I cannot exactly pinpoint the first time I read Austen. Back in high school? Or in one of my earlier semester breaks as an undergrad? But it was love at first sight, I mean first page! Come to think of it, how can a reader not love her words? Love, drama, comedy, morality, lawns, tea-parties, manors, gowns, ball dances, long walks, love letters--not to mention the happily ever afters. Reading Austen novels is very much like watching a Disney movie, they are all "sugar and spice and everything nice"!
However, my first "official" encounter with Austen was in Spring 2010 in a 19th Century Novels course at East West University. On a chilly early morning our witty instructor began his class thus: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Were we supposed to laugh or ponder over the socio-economical gravity of women in England in the late eighteenth century or its striking resemblance to our country at this time? I chose the easy way out and suppressed a giggle. Later in the class, sir explained how an opening line can sometimes become better known than the book and/or author. I would not say something so daring, but poor Mr Darcy--his fate was "doomed" from the opening sentence! Once we were halfway through the text of Pride and Prejudice, sir arranged a screening of the 2005 film version. I confess I was not overjoyed with Keira Knightley's version of Miss Lizzy in it, but I daresay I never liked one of the most beloved heroines of English literature a.k.a. Elizabeth Bennet very much either! While I appreciated her sassiness very very much then as now, I can't help noticing her all feminist agenda going down the drain at the first sight of Pemberley.
But that is precisely why I adore Jane Austen so much! Who else could have made characters so real and human? Austen's works provided me with different kinds of "fairytales" at this stage of my life. They enabled me to see that courage and determination are better problem-solvers than a magic lamp or a witch's shady concoction, happily ever afters really do exist, and, big old mansions are almost as magical as glass slippers!
But what I love most about Austen's novels is that their author knew with hairsplitting accuracy how a woman might think or speak or act in a given circumstance. While reading her, I feel that she herself was Emma, or Elizabeth, or Catherine, or even Jane (Bennet). These ladies were not made in the same mould; but it does seem to me that Austen manifested different facets of herself in each of her heroines. Often lauded as one of the first and finest feminist authors, Jane Austen is immensely and enduringly popular among female readers everywhere--feminist or not. But can the same thing be said about all male readers? Finding a male Janeite, I am sure, is almost as difficult as finding a leprechaun. And yet some of the most macho men I have ever known are Janeites; and in my not-so-small already-read list, I have seldom come across a man as gallant as Mr Darcy!
I have this habit of reading books echoing the season and/or weather. Accordingly, last winter I decided to read Northanger Abbey for the first time. Published posthumously, it is believed to be her first completed novel. My interest in this book, apart from the obvious fact that it was written by dear old Jane, was because of my irrevocable love for gothic romances. I already knew Abbey was actually a parody of such books, and deep down I was shopping for some Wuthering Heights-esque horrors! Was I disappointed? Yes! Did I dislike the book? No. And there lies the brilliance of Austen—she never lets her readers down! Fun fact: despite mocking the lurid potboilers and penny dreadfuls throughout the book, Austen once admitted in a letter that reading such books are one of her guilty pleasures.
I have saved my favorite Emma to end my piece--as we save our favourite piece of dessert for the end! Of all her novels, I find Emma to be the most dramatic, so full it is of matchmaking and heartbreak and dances and all! No wonder from Hollywood to Bollywood, there have been numerous adaptations of this novel; and between you and me, I did enjoy watching pretty much all of them. I love this book so very much because among all of Austen's heroines, I connect with dear Miss Woodhouse the most.
Surely in a previous life, I had been born in 19th century England. Well, blame Miss Austen (as well as the Miss Brontës) for that! Between a star-eyed fangirl of Jane and a high-brow Janeite, I believe I am still stuck somewhere in between. While the flawless techniques and subtle feminism in her novels awe the academic in me, readerly me cannot help getting lost in those quaint little towns, the long walks, the tea-parties and dances, the happily ever afters..... Speaking of which, I would like to end this “musing” piece with an anecdote. A couple of weeks back, I searched every renowned bookstore of Dhaka for one particular edition of Emma but failed miserably. My very own Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy got whiff of it, and I found the book with the sweetest of notes. Gentlemen are not extinct, really!
Dear Jane, happy birthday and thank you for all the happy endings—whether fictional or real.
T.S. Marin is a lecturer at Primeasia University, Sub-Editor of Lit and Reviews of The Daily Star.