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“Of course I loved books more than people.”

I’m not snobby about books anymore.  I read lots of mostly mindless stuff for fun and silliness.

For something real and true, though, I turn to Jane Austen.

Though her writing is two-hundred years old, it feels closer to me and my life than much that is contemporary.  Colm Toibin expresses near perfectly why:

“… She also maybe teaches how to live, that business of how a rich sensibility will somehow emerge from the self.  Even though the self might be shy or retiring, somebody will notice it.  And that the important thing to have in life is a rich private life, is a rich sensibility. … I think that there’s always a secret self within any self, and it was one of the things that she could portray very well, the sort of private life that someone retiring could have, which would have a great deal of feeling within it, an ability to be wounded, an ability to long for things, and that they would exude this in various ways, not wholly successfully. Therefore, love could elude them for a while, there could be misunderstandings within that because of people’s inability to show themselves.”

She comforts me, gives me both perspective and hope, helps me understand life and accept the harder parts of it.  My feelings for her are more like those for flesh-and-blood loved ones than the adoration and regard I feel for other writers and stories.  I love her, and she is real to me.

Like most long and lovely friendships, mine with her has grown and deepened, though years have sometimes passed with no contact between us.  When I was a kid, I became enamored of Pride and Prejudice for the love story and, of course, My. Darcy.  For the next several years, I read everything she wrote – except Mansfield Park.  School and other commitments kept me away, and I also just didn’t want us to end.  I wanted there to be more to discover from her.

When I finally read Mansfield Park, that was it.  I wasn’t sure what would happen to us.  I had read everything.  She went back on the shelf for a few more years.

But she was never not there, and I learned there’s always something new to discover even in what I thought I already knew.

When I was twenty-nine and couldn’t stand it, or much else that was happening at the time, I turned to Persuasion, my favorite for a long while.  In the first pages, this provided a bright surprise:  “It sometimes happens that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before; and, generally speaking, if there has been neither ill health nor anxiety, it is a time of life at which scarcely any charm is lost.”   Eight years earlier, following the guidance of a close friend, Anne Elliot had rejected Captain Wentworth.  What happens when they are thrown back into each other’s lives is the premise of the story, and the ending is precipitated by one of the most beautiful love letters ever written, Captain Wentworth’s famous letter to Anne.  In just a few days, this story helped me see the benefits that come with age, and that time passing is not always a bad thing.  Plus, Anne is twenty-seven when the novel begins and destined for spinsterhood.  That’s about sixty-one today when adjusted for age inflation, so that was quite comforting.

At thirty, I re-read Sense and Sensibility, and I felt the truth of this gentle admonishment: “what Marianne and her mother conjectured one moment, they believed the next: that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.”  Ang Lee’s film is my favorite adaptation of any Austen work, and I am drawn to this story of two sisters every time I see it.

Sometimes, I return to Mansfield Park, for Fanny Price.  Critics complain about Fanny, whom they see as humorless, stuffy, and uptight.  But I adore her.  Fanny, quiet and thoughtful, is uncomfortable surrounded by loud, lazy, pleasure-seeking partiers.  She follows her own internal guide even when she sees the man she loves drawn to their new friends and falling for the dazzling Mary Crawford.  When I’ve taken a “Which Jane Austen Character Are You?” quiz and scored a Fanny Price, I’ve never been insulted.

Elsewhere in his interview, Toibin captures the joy and, perhaps unintentionally, the loneliness of any who are truly bookish:  “…If you said you were going off for the weekend and you were doing nothing except re-reading Emma or taking Mansfield Park to bed, that image for me would be one of pure happiness.  I mean you could bring, maybe, a person to bed and that might be nicer in some way but it wouldn’t be as fully satisfying.”

A character in Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale admits to herself, “Of course I loved books more than people.”  Though I hope that never becomes true for me, I understand the sentiment well.

Photo: Library of Congress Card Catalog, October 2011
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