I live in a world very different to yours, nevertheless, your writing has helped me to navigate it. Your observance of human character, of an individual’s internal struggles, and the highs and lows of navigating friendships, family, and romantic relationships – all these ring with truth from your age to mine.
Upon first reading Pride and Prejudice, I could hardly fathom how you had based the character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh upon one of my own relations! Such is your observation of real characters and human nature that of course we see them repeated down the ages, society may change, but human nature, it appears, does not. A romanticised hero or heroine written by one of your contemporaries appears unrealistic to us now, for they have written an ideal of their time, not a real person at all. But you wrote true – you observed thoughts and actions, and so I am sure there are many others out there who also know a Lady Catherine. But I digress.
I want to let you and others know why your novels mean so much to me, why I do not subscribe to the view that novels will fill people’s heads with silly fantasies. Why I do not believe that a love story in print produces turns its reader into a Catherine Morland or Marianne Dashwood. I do not believe that the romance of a love story only makes girls pine for Prince Charming to come and sweep them off their feet – ruining us for the real world. Of course there is some truth in empty, fluffy stories producing such empty fantasies. But these are not the stories to be found in your novels dear Jane. You prepared your pupils for the real world, with all of its attendant heartache and uncertainty. Your work has been sadly misjudged by those who do not understand it. From the outside they see only boy-meets-girl, and (spoiler alert) happily ever after. If this were truly the substance of your novels, then perhaps your devotees would come to resemble the young Catherine or Marianne. But this is not the case. You, dear Jane, filled your novels with truth. You filled them with lessons. Worthy lessons in life and living. Not a prescriptive formula, not a reductive Ten Steps to Happiness and Marrying Mr Right. Yes, the heroine will always end up living happily ever after, no matter how many mistakes she, or Mr Right, make along the way. However it is the background characters (who make up the majority of the novels’ population) whom you show to end up in a variety of situations. Some characters are shown suffering the consequences of their own choices and some are shown to suffer because of a lack of choice and chance of self-determination. Often characters, their situations and their choices are contrasted. Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas, Anne Elliot and her friend Mrs Smith. Your novels do not give us a visitor’s pass to just one character’s life – you populated your works with rounded characters. They are not flat and lifeless, and so there is much to be learned from them. Through your varied cast of characters you showed us the outcome of the path not taken. Whilst Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr Collins proposal, Charlotte Lucas accepts it. And just when the reader is left feeling that Anne Elliot should have accepted Captain Wentworth’s proposal all those years ago, we are introduced to Mrs Smith, who, young and in love, married against the advice of her family, only to become a ‘poor, infirm, helpless widow’. Through these contrasting choices and actions we see that there is no formula – do this and you too can be happy. Yes, Anne’s story ended happily, but it may not have been so. Anne very nearly ended up unmarried – a great failure in her day and situation. As Emma Woodhouse confides to her friend Harriet, ‘a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable’, however, ‘a single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid!’
This makes me reflect upon my great good fortune to have a choice at all.
There is a regular customer at my store who often repeats that he wishes he could have lived in the days of Jane Austen. Lately though he has amended that he would only like to live in those days if he ‘had money. It wouldn’t be much fun to live in those days if you were poor.’ I agree with him, though, to myself I add, ‘And only if you were a man.’ For in those days the women of the middle and upper classes were dependent upon their male relatives or husbands, for men were the ones who controlled the wealth.
In part, your stories are so poignant because they are stories of lives magnified. Love stories have their own drama, but that drama is added to when the course of true love is not allowed to run smooth – when the two lovers are from warring families (Romeo and Juliet), different cultures (West Side Story), different species (Twilight). The magnification of your stories is that your heroines have little to no choice. Marriage is their career and sole means of support. The mate they choose must provide for them, for women generally are not the ones who control how money is made, invested, or spent, as the tale of Anne Elliot’s friend Mrs Smith illustrates. This magnification of story, this all-or-nothing importance placed upon every encounter and every choice mirrors the feeling of our own internal struggles. Each person’s choices and circumstances, the things that befall them, always take on larger than life significance, because they are their own. The dilemmas of life may seem small and dull when viewed from the outside, but to the individual facing them, they are everything. That is the comfort of sharing the internal world of your heroines in the same way we experience our own. We find fellowship with these kindred spirits, and our hearts break with Lizzy, Jane, Fanny, Eleanor, Marianne, Catherine and Anne, when they think that all is lost. I am so thankful that I found my Mr Right. But I am also so very glad that I did not have to find him. I could have ‘failed’ to make a good match, and yet still lived a happy and fulfilled life, because unlike your heroines I am blessed with choice, and singleness would not doom me to life as a penniless old maid.
When I first read Persuasion, I found comfort and companionship in the story of Anne Elliot – Anne who was supposedly old and destined to become a spinster. I felt an equivalent failure – 23 and single. My friends couldn’t understand – they were all in happy relationships. Who could understand? Your heroines of course. Stuck in a strange position on the edges of society – all of us failing to live the lives of our peers. And so in the pages of a novel about love and marriage, I found the guidance I needed to learn to live single. When Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet turned down marriage proposals, they had no reason to believe there would come a second chance. In the middle of their stories Jane Bennet and Fanny Price had no reason to expect a happy ending. And so, whilst I was learning to live and enjoy my solitary existence, Mr Right came along. Not because I had followed the correct formula of waiting and pining. Not because I had faithfully clung to unrequited love or believed that no-one could ever love or choose me. I could have easily ended up alone – happily or unhappily. But the fortitude of your heroines in their own relationship turmoils encouraged strength and self-dependence. Not the condescending self-importance of Lady Catherine, but the quiet confidence of Anne; the determination of Lizzy and Jane to find companionship amongst family and friends, instead of endlessly questing after romantic love. Dear Jane, your heroines did not need romantic love to fulfil them, but you wrote it into their stories anyway. It is with the same generous spirit that you gave your readers the gifts of friendship, good conversation, and sound life lessons.
With warm regards and many thanks,