The heroic writing of Jane Austen

If you love Jane Austen I highly recommend you make the time to read Lady Susan.

austen3 Lady Susan by Jane Austen is a hilarious comedy of manners. The scandalous Lady Susan, flirts with both single and married men. She is a horrible mother and for all her cunning, quite likeable – bit like a Becky Sharp. It makes Pride and Prejudice seem very demure.

Jane Austen might have gone on to write something more like Sheridans School for Scandal. Instead she took on an even greater challenge – to satirise her society and to make goodness attractive. Austen’s novels are about young women acquiring and growing in virtues. (Virtue being very out of fashion at the moment – it’s amazing Jane Austen remains so popular,)

Despite these virtues – her characters are some of the best loved in literature. Her novels are full of wit, wisdom and the acquiring of true happiness.

Persuasion seems to hint at some of the sadness which was certainly part of Austen’s life. Austen was unmarried – a great disadvantage for women in her time. We know of one definite offer of marriage  which she accepted then refused .  She never found the happiness that she gave to all her heroines. Even though a successful author she lived dependent on her brother. She died relatively young, of a slow, painful death.

Despite these sufferings Austens books have a lightness and joy. Chesterton wrote:  “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.”

Last year, when I was pregnant, I had the misfortune of reading We need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It’s a horrible exploration of being a mother. I remember its description of the protagonists walking around in public with her pregnant belly. She felt people looking at her and shivering in disgust. Her description of birth and raising a baby is full of despair. The novel is well written and captivating yet very heavy. If only she had read Chesterton: it’s easy to be heavy,  hard to be light.

Austens lightness is admirable – even heroic. There is an optimism and hope that she passes on to her readers. If only contemporary authors would learn from her. So instead of dragging the reader down in their own misery, they could raise us up, so we can see truth, beauty and love.

In Persuasion, Anne Elliot nearly misses the chance of love. As a young woman she is persuaded to reject Captain Wentworth because he is young and relatively poor. She lives to regret her weakness. Her love quietly endures over many years. Eventually he writes to her “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight and a half years ago. Dare not say that a man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.”

Austen gives her reader hope.  It must be a costly gift because very few authors are presenting it to us lately.


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