It was Mrs. Berkeley’s English class, sophomore year in high school. Our first full-scale research paper lay ahead. We were to pick an author, read three of his or her books and write a term paper on recurrent themes in the work.
The list was filled with authors of the Classics, ninety percent of whom were men. I glanced further down the page and came upon a name I had never seen before -- Jane Austen. One novel’s synopsis started out something like, “Elizabeth Bennet meets Fitzwilliam Darcy at a dance. Neither is too pleased with the other.” I was hooked. I quickly ran up to our teacher, securing this Jane Austen before anyone else, for fear of being stuck analyzing Homer.
Pride and Prejudice changed my life. I had never identified with a fictional character before. Most were fighting mythical monsters, wars or governments, or having larger than life adventures that to me, at age 15, were not plausible. Elizabeth Bennet was witty and sassy, and her cat-and-mouse game with Mr. Darcy captivated my teenage heart. This felt real, whether it took place in the eighteenth or twentieth century.
I sat on my bed, amid countless notecards stacked in three piles: Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Pride and Prejudice. My brain was fried. How would I be able to sum up such a writer? Yes, I had discovered themes in her literature, but which to focus on? I made a plea. “Jane, if you can hear me, please help me do justice to your genius.”
The next day, I rose and wrote the complete rough draft in one sitting. After the proper revisions, I turned it in and received an “A,” but with a “See Me” notation at the end. No good can ever come from that.
“How many Jane Austen novels did you read, Karen?”
“The three we were supposed to.” I was nervous. Did I not do enough?
“It’s just that you wrote your research paper in Jane Austen’s style, and I thought perhaps you had read more or studied her before.”
This would not be the last time Miss Austen would help me out. I have read and re-read her novels, biographies and copies of her letters to her sister, Cassandra. Watching movie or television productions of her stories relaxes me, bringing me to what my kids call “my happy place.” Jane sparked my love of British literature, and I went onto major in English in college. She also showed me, along with the rest of the world, that women could be great writers, intelligent and interesting, not second-class citizens penning accounts of nothingness, while the men went about having the adventures. Jane Austen made it possible for me to write what I do today.
A few weeks ago, I visited her home in Chawton, Hampshire, England, while on holiday with my family. She spent that last eight years of her life there. It is a lovely cottage with a small garden to the side; “a prettyish sort of wilderness,” as Lady Catherine de Bourgh would call it.
I felt as if I had walked right into one of her novels. A display case holds some of her letters. The cross necklaces owned by Jane and Cassandra, were there, along with a lock of her hair. A quilt she had made is shown upstairs, along with a replica of the bed she shared with her sister.
The sitting room held the greatest treasure. There, by the window, was a small octagonal table, not very much bigger than a tea table. Her writing desk! It was partitioned off with Plexiglas. One could imagine her sitting upon the little chair, dipping the quill in ink, writing and re-writing, smirking to herself as she adjusts Mrs. Bennet’s rant about her poor nerves.
The mere thought overwhelmed me. I gently stroked the table, quickly though, as to not arouse suspicion. This was hallowed literary ground, and I was privileged to be there.
My family and I drove to Winchester Cathedral, about a half an hour away, to see her grave on which I placed a simple bouquet of yellow roses for my dear old friend and touched the place where her body was lain to rest.
Her gravemarker reads:
“The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind
obtained the regard of all who knew her, and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.”
Thank you, dear Jane, for all you gave the world and to me. You are truly a woman of letters and an unassuming genius.