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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single young woman in possession of an imagination must imagine herself the heroine in an Austen novel.
It is a truth much less acknowledged that a middle-aged woman reading Jane Austen hears herself in the minor characters, the ones the narrator likes to mock.
Oh my dear Reader, what a shock to my nerves when I found myself identifying with Mrs. Bennet!
Or silly Mrs. Jennings! Always inquiring too closely into other people’s business, sure that she knows what’s what, loathe to allow other people their emotional space, lacking delicacy and tact where it is most needed.
And what horrors to find a Miss Bates in myself–talking mindlessly, incessantly, blithely missing social cues to shut-up-already.
I tell my students this–that I no longer identify with Emma but instead with Miss Bates–and they look at me with the brutal pity of the young regarding the old.
Austen’s confident narrative voice is keen to point out the ridiculousness of middle-aged women–and this tendency may be something to critique, a too-ready internalization of patriarchal norms, an attitude of “I may be a woman, but I’m not THAT sort of woman.” I encourage my students to question the ways women have been demeaned as “silly,” “ridiculous,” and “hysterical,” to remember Mary Wollestonecraft’s argument that the women of her day may indeed be silly and vain, precisely because they had been taught and encouraged to be so–but it is very difficult to not feel critiqued by Austen’s narrative voice, confident moral arbiter that she is, and to keenly feel my own inadequacies.
The supposed ridiculousness of women aside, Austen’s judgment cuts most when I find myself identifying with the actual villains. There’s Willoughby, who does not know himself well enough and who thus ends up harming others. Or the charming George Wickham, whose vanity and overwhelming concern for what others think of him prevents him from seeing himself clearly. (Self-knowledge is key in Austen’s novels–it is the prerequisite of moral growth.)
Austen’s narrator is even-handed in her approach, even toward the villains. She never indulges in punishing them for their sins, beyond the punishments they bring upon themselves. But there is a deep sense in Austen’s work that if you miss profiting from critical periods of moral formation–education in childhood and the early growing pains of young adulthood–then your character is fixed forever, for the worse.
There are a few exceptions I can think of here–Mr. Bennet learns belatedly that he should have guided his daughters more prudently, that he should have been less cavalier about the family finances–but late-learning is never radically transformative in Austen’s world.
Crisis and heartbreak–where we are broken open and where we find the opportunity to realize our moral and spiritual potential–these moments occur in Austen’s novels no later than in one’s late twenties. Anne Elliott is 27 or 28–a spinster!–when she faces her crisis.
I am 42 now, just barely older than Austen was when she died. And I wonder: if she had lived another twenty years, what would her novels have sounded like? Would that confident, judging narrative voice soften? Would even middle-aged folks be offered the opportunity to suffer, to change, to grow, and thus, to live? Change is life, and to exist without changing (were it possible) would be to exist suspended in time, preserved in amber. It would be to exist as a caricature of one’s self, not as a Self.
It feels strange to read Austen now with a little disappointment. To see the limitations of these novels I once lived in so effortlessly. But it also feel liberating.
Real life, after all, is so much richer and more profound and more soul-nourishing than any novel.
Even ones by my beloved Aunt Jane.