The media have been quite taken with the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death.
This has caused me wry amusement since I suspect most of the commentators are really enchanted by the Jane conspicuously unrevealed by recent films and TV series; by Colin Firth walking wetly out of a murky lake in his undies. Not to mention Jennifer Ehle as a perfect, chubby Elizabeth. Pride and Prejudice is my least favourite Austen book; but this is my most favoured film of it. Olivier and Greer Garson did an out-of period crinolined version in 1940: naughty but nice, Austen’s tartness disguised by romanticism and bowers of flowers.
The real Jane Austen is something else.
It was the generation immediately before mine that rediscovered Jane Austen and started the cult that has hardly diminished. Schoolgirls of my era came upon her in faux-leather bindings or hideous wartime editions, emerging for a new life with the help of a coterie of Jane worshippers who had read every word, and were intent on dispelling myths and misconceptions about the author which had clouded her presence in English literature for too long. They were led by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern, 19th-century born, but emerging as writers with strong themes, including women’s roles, well into the 20th.
They wrote wonderfully about Austen and her novels and through them I discovered, as did others, that it was fun to pretend intimate friendships with writers long dead; to fantasise, wonder, how female writers particularly would feel about the “modern” world, and to be furious that writers like Austen had not had acclaim in their lifetime and after, simply because they were women.
I am happy that we are meeting Jane Austen again through 21st century eyes. But are we celebrating the real Jane? It is well to remember that Jane has often been rejected as too caustic and cruel compared with other totemic female writers like the twice-revived Barbara Pym, who is closer to our times. Some of her books are a hymn to the English spinster. And I love her.
Both authors speak to our times, through years of neglect, of what being a woman is like. I loved hearing Maxine McKew on the ABC’s The Drum recently saying or quoting advice to women about their superannuation problems. “Young women: take your superannuation plan seriously. Marriage is not a retirement plan. Mr Darcy may not stick around.” Did he, I wonder? Did Jane believe in the happy every after? One thing, though, she wrote some of the best beginnings of any novels. But Charles Dickens gets the garlands still.
“Are you afraid of death?,” the psychologist asked me before I’d even settled in the chair in her room. Blimey, that’s pretty direct.
I was having some treatment for pain. Imaginitis always has to be ruled out, I suppose. That doubt that people like me often face about how bad the pain is. Drives us batty. I dodged the afraid-of death question, because frankly I don’t know the answer into re examining the past. I am too busy coping with the here and now. She moved onto more interesting things — re-visiting the past, changing our assessments of people long dead, blaming our parents, blaming ourselves, completely reorganising our past judgments. No, it’s not all “it was better in our day”, just the opposite. My nearest and dearest, when I let myself slip into this state of mind, get cross. What is the point, they ask? In a more sophisticated way, the psychologist said the same thing. Let it go. Change your mood, with some techniques I now try to follow.
Most of my friends of similar great age admit to redistributing blame about things in the past. That’s when they get themselves a drink, ring a mate or go to a film. It’s harder than you might think, as friends are becoming harder to find. I was glad we didn’t get back to the subject of fearing death. Because every time I type “death”, a rather disgusting skull pops up on my iPhone. Not helpful.
On my birthday this year I broke an upper molar at breakfast. The rest of the day was spent getting a temporary filling and then the next day, the permanent job. Lucky me, getting appointments at such short notice. So was it a bad omen for the next year or a good lesson in sticking, at least from middle age, with a good, obliging dentist? Same goes for other health people. I’ve opted for the latter. On my birthday, my dentist was my best friend, bless him.
It didn’t take the recent Princess Diana’s death-and-funeral docos, miserable as they made us, to convince me that Charles will never be king. He will be happier as a rich landowner, country squire sort of thing; a minor character in a Jane Austen novel. Unlike his mum, who has always been riddled with a sense of duty. King George VI never seemed up to much. Marrying the Queen Mother saved him. And staying put during World War II. He seemed kingly without doing much. His wife was the remarkable one. Charles’s dad seems a real prick, pushing sensitive kids into army-like schools, intimidating them (remember poor young Edward’s near breakdown?), being needlessly rude to people, indulging a warped sense of humour. No, the strong ones in this royal family and before it, were and are women. Charles would be well out of it. Which reminds us, Australia would be well out of it, too.