Dear Aunt Jane,
I hope I may call you Aunt Jane, for since the earliest moments of our acquaintance I have regarded you as such. For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve found myself in need of advice, or a soothing cup of tea with a lump of sugar and a generous slice of wit, I’ve curled up with you as you regaled me with stories of love and friendship, passion and pride that have shaped the lens through which I view the world.
You will, I trust, forgive me for waxing nostalgic as I share with you our first of many memorable encounters, on a Saturday morning in mid-February of my 13th year. I woke early, and while the rest of the house still slept, wrote in my diary of the Valentine’s Day dance I’d attended at school the previous night—my first ever. Pausing to swipe at an occasional tear, I recorded, with the flourishes of typical teenage angst, the agony of standing with my back to the wall for the entire evening as no one, not a single boy, asked me to dance. I hugged my chubby knees and gazed sadly out my window, wondering what made me so flawed that no boy could endure the indignity of standing up with me.
Eventually I wandered over to my bookshelf, reaching for one of the many friends that never turned their backs on me. I don’t know what made me pick up the intriguing, grown-up sounding title that I’d previously overlooked, but how great was my delight when I met another girl in its pages with whom I could sympathize. She too had been forced to sit down without a partner at a dance because the gentlemen—or rather one in particular—was “in no humor to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” I’m speaking, of course, of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Your words, Aunt Jane, whispered across nearly two centuries to keep me company, assuring me that I wasn’t the first, nor would I likely be the last girl to endure such humiliation. Elizabeth Bennet, with her quick wit, strong convictions, and determination to settle for nothing less than what she deserved, became one of my truest and most dependable friends.
Not long after, when I found myself gushing about my discovery of Pride and Prejudice to a family friend, she exclaimed that she had another novel I might enjoy, and I met, and instantly bonded with Emma Woodhouse. She would eventually be joined by Anne Eliot, Fanny Price, Katherine Morland, and the Dashwood sisters, each of whom became invaluable friends and guides through the growing pains of becoming a woman. From these passionate, persevering women, I learned that I could, and in fact should, expect strong-minded heroines in fiction. I learned that feminism, in as much as it is a political and social movement, is more importantly, at its most fundamental level, about taking charge over one’s own life and decisions. Given that the women of my generation have comparatively more freedom than those who frequented the drawing-rooms of your novels, you nonetheless drew heroines with remarkable self-possession and forward-thinking who always stood their ground. Fanny Price, for instance, knows her refusal of Henry Crawford flies in the face of convention and what she owes to the Bertrams; Lizzie Bennet knows that the future comfort of her mother and sisters, as well as her own, hangs in the balance when Mr. Collins’s marriage proposal. Yet they stand by their convictions and follow their own minds and hearts. These heroines taught me at a tender age to value the power of choice and the knowledge that I was in control of my own destiny.
You, Aunt Jane, have been my constant companion—on rainy afternoons and road trips, summer days and sleepless nights. When I entered my first semester of graduate school, armed with nothing but my enthusiasm and insecurity about my ability to compete, there you were on my first schedule of classes, an entire semester of you and your contemporaries culminating in my 25 page research paper on Pride and Prejudice that was little more than a glorified excuse to wax rhapsodic about Colin Firth but that was nonetheless the single thread of sanity to which I clung on the nights when I thought about quitting and joining a traveling circus. When I stood in front of a class of students for the first time, entrusted with the task of shepherding them through the worlds within the pages of a book, it was your world, one I’d traversed in my imagination as often as my hometown, through which I chose to take them. Now my home (which I may or may not have christened Little Pemberley) is nothing short of a shrine to your memory; throw blankets, magnets, coffee mugs and coasters remind me daily of the stories and characters you so generously shared with us—sources of inspiration and amusement that have been indelibly engraved on my mind and heart. I can never thank you enough.
Your Affectionate Reader,