Coming out of the Austen closet…

As much as I hate to say it (and the Y chromosome in me is rebelling as I even think this sentence) but…

… I actually quite like Jane Austen. There. I said it.

This is of course all spurred on by a recent Easter break to Derbyshire, and a visit to the Chatsworth Estate, which was used as the setting for Mr Darcy’s Pemberley in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice (which by coincidence was on television the night before).

In the summer of 1996, in the transition between my penultimate and final years at high school, our advanced English class was set the task of reading three of Austen’s novels: Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Mansfield Park. Naturally, the boys in the class rebelled against this thought. Jane Austen was, after all, chick-lit. Novels for girls. Yuck!

But I read them, and although I wouldn’t admit it at the time, I enjoyed them. Whilst reading Emma, I raged and railed about what a stupid and annoying character Emma was, without ever stopping to realise that Austen intended us to view her that way, and had done it so skillfully that I never considered it to be intentional. And by the end even I was willing Mr Knightley and Emma to finally get together.

Ultimately, the summer reading that year was purposeless, because on arrival back at school for the final year, another teacher had been appointed to my class, who wanted to do the works of Thomas Hardy, rather than Jane Austen. Purposeless perhaps, but not useless. I never regret having read a classic, even if I hated it, and my attitudes over a decade ago might be seen more as protesting too much.

Despite the styles of stories I dream up, I’m a sucker for a romantic storyline, and dammit, Pride and Prejudice is a near perfect book. Dramatic, witty, sentimental without being cloying, and truly, deeply romantic. Women may go weak at the knees over Mr Darcy, but many men out there view themselves as being like Mr Darcy – in the novel his manner is presented as being due to his pride. I think most men would recognise his attitude of cold disdain more similar to the adolescent mask we wear when trying to hide our true feelings about things. I think, rather than just pride, the following better sums up Darcy’s character:

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

What appears as disdain, haughtiness and pride is far from it. It is shyness. Darcy is a shy man, unsure of his ability to talk with people. So he avoids it, and puts on an aloof air. Which must make for a lonely life. This was how I interpreted the character as a teenager, it was a trait I displayed in spades back then (and to a lesser extent now), and it was what made me feel a connection to the character.

As might be expected, Chatsworth makes a rather big deal about the recent connection to Pride and Prejudice, and all things Austen, which then leads into a literary connection. Despite two disappointing visits to bookstores in Derbyshire, I managed to pick up one or two literary trinkets for myself at Chatsworth. A CD of classical pieces inspired by literary works or themes (perfect for getting my mood right for reading/writing) and a dip pen & ink set (I think adding illustrations from Austen’s books on the ink pot was really stretching it though). In this day and age of e-mail and text messages, it might be nice to go back to pen and ink. I have a wonderful fountain pen that I use, but it might be an interesting exercise to go further back in time, and try writing with a dip pen. As someone who had/has atrocious handwriting, but conversely is an excellent calligrapher, this should provide some interesting results to say the least.

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