23 May 2010

what do you think jane austen should've prepared you for?

I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time during a three-day blizzard my junior year of high school. My family lived {and my parents still live} on top of the Mississippi River bluff in Iowa; unless we wanted to slide straight from the top of the hill and onto the frozen river, there was no way we were getting out of our house.

We all adapted to this in our various ways. My mother, for example, made cheese souffles for breakfast and squeezed her own orange juice—anything to fill more time. With that plan, breakfast took until it was time to start lunch.

And I read. I found Pride and Prejudice on one of the many disorganized bookshelves in the house—most likely sandwiched between a cost accounting textbook and a guide to the best National Park hikes {the eclectic reading of parents who are both accountants and like outdoorsy stuff}.

In a classic—or stereotypical—book nerd moment, I barely stopped reading Jane once I started. I do remember being amazed at and eating the cheese souffle. I do not remember changing out of my pj's, even though reading Jane made me want to wear some sort of empire waist dress.

So there's the beginning. And we can skip over the boring stuff where I read all her other books and got a degree in British literature and visited her house in Bath. {If there had been a life-size wax figure of her, I would have a picture posing next to it. I really would.}

Instead we'll skip straight to: reading early 19th Century romances doesn't prepare you for the reality of the 21st Century, living on your own in a new city and trying to figure out what it means to be grown up {and accepting the fact that the definition can change daily}.

I know that's not an epiphany. If you want to prepare for the reality of the 21st Century, obviously you read lots of self-help books and watch reality TV. Everyone knows that.

What, exactly, did I think my extensive Jane Austen reading prepared me for?

Jane Austen prepared me to be swept off my feet by a guy—but only after I made the careful, well-explicated, and understood decision to jump into his arms and tell him to sweep away.

She prepared me to be Elizabeth Bennet: hard-edged diamonds of words and a sardonic smile and “Why, Mr. Darcy!” in that English intonation of up-down sing-song.

I learned to embody Elinor Dashwood: distrustful of emotional outbursts because they can be like that too early burst of spring. For one day in early March, when it's 65, you're almost able to feel summer's flip-flops. You start to imagine cook outs and afternoons reading in the park and sleeping with the windows open.

Then it snows the next day and winter feels more frigid than before. That's why you don't let your emotions get ahead of your logic, and that's what Jane Austen prepared me for.

She taught me to maintain distance until your footing is sure.

She prepared me for the depth of an “I hate you, I hate you, I...love you” relationship.

She made me demand to be appreciated for my intellect.

I learned that there's joy in small revelations and that the heart can break on even the tiniest of them.

Jane Austen prepared me to face embarrassing relatives, self-centered friends, enemies with smiling faces, unwanted marriage proposals...

But Jane Austen didn't prepare me for this: the life I find myself living and enjoying and appreciating and laughing at {and getting angry at} and wanting more of.

That's all right, of course. And it's kind of nice to have a standard line to pull out when I'm surprised by a turn on a path I thought was straight—or a path I thought I knew so well.


  1. So, I used to keep a quote list of ones I just really liked or were meaningful to me. I may have to start that again and add some of yours to it:), both the ones that crack me up and the little jewels of wisdom..."I learned that there's joy in small revelations and that the heart can break on even the tiniest of them." (Don't worry I always give credit to quotee, unless of course it's anonymous and then what can you do?)

  2. love, love love! It brings back all the wonderfulll memories of your outdoorsy/accountant parents and your death trap of a driveway! And how can I ever thank the girl who introdduced me to Jane!

  3. Jenny! Do you remember the time -- I'd JUST gotten my license -- when we thought my Bronco (ah, such a good car) was stuck in the snow? But it turned out that I'd forgotten I'd put the parking brake on? Yeah, that's quite the auspicious start to a driving career. And remind me: did you and I ever actually go spinning down the hill?

  4. Love it-- I never realized we could learn so much from Jane!



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