On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, what better way is there to honor this extraordinary author than to give thanks for what she has left us? For me, her work is a timeless guide to living life in the no-BS zone, wrapped in an infinitely re-readable set of six novels.
If I could assign a motto, a credo to the the Austen canon, I would say it could be summed up in this one line from Pride and Prejudice: “Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.” The fact that Mr. Darcy delivers this line while in the midst of a serious marriage-proposal fail makes it even more resonant: Darcy may be honest, but the brutality of his honesty indicates that he’s hiding behind his angry pride. He’s yet to unmask that part of his own disguise, but being an Austen hero, we know that he will.
That’s the genius of Austen, who calls out her characters on their disguises and their dishonesty. Which leads them to their moment of revelation, their grand character arc, and their ultimate reward–love and happiness.
Along the way, Austen makes us laugh, which makes the hard truths easier to bear. And thus we can begin to see ourselves in it all.
That’s Austen: keeping us real and calling us out. She’s been doing it for 200 years. And that’s no small feat for someone who lived in a society in which polite demurrals, refusals, and denials were a socially mandated matter of form.
Here are 10 gems of Austen wisdom to help you reach your own character arc.
1. A real friend is the one with the guts to tell you the ugly truth.
In Emma, Mr. Knightley was the only person with the courage to tell Emma that her treatment of Mrs. Bates was cruel. Emma was shocked and chastened. And set about making amends. Which also put her on the road to realizing that Knightley’s bossiness was maybe just a little bit attractive; no scratch that, super hot.
If you’ve ever thought that love passed you by, or you’re just feeling blue, do something nice for yourself: read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. In the Austenian tradition of “three or four families in a country village,” author Helen Simonson takes a keen-eyed look at the flaws and glories of human nature and the never-ending quest for love.
Major Pettigrew is a relic of polite gentility in a brash world, a lonely widower getting by with what passes for friendships in his little Sussex village. He takes comfort in his books and his garden and his memories, and now and again indulges in the vain hope that his clueless London-banker son will someday grow a conscience. The rest of life is just, well, as Miss Austen put it, “a quick succession of busy nothings.” And then, a simple act of kindness from Mrs. Ali, proprietress of the village convenience store, changes his life forever.
I won’t say more, except to encourage all who have ever wished for a second chance at life to run out and buy this triumphant, life-affirming novel. It is one that I know I will re-read many times. (BTW right now the Kindle edition is only $1.99)
And happy Valentine’s Day.
Has a holiday ever caused so much unhappiness? I’m not talking about how it was when we were kids. Then it was all about giving everyone in class a paper valentine and those little heart candies. Though kids could get mean about that too if left to their own devices, like leaving out the kids nobody talked to.
As adults, we’re supposed to be more equipped to deal with that stuff, but it takes a stalwart sort to withstand the collective anxiety in the run-up to Valentine’s Day, let alone the day itself.
If you’re not in a relationship, the ads for jewels and bouquets and V-Day menus seem to be mocking your lack of a BF. if you’re in a relationship, it’s sadly easy to get caught up in expectations, and there’s nothing less romantic than thinking, ‘what’s he going to get me, and it had better not be cheap or unromantic.’ Or ‘Is he going to take me out, and somewhere good for a change?’ or even worse, ‘Is he finally going to propose?’
It’s enough to make you want to go underground till February 15.
But don’t despair: you can get through it. Not by hiding and pretending there’s no such thing as the dreaded V-Day. But by embracing the true message behind the holiday and making Feb. 14 your own, empowering, feel-good holiday, regardless of your relationship status.
Having raced through Gayle Forman’s profoundly moving If I Stay, I immediately devoured the second book in the series, Where She Went. And that was it: I was hooked. My binge continued with Just One Day, Just One Year, and Just One Night, and finished (for now) with her courageous I Was Here.
There’s a lot that I love about these novels: They are packed with wisdom without a hint of preachiness. They are brimming with love without a drop of sentimentality. And they are refreshingly unpredictable. Instead of relying on those familiar devices one often sees in stories about love–the meet-cute, the hate-at-first-sight that turns into uncontrollable attraction, Forman gives us the messiness of real life, which rarely turns out the way we think it will. (more…)