I know I should by rights address you as “Miss Austen”, since you do not know me. However, through your writing I consider you one of my closest friends, as do many other men and women I know who have read and admire your writing. How can it be that so many people of so many different ages on so many different continents feel this way about you, you ask? After all, you lived and wrote within the narrow scope of southern England two hundred years ago. I cannot speak for everyone, but let me begin with the story of our meeting.
We first met when I was five, though I didn’t register it as a significant meeting then. I watched the program Wishbone, and as they reenacted an abridged version Pride and Prejudice, I was captivated. At the outset, the dancing certainly pulled me in, but it was more than that. It was the people that truly intrigued me. My young mind tried desperately to figure out why your characters acted the way that they did, rode every wave of Lizzie and Darcy’s verbal sparring, and wondered how jokes that old could still be so funny. This program began my path to becoming an English major, and your work formed a significant part of that path.
My first formal introduction to your work was Sense and Sensibility at age 12. Again, your complex characters and your incredible wit drew me in. I was fascinated by this new, mature language I was learning and could not get enough. I loved not only your word choice, but I also loved discovering how the characters navigated their world, how similar and yet more complicated it was to my own. By age 13, I had added Pride and Prejudice to my bookshelf and thrilled at every twist and turn. I even read Kitty’s coughing scene aloud to my seatmate on the school bus, marvelling that a novel so old could be so funny. Though my seatmate did not think the scene was nearly as funny as I did, I became determined to discover more about your work.
Every year afterwards, all throughout high school, I read at least one of your novels. I began to read every spin-off book I could get my hands on, listened to every film soundtrack, watched every new television and film adaptation. I even went so far as to impersonate you for my Author Project at the end of AP English Literature. I could not name it then, but your work and its culture gave me something that I longed for in my own world.
Since then, my hunger for that je-ne-sais-quoi has not diminished. I majored in English Literature, many of my classes centered around your work or that of your contemporaries. I spent a semester living in Bath, studying your work and being an intern at the Centre that bears your name. I am now a lifetime member of JASNA, attending conferences and book discussions with other people who love your work as much as I do. Your work has become part of the fabric of my life, and I cannot imagine myself any other way.
What is it that draws me in, that draws in everyone who will write to you here? To me, it was your incredible ability to paint everyday life and human nature exactly as it is, analyze it, and hand essential truths out to your readers through your writing. Other authors have wondered why your characters can be so easily linked to our own friends and family as opposed to those of any other author. How is it that I was able to see Lady Catherine de Bourgh in my grandmother, or Willoughby in my roommate’s ex-boyfriend, or Elinor and Lizzie in myself? It is because you paint on “little [bits]…of ivory”; you capture how we all act in everyday situations and why we do, then present it to us so effortlessly that we don’t even notice. That is why I keep turning to your work for comfort and advice: you ask your readers to study their own lives, and therein lie our answers, a “better guide…than any other person can be”.
I suppose this letter is to thank you. Thank you for bringing me to a fulfilling academic and career path. Thank you for connecting me to incredible people all over the world. Thank you for confirming that there is validation in quiet morality and observation. Thank you for helping me to understand how everyone around me works, especially during my teenage years when that is most difficult thing to work out. Most of all, thank you for helping me to understand myself. I am a far better person for having known you.