The aura of Austen

A painting of author Jane Austen  

With this one, I have always been in a minority. My friends find her boring, most of my classmates used to find her an imposition, even my Heyer-loving sister thinks I am nuts. But two centuries after she wrote her seminal novel Pride and Prejudice and more than three decades after I first read it, I continue to unabashedly worship at the Jane Austen altar.

I must have been 13 when I first discovered her; I was probably in Class VIII, in a Calcutta school. In those years, parents didn’t buy you every book you asked for. You borrowed and returned, or you borrowed permanently from friends you decided were too cool to want it back, and of course you belonged to neighbourhood reading libraries. Ours was called Epic, I remember, and sat on the corner of Lake Road, with a florist in front (still there) and a shop selling savouries next door (also still there). Epic, no surprises, is gone. But the old man there was the source of many an Amar Chitra Katha and Phantom comic, and it’s where I first met Margaret Mitchell and Rand and had my many trysts with Christie. You could borrow only three books at one time, so I used to speed-read at least one while pretending to choose the other three.

But Austen I did not get from there. In those austere times, imagine my awe and wonder when an exotic classmate whose father worked in Paris (Paris!) casually confessed to owning a Collected Works of Austen. I wooed, I shamelessly sucked up, I ate lunch with her Bengali coterie for three days running, and then asked to borrow the book. I took it home like it was the Holy Grail, and sat with it on my bed. It was a thing of beauty; bound in rich brown leather with gold embossed lettering, a slender leather bookmark floating out of it. The pages were fine, transparent, and the colour of clotted cream, on which the words ran tightly packed in a tiny, glossy black font. It smelt of book, that indescribably nostalgic smell that can transport you instantly to happy days, like the smell of hot, buttered toast. So there I sat, cross-legged on the bed, endless hours of Austen stretched open in front of me, practically quivering with joy.

About an hour later, mother called and I ran out of the room, forgetting that in the home we shared with a German Spitz puppy, nothing chewable could be left lying around. When I came back, the beautiful volume, open at Pride and Prejudice, was not so much dog-eared as dog-ripped. Bits of paper floated around. I sat and wept, the tears all mixed up for Elizabeth because of Wickham’s perfidy, for the lovely book that lay there all damaged, and for me who dared not ‘fess up to my parents. No jigsaw addict would have stuck the bits back with Cello tape as assiduously as I did. It took me hours but it ensured that the book was still readable. I was so mortified I punished myself by not finishing the book, and returned it the next day, red-faced and abject with apology.

I bought my own Collected Works many, many years later, serviceable but not a patch on that superb, leather-bound version. In the interim, I had read each of Austen’s novels many times over and owned most as well, but how not to possess a Collected Works, to know that all of her is accessible in that one thick volume that now sits cosily on my bookshelf, an arm’s reach away during any crisis. Austen is my Prozac for a bad work day, bad hair day, bad blues day… heck, I recommend her warmly for anything from a miserable cold to a broken heart.

I have read her novels so many times it amounts to what Austen would no doubt have called simpering foolishness. Each time, I discover something new. But most awesomely, I discover relevance. Austen, like the incredible Bard, does not age. You can love Dickens, Thackeray or Hardy but you place them firmly in their era and context. What Austen observes about human beings, though, is so universal and timeless you could be reading about your neighbour, aunt or favourite cousin. How else do you explain the latest in the series of adaptations of P&P? Called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, it’s a series of 10-minute YouTube videos in which Lizzie is an American grad student. Its characters post real-time blogs, tweets, and status updates. Apparently, it’s gone viral. Now I hear that HarperCollins has announced it will enlist six popular authors to write contemporary versions of her books. I remember Emma being part of our course material, and our professor setting us an essay to write. When the day arrived, it transpired I was the only one who had written anything at all. I read it out to a sea of disbelieving faces and “god, what a loser” sniggers. It wasn’t much of an essay, all derived and defensive, but later that day in the canteen I found myself facing a barrage of “How can you possibly like that boring, prosy writer” questions. I didn’t have any clever, structured replies then, but today I would ask all would-be authors to take a tutorial from Austen. Each sentence painstakingly crafted and loaded with that superb irony she was so famous for, a mockery that’s gentle and yet rips apart the duplicity and foolishness.

Never mind Elizabeth and Darcy, every one of the supporting cast is a triumph in characterisation. All it takes is a searing line or two to establish that Jane and Bingley are beautiful but not firm enough. That just as beauty is not a virtue in itself, neither is Mary Bennet’s plainness, which has neither taste nor wisdom to improve it. In an age that worshipped titles and nobility, the author puts Lady Catherine de Bourgh savagely in place. Austen might insist on her heroine marrying for love but when Charlotte at 27 marries the pompous and foolish Mr. Collins, you know exactly why it is right. By marrying him, Charlotte fends for herself at a time when marriage was about the only economic stability a woman could hope for; but more, she discreetly controls her silly husband and her household in an age when women’s rights were talked about with horror. Trust me, Austen’s drawing rooms say as much about character and principles as novels about war.

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2021 12:20:50 AM |

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