I’m forced, it would be P&P, but from there, there is a close tie between Mansfield Park and Emma.

I don’t think my aunt realized what a devout Austenite she was creating when she plucked Emma off the shelf at a Barnes & Noble all those years ago. By now, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books, improved my own writing over time, and discovered a few other beloved authors that I happily reread again and again through the years (Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens).

But it always comes back to Jane. Forget the movies. Forget the fashion and the scenery and the good looks. Jane barely goes into details about all of that in her books anyway — film studios and society have embellished those finer points to appeal to lovers of period pieces and costume drama and romance.

At heart, Jane is all about, well, the human heart. Her storylines are simple, her characters are people we interact with and live with, and her heroines are us. Cynics may say that her focus on love and marriage is unrealistic in this day and age, but I don’t believe it’s true. In the 1800s, marriage was the answer to prosperity and security for most women, and although that may not be the case now, our pursuit of love and happiness remains. The little lessons and experiences that Austen inserts in her stories are also relevant today. Most of us have pulled an Emma and said something nasty to a friend, have been called out on it, and had to make up for it. Most of us have judged someone on a first impression, before realizing there is something much deeper beyond the surface, if we only take a minute to get to know their story — the whole story. And many of us have felt the pangs of years of unrequited love, and the joy at being welcomed by an adopted family when we have lost our original one.

It’s Jane Austen’s birthday today. Every year that I read her novels again, I learn something new, I am surprised anew, and I laugh and cry as if for the first time. Every year, I find little pieces of Elizabeth and Emma and Fanny that remind me of me, and of Jane. Thank you, Jane, for giving us a gift that keeps on giving.

“You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”  – Pride & Prejudice

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